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Cees Nooteboom: Rituelen (Rituals)

Nooteboom’s novel received mixed reviews from the critics. Some have maintained that it is a brilliant novel while others have admitted to not seeing the point. Of course, if a novel has to have a point, then it probably is in trouble. Bad novels generally have a point, by which I mean a neat plot, a moral and a clear ending, while good ones all too often don’t. This one doesn’t.

The novel touches on three separate years – 1953, 1963 and 1973. It actually starts with 1963 when, as the opening lines of the novel tell us, Inni Wintrop committed suicide, because his wife had left him to run off with an Italian photographer. Specifically, he hangs himself in the bathroom. As he is still alive in 1973, obviously his attempt fails. However his story is bookended by the story of two other people – father and son – who die, quite probably by suicide. Inni had been brought up a Catholic but was against religion. Indeed, his antagonism to Catholicism caused him to be expelled from several schools. His father had been killed in the war, after having run off with the nursemaid, and he had been brought up by his mother and stepfather. Because he had no money he had to leave school and go and work in an office, which he did not like. One day, he is visited by his Aunt Thérèse – his father’s half-sister – who takes him to visit Arnold Taads. Arnold Taads, who had once been engaged to Aunt Thérèse, is, in Inni’s view, the loneliest man in the Netherlands. He lives alone with his dog. His life is so regimented by the clock that their arrival ten minutes early throws him out and they have to wait the ten minutes. Precisely at five o’clock he goes off to read a book and at precisely 5.45 he ends his reading and takes his dog, Athos, for a walk. In the winter (but not the summer) he goes and lives in a house in the Swiss Alps which is cut off by snow. He has to make a six hour journey by ski every two weeks to get supplies. Arnold is even more anti-Catholic than Inni. When he comes to dine at Aunt Thérèse’s house, the uncle of Aunt Thérèse’s husband, who is private chamberlain to the Pope, is also there and Arnold proceeds to condemn both the Church and God, to the embarrassment of all, except the chamberlain.

Arnold does have some use. He persuades Aunt Thérèse to give Inni a private income so that he does not have to work and, when she dies, he inherits her money, which is enough for him to live on comfortably, if not luxuriously. He becomes a gentleman of leisure, writing a horoscope and recipes for the paper, making investments and dabbling in art. For a while he is a husband to Zitta, till she runs off with the Italian and he then has a few affairs, generally of short duration. One day, while at an art dealer, he hears that another customer there is called Taads. It turns out that this is Philip Taads, son of Arnold. Inni had been unaware that Arnold had been married, let alone have children but it turns out that he married an Indonesian woman when living in that country. Philip is even more ascetic than his father. Inni visits his apartment and it is entirely white, painted or draped with white sheets. Philip is fascinated by things Japanese, though he has never been there, feeling that modern Japan is morally polluted. He was at the art dealer’s, as he is looking for a special type of raku tea bowl for his tea ceremony. Inni gets to know him and finds him even more of a loner than his father (whom he despised, though he hardly knew him). The result for both father and son is inevitable.

Inni is generally an easy-going person, despite his views on religion and his attempted suicide when his wife leaves him. We see him against the background of changes in Dutch society – the more relaxed and liberal approach but also a world where there is more uncertainty. He is contrasted with the Taads, both of whom are looking for precise and utter certainty and do not find it. Arnold dabbles with love – he is married, though not for long and is clearly very attached to his dog – while Philip eschews even that. For Philip the key is nothing. He makes it clear that he means nothing, not nothingness, and is happy to sit for hours meditating about nothing. Clearly, those existences lead to dead ends and clearly Inni seems, more or less, to have a better life, despite his own problems. And if you are really looking for a point, maybe that is it.

Publishing history

First published in 1980 by De Arbeiderspers
First published in English in 1983 by Louisiana State University Press