Philip en de anderen
Poetic road novel full of longing and literary allusions
What seems most astounding now when rereading this debut novel (first published in 1955), is that, viewed with the knowledge we have today, the complete writer Cees Nooteboom can already be seen in this book. The romantic writer who travels around and around the world, his head brimming with culture, history and literature; someone to whom the right poetic quotes and allusions to classical mythology occur naturally; someone who confers with both the living and the dead – as evidenced by his many visits to the tombs of his admired predecessors.
Nooteboom not only lives for literature, but also seems driven by the beauty of this art, as a writer and as a reader – these two roles are inseparable for him. Memories are his companions and the sense of a parallel reality is always present. These elements can be seen in Philip en de anderen. At the beginning, Philip, the protagonist, remembers going, as a ten-year-old, to visit his eccentric elderly uncle. This lonely, sensitive homosexual makes it clear to Philip that he must steer clear of everyday life.
The title of the novel reveals the importance of other people in the education of the young Philip. Seen in this light, Nooteboom’s debut is both a Bildungsroman and a coming-of-age novel. Philip is shaped by entering the world, by meeting others, by travelling, by reading, by having experiences. This is his quest for perfect happiness, which perhaps does not exist on Earth. Philip hopes, however, to find such happiness by meeting a Chinese girl; this muse is symbolic of that joy. She appears to exist mainly in stories, constantly inventing fictions herself in order to keep ordinary life at bay.
Meanwhile, during his travels around Europe, Philip searches for love in a far more prosaic way, in the arms of a series of different girls and young mothers. Will this nomad find what he is unconsciously seeking? Cees Nooteboom’s rich oeuvre forms a life-long answer.