Rituals – Cees Nooteboom
Translated from the Dutch Rituelen by Adrienne Dixon
Maclehose Press, July 2013**
I read the Dutch version (Bezige Bij 2009, first published 1980)
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *
After a failed suicide attempt, Inni Winthrop reflects on life in the fifties, sixties and seventies in the Netherlands (mostly Amsterdam). He does so by returning to the life habits of two acquaintances he had: Arnold and Philip Taads. Arnold Taads has organised his life strictly around time: a different activity for each hour. Philip Taads finds meaning in life through Japanese rituals that teach him that he and the world are in essence worthless.
In Rituals, Cees Nooteboom explores the ritualised habits that organise modern life after Christian religion has lost that function. Inni Winthrop grew up in the Catholic south of the Netherlands, and Catholicism reverberates throughout the book, both in the characters’ criticism of belief in a Christian God, the language or metaphors used, and the echoes of rituals in the different lives under discussion.
Obviously, I found this incredibly intriguing. In the postmodern setting of Amsterdam in the latter half of the twentieth century, where the freethinking individual is set forth as the rule, and society is thought of as secularised, how does one find meaning? Nooteboom explicates how this proclamation of personal freedom is often couched in a quest for other organisational principles that “chain” the individual as much as Catholicism is perceived to do. A strict schedule according to time sets the rules for Arnold, and if a visitor arrives 10 minutes before the scheduled appointment, he or she will be ignored or asked to return home. Philip’s interest in Japanese philosophy and ritual seems to originate from an intense self-hatred and loathing of other people, where suicide is the only option but only if that suicide can be made meaningful through terms of the cessation of the self.
From the perspective of religious studies and the rise of the concept of the postsecular, this book is rather interesting. On the one hand it echoes much of these thoughts, in its assertion of the function of rituals and in its use of religious metaphor for example. On the other hand, Rituals also seems to be written with the concept of progressing secularism in mind which is a narrative that is challenged by the idea of the postsecular. Published in 1980, the fact that Rituals does so makes a lot of sense and I had no problems with this understanding that is somewhat inherent to the book. However, it is the manner in which this secularism is integrated in narrator and character Inni Winthrop that bothered me a little, let me explain..
Perhaps the best explanation of what I mean can be found in what the plot summary on the publisher’s website states about Inni:
“An unintentional suicide survivor, the unexpected gift of life returned lends him the curiousity, and impartiality, to survey others’ lives and routines.”
YES. Inni is put forth as an impartial observer. He is detached from life, rather like Arnold and Philips but in a different way.. For, instead of seeking his own rituals, he observes and comments on the need of others to design life around them, as if he is above this tendency, as if he has progressed beyond these needs, which makes him more rational than the others. There is an arrogance around Inni that got on my nerves.
I wonder if we are to take Inni’s position for granted? There are opportunities to read against the grain and capture how Inni might not be as detached as his narration suggests. Which brings me to part II of what made me uncomfortable in reading Rituals: Where are the women? As in, fully developed characters instead of stray figures who figure as extras in Inni’s tale? Part of me thinks that this is just what Rituals is: a male story, where women have “unconsciously” been forgotten. However, you could also read Inni’s own dealings with women as intentionally portrayed the way they are. If Inni in his own perception is a detached observer of the ritualised lifestyles of his friends, he himself is somewhat blind to his own habits: that of finding meaning in sexual encounters with women. Again, the descriptions made me extremely uncomfortable, women as more “sensitive” and “honest”, as “guardians of the world’s secrets” and yet never really persons (my own rather inadequate translations), to which Inni “surrenders” instead of “conquering women” (oh, how emancipated of you!). But again, one wonders if one is supposed to feel this way, to unravel Inni’s own narratives about life?
In conclusion, Cees Nooteboom’s prose is intriguing and beautiful as always. His exploration of life, habits, and the postmodern quest for meaning was interesting. Nevertheless, I did not love this as I had anticipated. I didn’t not enjoy it, I just wasn’t absolutely captivated.
Perhaps it was my establishing this book as the Nooteboom for years in advance, which might have raised my expectations too high. Or perhaps I should just accept that Nooteboom will never be an absolute perfect fit for me. There are always parts of his books that I puzzle over, that make me wonder if he stereotypes too easily, or if we are meant to notice and challenge these ideas? And I am not always comfortable with doing that. Sometimes, I want a little more hints of challenge, a little less essentialism, even if he challenges that very essentialism on other subjects. *sigh* See what I mean about confusion?
Other Opinions: Yours?