“An encyclopaedia of the out of the way” – 533, A Book of Days by Cees Nooteboom

IMG_8Nov2021at114332This is the third literary memoir I’ve read in the last few months. The others were The Other Jack by Charles Boyle and White Spines by Nicholas Royle from the brilliant CB editions and Salt. All the books share a devotion to literature that borders on the obsessive. All give an insight into a writer’s life, the latter two to indie publishing amongst other things.

If we  took the device that Charles Boyle uses on the cover of The Other Jack, a sentence of contents, what is 533 about? Cactuses, Menorca, the inner life of the writer, the preservation of trees, the disintegration of Europe, and death. Like the other works, 533 flits around from meditation to observation or observation to meditation. It is literally grounded in the earth, a great source of its strength.

Reflections on cactus leaves lead to these thoughts:

“This is what I mean by contradictions, it is as if I were to consist partially of dead matter but at the same time grew new limbs, even though I have no idea exactly how to picture that. What could be an equivalent of a yellow flower ?”

His mind swarms with questions. Age has brought a marvellous uncertainty that spurs the writing on:

“When is something an event? A train accident, a completely unexpected visit, a lightning strike.”

Nooteboom’s comments on literature spring out of the garden or a change in the tramuntana. The connections follow the ebb and flow of his thoughts and dreams:

“ Dreams. for me , that brings two questions to mind. The first: where do we find the people who appear in our dreams, the ones we don’t know?… I am now far away from the dream of a Spanish galleon in the non-existent port of Krakow, far away from a grey horse on a ship and a traveling companion inside whose dreaming head I was traveling to Poland while I myself was asleep in Menorca.”

This is typical of Nooteboom’s technique, a question followed not by abstract reflections but deepening recreations of events, often linked to a favoured writer such as Hector Abad.

He accepts contradictions. Having dismissed anthropomorphism, he describes the yucca as a garden opponent, stabbing him with its daggers.

The book is an encyclopaedia of the out of the way, the hidden histories of words (xoriguer, gin) or the hidden life of plants. His mind watches itself and he is aware of its limitations that connections may be overplayed in his responses to literature.

Cees Nooteboom should be better known in the United Kingdom. His reading can spur you on to further reflections on existence. He provides you with an ongoing series of reading lists, one from Hungary. The breadth of European literature is his field.

Any Cop?: In its short sections 533 does what all great literature does breaking our habitual responses up and making us see things anew. I want to see Berlin through his eyes next.

Richard Clegg

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