I hate reviewing books like this; for two reasons. Firstly, because what it offers are subtle joys, such as an understated intelligence, a compassionate sense of humour, and prose that isn’t flashy and yet is of a quality you seldom encounter. And I have no idea how to make that sound interesting, how to convince you, without quoting large sections of the text, to read the book. Secondly, this feels as though it is part of me, as though someone has had access to aspects of my intellectual life, has reached inside me and dredged these things up, and merely changed the names and places and lightly fictionalised their findings by adding a few bits and bobs; and books that strike me that way I find impossible to review, because, really, I end up reviewing myself.
Rituals is divided into three sections, three decades, 1953, 1963, and 1973. Inni Wintrop, an Amsterdammer who we are told in the opening sentence has killed himself, is the staple that holds them together. In the first part of the novel Nooteboom focuses on Inni’s and Zita’s relationship, which was doomed by Zita’s pregnancy and Inni’s insistence that she have an abortion. His reasoning is that one cannot bring a child into this world, into a world that he himself wants to vacate; he cannot contemplate giving life when life for Inni is not a gift but more a never-ending series of smacks in the mouth. Funnily enough, I was having this exact discussion with a colleague just a couple of days ago. I have never wanted children, because, quite frankly, I find them irritating, but, even if my opinion were to change, I don’t feel as though I could ever justify the decision to bring another being into the world. Life, regardless of one’s circumstances, involves a great deal of suffering, necessary suffering, and it strikes me as unfair to be responsible for this state of affairs; even more so, I could never justify burdening another person with my genes, with my DNA, because that, for me, would be the height of selfishness and arrogance.
What I have said so far may give the impression that Rituals is going to involve extended passages of hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing and melodramatic wailing. It doesn’t. One of the things that resonated with me was that although there was a great deal of sadness and soul-searching the book never became an exercise in over-emoting. The principle characters submit to their circumstances without hysteria, and often with grim humour, because they understand that this is what life entails and if one doesn’t like it one has the option to get out. In fact, suicide figures in all three parts of the novel; the way it is dealt with, by Nooteboom and the characters, is, again, without drama, as though it is a not unusual occurrence. This too aligned with my own experience; I have known a number of people who have wanted to get out and every time it was done quietly, almost gently, without a fuss. My time in London was not infrequently punctuated by news of another attempt by a friend or acquaintance. Indeed, I remember getting a call one day from one of my closest friends; she had made her first attempt and was in an institution. Our telephone conversations over the following weeks were as they had always been, as though she had not been sectioned as crazy and a danger to herself, but had merely had to leave town for a while; I never asked why or how, and she never gave me the impression she wanted to tell me. What she had done was a shock only in so much as she had never indicated to me that she was unhappy. But then everyone I knew back then was unhappy, in a docile kind of way, be it my ex-girlfriend who called me for advice immediately after taking an overdose or another friend, Tom, who one day simply disappeared.
In the second part of the novel Nooteboom introduces Arnold Taads and the significance of the title becomes apparent. Taads is a friend of Inni’s aunt, who, also, ultimately opts out of life. However, it is his attempts to regulate his life, through rituals, by eating, napping, taking a walk etc, at a specific, unchanging, time of the day, that gives the novel a philosophical focus. That we are creatures of habit is a cliche known by almost all, but Taads takes it to a militaristic level. This strict routine, this sub-dividing of the day, for me works in two ways, it makes what seems like a vast expanse, your present and future life, smaller, or easier to comprehend, it makes one feel as though one is making continual [albeit small] progress; similarly, it allows one to impose one’s will upon one’s life, to take control over an existence that is in its natural state formless or ungraspable by forcing it to submit to something that is absurd or meaningless, which is time [hours, minutes, days, weeks etc]. I have always felt this way; my mother is a stickler for eating at a certain time of the day, often haranguing me if she thinks I have missed a meal. It’s almost eight o’clock, she’d say, and I, being a smart-arse, would tell her that it wasn’t eight o’clock to me, that eight o’clock doesn’t really exist. Taads, however, needs his rituals, in the same way that the monsignor, who at one stage he has dinner with, also needs his; these rituals are what allows these characters to make sense of their time on the earth.
Life is, of course, full of rituals: the act of suicide is one, and the subsequent funeral. Buying, selling, dressing, undressing, and sex are all rituals too. It is this last that is Inni’s favourite, most seriously observed ritual. Inni uses sex not as a means of gratification, although I am sure it is that too, but sees it, or more precisely the preliminaries, as a revelation, as the only time he feels truly alive. I’m not prepared to say whether this is a point of view I share, but I’ve always considered sex itself as the one time I’m able to turn off my brain, that it is in some way a vacation from myself and my endless introspection. The events, and acts, leading up to it, however, are different; at those moments I feel, as Inni does, that something extraordinary is happening, that I have crash-landed into the world and can, if only briefly, locate myself in it. On this, there is a lovely and memorable line in the book which is that through men one learns how the world is and through women one learns what it is.
The sex in the novel is relatively explicit, but, uniquely, in terms of my reading anyway, it is not disgusting or hilarious or both [usually both]. In fact, it is [and, believe me, I’m cringing whilst I type this] beautiful. I’ve never felt that way before about sex in a book, have never come across an author, man or woman, that didn’t, either intentionally or unintentionally, make my lip curl and/or draw a full belly-laugh from me when exposed to their insane descriptions of fucking. Regardless of the filthiness of the acts themselves Nooteboom imbues these scenes with an intimacy that struck me as closer to what a genuine sexual experience is like. I fucking love him for this, for showcasing sex, for once, as wonderfully non-weird and not-fucked up.
So, anyway, I feel as though I have failed in my remit to inspire you to read Rituals or one of Nooteboom’s other novels. This review is too rambling and personal. With that in mind, I am going to resort to threats:
Read this book or the puppy gets it.