Letters to Poseidon by Cees Nooteboom

A serviette, a glass of champagne taken outside a fish restaurant in the open-air Viktualienmarkt in Munich, all taken to celebrate the first day of spring, prompt Cees Nooteboom into Proustian reverie. Upon the paper napkin is written in blue capitals the word POSEIDON, the Greek god who has preoccupied Nooteboom’s thoughts for several summers. The blue colour reminds him of the sea viewed from Mediterranean garden of his villa in Menorca. Taking this prompting as a moment of benign synchronicity, he later begins a correspondence with this sea-deity. He seeks to inquire how this somewhat unreliable ancient Greek Olympian sees aeons of time and sends him letters and legenda; meditations and stories to be read, both poetic and tragic, from the arts and the contemporary world. He is not expecting a reply.

In the Odyssey, Poseidon is renowned for hating Odysseus who had blinded the Cyclops, Polyphemus who happened to be the god’s son. This is Homer’s view. Ovid would have known the god as Neptune and wrote about him in the ‘’Metamorphoses’’. Kafka wrote an essay in which he imagines Poseidon constantly submerged. So, Nooteboom wonders, in a notably poetic passage, how would he have viewed the first passage of the first boat on the surface above him. How does he feel about the decline of those very Greeks who worshipped him? Is he melancholy about his timeless vigil already an old man beneath the sea with only occasional excursions pulled about by tiny sea-horses, nature’s experiment in trans-gender parturition? Fascinated by the rhythms of animal behaviour and curious plants, Nooteboom’s meditative writing is enlivened by his close observation of the natural world.

Letters to Poseidon juxtaposes thoughts which are essentially theological with ponderings on inexplicable tragedies in the contemporary world from the Challenger disaster to the Arab spring. Uncomfortable topics of puzzling cruelty are subject to persistent interrogation which is addressed to an ancient deity- often depicted in statuary with his face turned away. However, there is also an interesting wrestle between belief and doubt beneath the surface. Here is an attempt to figure the Christian deity in relation to the ancient gods. It is almost that the averted gaze of the sea-god makes him more accessible to questioning. Dante and the early-German Christian mystic, Seuse are invoked and discussed whilst the reader is provided with routes to his own investigations from Nootebbom’s well-stocked mind.

The author is prominent as a novelist, art historian and as a traveller. Successive pieces are situated in, for example, in Seoul Museum of Art, a Zen garden in Kyoto, back in his study in Menorca, an island of the Dutch East Indian company in Nagasaki and back once more to Menorca to watch a blood moon. This continuous movement appears to have given rise to a certain Weltschmerz  and in particular to a fascination with time and memory. This connection between time and space fascinates him as do geological aeons. He uses the Poseidon figure as a means to attempt to grasp the manner in which rocks are metamorphosed and ground to sediment over aeons. This is done in a leisurely discursive style that produces its own poetry. It requires that the reader find the patience to enjoy such digressions.

Here is a small example:-

‘’The curlews begin to call. I know they are close to the sea, but I have not yet seen them. Their Dutch name ‘’griel’’ is a much better match than ‘’curlew’’ for that drawn out, pleading sound they make. The owl I can hear nearby is another member of the secret service; it wears the darkness like a uniform and makes itself invisible.’’

The relaxed and tentative tone of the writing is at times penetrated by an image carrying anxiety which frequently refers to contemporary concerns. This is shown above where even an owl might appear as a Stasi interrogator. Despite its metaphysical tone, the prose mostly remains vivid. The issues addressed are the concerns of a man, possibly an elderly man, in search of a soul.Cees

An unexpected feature of this book is the fifty or so pages at the end which provide photographs and reference material. I was some 30 pages into the book before I discovered these. This brought to mind the work of W.G.Seebald whose elegiac tone, Nooteboom’s travel memoir sometimes resembles. There are touches which reminded me of Lawrence Durrell’s ‘’The Alexandrian Quartet’’ and of the mysterious symmetries of Anne Michael’s ‘’Fugitive Pieces’’. This book will not be to everyone’s taste, as by nature, it is inconclusive but thought provoking. It asks fundamental questions about human behaviour ‘’’sub specie aeternitatis’’’-Baruch Spinoza’s term for the eternal perspective.

Nooteboom’s previous book on the fall of the wall can be found at Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom and Laura Watkinson (Translator) and another discussion of a fruitful Greek myth is discussed at Orpheus, The Song Of Life by Ann Wroe.

Nooteboom’s own website is at http://www.ceesnooteboom.com/?lang=en

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