Cees Nooteboom’s most ambitious novel yet: philosophical, evocative, poetic and passionate
Forty-five-year-old Arthur Daane, the central figure in Allerzielen, is a maker of TV documentaries. It is no accident that he lives in Berlin, where every stone bears traces of the city’s history. For years he has filmed impulsively, in secret, in the most unlikely places. At first glance, the images are unrelated: ‘a world torn to pieces, inert, reflective, without anecdotal content, fragments which would one day fit together.’
The same might be said of Daane himself. He lost his wife and child in a plane crash and ever since has been on the sidelines, an observer, lonely and melancholy. To escape the searing pain of his loss, he is forever en route, restless, at home everywhere and nowhere. He takes refuge in thought, in the same way others find consolation in music or alcohol. He observes, philosophizes, muses and converses – on life and death, transience and immortality, art and philosophy, those who are present and those who are absent, a ‘realm inhabited by the dead and the disappeared.’ Long nocturnal discussions are devoted to themes familiar from Nooteboom’s earlier work: the impossible longing to make time stand still, the strata of the past, the invisible traces of bygone days and the desire to link the layers of history. Once in a while the narrative is interrupted by an omniscient chorus consisting of the voices of the dead, offering their own commentary on Daane’s musings.
What begins as a reflective essay gradually evolves into a fascinating novel. Daane meets a Dutch girl, a university student who is researching a twelfth-century Spanish queen. This mysterious and elusive woman then disappears from his life. Heeding the call of the Siren, he goes in search of her to Madrid, where he is the victim of a violent attack. For weeks he hovers between life and death. His hospital bed is surrounded by photographs of a cemetery on a bleak winter day, shrouded in mist. All Souls Day: ‘It was as if the name had more to do with the living than with the dead.’ Daane returns to life and turns his steps towards the ‘broad skies of the north.’