Cees Nooteboom’s travelogue Nomad’s Hotel: Travels in Space and Time can be mistaken for a postmodernist text that revels more in the intertextual references arising from the travels rather than the material world encountered in these travels.
Exceedingly erudite, the travel essays direct their gaze on the minutiae of gestures and street life, descriptions of buildings and paintings, and anecdotes on literary figures. As Alberto Manguel pointed out in his introduction, “Nooteboom is less a traveling writer than a well-traveled authorial presence.”
His baggage consists less of socks and toothpaste than of Dante and Virgil who, like Nooteboom, undertook their journey with a bundle of remembered readings and beloved authors.
In Nooteboom’s reminiscences of Venice, for instance, a thirteenth-century church brings back the presence of the dead and encourages a conversation with them:
Proust, Ruskin, Rilke, Byron, Pound, Goethe, McCarthy, Morand, Brodsky, Montaigne, Casanova, Goldoni, Da Ponte, James, Montale, their words flow around you like the water in the canals, and just as the sunlight causes the waves behind the gondolas to fragment into myriad tiny sparkles, so that one word, Venice, echoes and sparkles in all those conversations, letters, sketches…
Describing the paintings of the old Italian city, he talks of how “Ovid, Hesiod, the Old and New Testament have accompanied you the whole way, that you are being pursued by the Lives of the Saints and Christian heathen iconography, that Catherine’s wheel, Sebastian’s arrows, Hermes’ winged sandals, Mars’s helmet, and all lions of stone, gold, ptyhpry, and marble are out to get you.”
A trip to Gambia churns out a little known book called the Official Handbook of the Gambian Colony and Protectorate, published in 1906:
It is all there. Every name, every amount, every procedure, everyone’s salary, everything. Under the heading Letter Boxes: “There are no letter boxes in the colony and the Protectorate.” It makes incredible reading. So this is how an empire is run. Nothing has been left to chance. Someone, once, worked it all out.
Observing what seemed like the faint movement of those statues of angels with “idiotic-cherubic faces” on the balustrades of one of Munich’s churches he remembers Goethe’s line from a Schubert song: “What does that movement signify?”
Traveling to the islands of Aran, he comments on how in Ireland “literature and poetry were held in higher esteem than anywhere else in Europe… all the seats on my Aer Lingus plane were upholstered in facsimiles of the handwriting of Joyce and Beckett, Wilde and Swift on a green background…”
He eventually arrives to a discussion of Tim Robinson’s Stones of Aran:
The island on which I find myself is created for a second time, but this time from words. I do not believe there is another book in the world like it. In this first volume it is as if every meter of the coast, with its types of stone, plants, birds, stories, names and shapes has been described. The map at the back of the book was drawn by the writer himself…
Nooteboom enthuses: “he has achieved the impossible; by taking a geographical reality, describing it so meticulously and embedding it in a past of folk tales, legends, and history he has thwarted the transience of at least one small part of the globe.”
The author seems to have slipped through the mesh of time’s net in order to put the unbelievable convolutions of human society in such a small area under a microscope.
In Isfahan, the hotel he stays in is described as having “the allure of an old film, but not to live in. After a few days you feel as though you yourself are well on the way to becoming an extinct species…” Modern-day Iran, Ancient Persia.
City of wine, roses, and verse, where the great poets Hafiz and Sadi lie buried in regal splendor, and where Persian farmers come to have their photographs taken next to the graves of these poets of centuries ago, and also to recite their poetry out loud to one another. Where else could you still find that?
The piece on Mantua, Italy is capped by the lines of poetry in Dante’s Inferno wherein the origin of the town is described:
The poet [Virgil] tells his fellow poet [Dante] how Manto (she who covers her breast / which you do not see) after much wandering comes across a plain where the water of Mincio “spreads out and forms a marsh.” She remains there and when she dies leaves her “empty body” behind and the people who lived in those parts came together at that spot, protected by the marsh that completely surrounded it.
Upon those dead bones they built the town
and named it Mantua, without hesitation,
after she who had first chosen that spot.
The voyage for Nooteboom, like for any other petty bourgeois cheerleader of the so-called post-everything condition, is essentially an individual endeavor:
Anyone who is constantly traveling is always somewhere else, and therefore always absent… although it it is true that you are “somewhere else,” and that, consequently, there is somewhere you are not, there is one place where you are constantly, all the time, namely with “yourself.”
It is also an occasion to encounter the exotic Other in the peripheries of Asia and Africa:
They speak in tongues you cannot comprehend, stand next to you on a ferry or sit next to you on the bus, they sell you food at the market and send you in the right or wrong direction, sometimes they are dangerous, but usually they are not…
But far from simply exemplifying the standard Derridean formula of how everything is a text, Nooteboom’s Nomad’s Hotel is also the ultimate example of its opposite: of how all texts are ultimately rooted in the material world and all its multifarious aspects in the social, economic, cultural, and political fields.