Cees Nooteboom Travels the Islamic World

Kitschy Image of the Orient Destroyed by Jihad

Cees Nooteboom, one of Europe's most prominent authors, is widely regarded as a cosmopolitan. But his recently-published collection of travel writing reveals him to be an aesthete with a very selective view of things. Reviewed by Ilja Braun

Cees Nooteboom (photo: dpa)
"All I can do is look": Cees Nooteboom has frequently been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature

​​For years the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom has identified with the saying that a prophet is not without honor save in his own country. Critical recognition by a cultural superpower, Germany, did little to change the fact that the author was long regarded as a "travel writer" in his native country, denied literary honors. The breakthrough came just recently, when Nooteboom, now 71, won the P.C. Hooftprijs, the most prestigious Dutch literary prize.

Suhrkamp, Nooteboom's German publisher, is paying its respects with a complete edition of his works, whose eighth and final volume will appear in May.

Half of the set consists of travel writing: descriptions of journeys in the Netherlands and the writer's favorite country, Spain (Volume 4), the rest of Europe, Germany and Berlin (Volume 5), Africa, Asia, South America, the USA, Australia and the South Pacific (Volume 6), and "all over the world", according to the publisher's rather helpless description of Volume 7. This May we will know more.

The slender volume "The Sound of His Name – Travels in the Islamic World", comprising mainly texts from the 60s and 70s, is more or less a by-product of this complete edition. The pieces reflect Nooteboom's visits to Spain's Moorish cities as well as his travels in Persia, Morocco, Tunesia, Mali and India.

Islam is not confined to the Arab world

Of course, Mali, a francophone country in West Africa, and India, where the main languages are Hindi and English, have nothing whatsoever to do with the Arab world. What is actually meant is the Islamic world – on the book's cover this appears to be a slip-up, while in the book itself the subtitle is correct.

However, if the "Arab World" had not been the guest of honor at the 2004 Frankfurt Book Fair, this book probably never would have been published, nor would a review have appeared in a major newspaper under the title "On the Flying Carpet". So be it. Prophets have always been misunderstood.

image: Suhrkamp
The primacy of seeing over hearing: Cees Nooteboom's "Der Laut seines Namens" ('The Sound of His Name')

​​In any case Nooteboom is a great seer – this is a quality which the author's earliest travel pieces share with the most recent ones. "All I can do is look," writes the avowed visualist, and all his travelogues center on visual impressions, described as meticulously as possible.

Nooteboom's material always takes on the immediacy of found objects, while the narrator presents an unadulterated, if poetically stylized, first impression. As here, outside a mosque:

"Strolling away from the square, I enter a forest of stone pillars under a pleated sky of bricks. Two women, almost completely muffled in their black chorbas, flutter past and vanish through a door from which faint, mournful chanting emerges. I look through the keyhole and see an old man with a white turban rocking back and forth. Other than that it is very quiet."

This silence pervades not only the scene described, but all Nooteboom's travel writing: it lives from the primacy of seeing over hearing. The reason for this is quite simple: "People understand me when I speak French, I can sleep in hotels and ride in little cabs, but the voices I hear are foreign to me, I don't understand them."

In Isfahan, Marrakech or Tunisia, the author of "How to Become a European" is at sea. One could hardly reproach him for that, were it not for the fact that he himself sees his reports from foreign lands as being legitimated solely by the subjective act of witness. After all, one does not need to be a Marxist to realize that the mechanisms governing life in the modern world do not reveal themselves to the naked eye.

Freely chosen ignorance

However, from the very outset Nooteboom shows no such interest, on the contrary: "It's better not to make any attempt to gain insight into Moroccan politics. After a week of trying, inexperienced as I am, I got into a muddle [...]. No, rather than come home with small fry, I released them in the big sea I fished them out of: the sea of contradictory stories," the alleged cosmopolitan wrote in 1960.

For Nooteboom that is all too complicated; he prefers to let himself "sink back into the mild state of the tourist, content with marveling under palm trees, sitting by the window in the bus and picking out the postcards with the prettiest colors."

