Paul Buck

The Following Story

Cees Nooteboom


As if Tabucchi doesn’t hallucinate enough, the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom has a similar problem in The Following Story (written before Requiem). His main character, Herman Mussert, goes to bed in Amsterdam, but wakens in a hotel room in Lisbon, where twenty years before he had slept with another man’s wife. ‘So I had not turned into someone else, I was merely in a room I could not possibly be in, not if I had any understanding of the rules of logic. And I knew that room, because I had slept there twenty years ago with another man’s wife.’


The hotel appears to be the York House in the road alongside the museum, suitably transformed in the story into the Essex House. ‘Essex House – silly name for a Portuguese hotel – in the Rua das Janelas Verdes, close to the Tagus.’ Of course he can place it, but he cannot believe it. ‘Armed with all Newton’s laws I stood there, glued to the red tiles in the bathroom of room 6 of the Essex House in Lisbon, and I thought of Maria Zeinstra, biology teacher at the school where her husband, Arend Herfst, also taught. And where I too taught, of course.’


He knows that if he tries to leave he will be stopped and questioned. He passes reception. There is no problem, he is recognised and acknowledged. Nothing is wrong. He steps out. ‘August, the imperial month. The pale blue remnants of the wisteria, the shaded patio, the stone steps descending, the same doorman stewed in twenty years of slowly passing time. I recognise him, he acts as if he recognises me. I must turn left, to the small pastelaria where she used to gorge herself on little brioches the colour of egg-yolk, the honey varnishing her eager lips. The pastelaria is still there, the world is everlasting.’


But whereas Tabucchi is working with hallucination as his pivot, Nooteboom’s pivot is time, as he makes clear a little later as he turns to see a clock remembered, with its inscription: ‘Whosoever attempts to interfere with time, wheresover that may be, whosoever seeks to stretch it, retard it, channel it, stem its flow, divert it, should know that my law is absolute, that my magisterial hands indicate the ephemeral, non-existent now, as they always do. They stand aloof from corrupting division, from the mercenary now of the scholar, mine is the only true now, the durable now encompassing sixty counted seconds.’


from Lisbon, Signal, 2002



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