Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Travels with Cees Nooteboom

Nooteboom as traveller

Nooteboom has written about the phenomenon many times, about why it is that he always wants to pack his suitcases again. In ‘New York, stad van het verdwijnen’ from De zucht naar het Westen (1985), his collection of travel stories about America, he gives one of the possible motives: ‘The secret aim of all travel is integration with the local inhabitants. In New York you don’t require anything to do this; you are your own camouflage. Among Syrians, Polish Jews, Maoris, Italians and Vikings, you’re nothing but another shadow, another fraction (…). This is something that seems to frighten a lot of people. It excites me, although I still don’t know exactly why.’

‘Why do you do so much travelling?’ This is the question Cees Nooteboom has been asked most often. In ‘In het oog van de storm’ (In the eye of the storm), the opening essay of Nootebooms Hotel (Nomad’s Hotel, 2002), he quotes Ibn al-Arabi, a twelfth-century Arabian philosopher, who wrote that a voyage ‘is so called because it reveals people’s characters, or, to put it more simply, for the person who travels alone: On a journey you get to know yourself.’ From the same essay: ‘Maybe the real traveller is always in the eye of the storm. The storm is the world; the eye is that with which he views it. In the eye it is quiet and anyone who is in that place can make out things that pass by people who stay at home.’

Besides Nooteboom’s partner Simone Sassen, photographer Eddy Posthuma de Boer is probably the person who has most often accompanied the writer on his travels. They met in the mid-1950s and it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Nooteboom travelled to Rio de Janeiro and asked Posthuma de Boer to take photographs – this was their first journey together. Nooteboom had already written many stories and articles for newspapers and magazines in the 1960s. In August 1968, their first joint piece appeared, a report with the title of ‘Bitter Bolivia’. Both men had a real urge to get out and about. They wanted to see the world, as they had been promised after the war. Travelling was a ‘hugely euphoric activity; you always rubbed your hands with glee as you set off on your travels again.’

‘The travel writer may best be compared to a photographer,’ wrote Nooteboom in 1982 in the Holland Herald, KLM’s in-flight magazine. ‘Photography is a more intense way of “looking”. No photographer simply travels. He cannot allow himself the luxury of just looking around. He does not see landscapes; he sees photographs, images of reality as it might appear in a photograph.’ In his photo book Voor het oog van de wereld (1996), Eddy Posthuma de Boer describes his friend as a restless traveller, who frequently improvises ‘in word and deed’. He alters the route, deviates from plans, decides in the morning that he wants to do something different than what he decided the night before. Posthuma de Boer saw him weighing up the pros and cons, ‘pondering and drawing on an enormous reservoir of longings, motives and intellectual notions. The good thing is that what he wanted from such a trip and what I had in mind myself was usually pretty similar. It still led to the same idea.’

From: Margot Dijkgraaf, Nooteboom en de anderen. Amsterdam, De Bezige Bij, 2009.

From: Margot Dijkgraaf, Nooteboom en de anderen. Amsterdam, De Bezige Bij, 2009.

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