This kind of consciously-chosen ignorance as a reaction to the unreasonable demands of cosmopolitan informedness could almost be sympathetic, if only it did not follow a sideswipe at the mass tourists:

"Pampered in their loneliness, grown antisocial in their pamperedness, whites travel through Africa and see nothing. And the tourists, more and more of whom are dragged past a few wild animals and masks dancing for money, see nothing," he wrote in 1971.

Reality is too complex

No, of course Nooteboom refuses to make common cause with the hoi polloi; he sees things, after all, and how, even if he understands nothing:

"What do I know about this country in the meantime? I am here, passing through, but every step I take outside is a step in a different world." (1960) That is quite enough for the cosmopolitan: "everything I read plunges me into still greater confusion [...], now and then a hint of meaning glimmers through, but I don't know how to relate what I read to the overwhelming reality I see around me: it is too powerful, to big, too old." (2003).

Of course that does not keep the author from constantly quoting all kinds of works on art and cultural history – we need to know that he has read Lévi-Strauss and the pertinent cultural travel guides.

This does not spoil the exotic spell of foreign parts: "The dream dreamed by a man who lives in the desert is a dream of oases, shelter, flowers, color, pleasure, babbling water." (1975)

Whether in Persia, Morocco, Tunisia, India or Mali – everywhere Nooteboom encounters nothing but a vaguely enigmatic foreignness whose enigma he does not even try to solve, probably because not much would be left. Everything glitters mysteriously for a little while before sinking back into the great river of oblivion. In the end, what remains is wellness:

"I've eaten caviar from the Caspian Sea and eaten strange fish from the Persian Gulf, lamb's head complete with tongue, brain and eyes, I've drunk wine from Shiraz which gives rise to uneasy dreams in which Scheherazade's voice tells her story; it is enough." That is what gets you state cultural prizes.

Islamic fundamentalism destroys the Kitsch of the Orient

All that really deserves notice is the epilogue from 2004, written before the murder of Theo van Gogh, but after September11. Against the background of current world events, Nootebooms' early travel writing appears in a completely different light.

"The texts [...] in this book are the accounts of an innocent traveler," he admits, "or perhaps I should say: a traveler in an innocent time. [...] I saw a world I wanted to see, an exotic, Oriental world from the Arabian Nights [...], I remained on the outside, just as I remained on the outside of the defeat of Syria and Egypt or the desperate drama between Israel and the Palestinians which has the effect of a burning glass in an extremely flammable world."

Is this meant self-critically? Does it ultimately call into question, after all, the tranquil perspective of the educated middle-class traveler who lets himself be enchanted and delighted by foreign lands? Unfortunately not. Nooteboom regrets only that Islamic fundamentalism has exorcized his Scheherazade kitsch: "This outside no longer exists; it has come to us and will continue to do so in future."

Uninspiring image of an intolerant religion

Inevitably, this is followed by the platitude of the "western worldview which shines out across the entire globe," as opposed to "fundamentalist terror and the large Muslim populations in Europe," and rounded out with a politically correct cliché: the only solution to the conflict is to "eradicate our inconceivable ignorance about one another."

Cees Nooteboom's travel accounts from the Islamic world, at any rate, contribute nothing toward this goal. For his readers, Islam will continue to be the "uninspiring image of an intolerant religion", which, "backed by our century's wealth, is an underestimated threat to the rest of the world." (Cees Nooteboom, 1982, Collected Works Vol. IV, p. 159)

Ilja Braun

© Qantara.de 2005

"Der Laut seines Namens. Reisen durch die islamische Welt." Translated into the German by Helga van Beuningen und Rosemarie Still. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2004, 270 p., 10.00 Euros

Collected Works. Vols. 4,5 and 6: "Auf Reisen." Translated into the German by Helga van Beuningen, Andreas Ecke und Rosemarie Still. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2004, 40.90 Euros each.

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