We British like to think of ourselves as a cosmopolitan island race, outward-looking and worldly, yet we can be a parochial lot, too. We heap opprobrium on the Arab world for its failure to translate more than a handful of books into Arabic each year and yet our own record of translating contemporary foreign writers into English makes us seem more insular than international in our literary appetites.
Perhaps this is one reason I had never heard of the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom until last year, when I was asked to review his latest collection of travel writing, Nomad’s Hotel: Travels in Time and Space. By the time I had finished it, reeling with wonder, scrawling rapturous notes all over it and dog-earing every other page to mark yet another felicitous phrase, I felt thoroughly ashamed of my ignorance.
And yet the most basic research reveals the Dutchman to be a leading literary light in Holland, fêted perennially as a possible winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (he would be a worthy winner). A.S. Byatt, perhaps one of the few Nooteboom aficionados this side of the Channel, is a big fan. She regards him as ‘one of the greatest modern novelists’. And, it turns out, he has been translated into English, at least in America.
For those who have yet to encounter Nooteboom (what pleasure awaits you!), Nomad’s Hotel seems the perfect place to begin. This collection of elegant essays on his travels over the past four decades is, as the subtitle suggests, a journey through space and time. If that sounds a little obvious, I should explain. Nooteboom is one of the most introspective and self-conscious travel writers you will come across. He dwells, with wit and whimsy, on the nature and meaning of travel, analyses his responses to situations and events without ever sounding precious, and has a Proustian fascination with time.
In the introductory chapter he reflects on travel and writing, wondering whether the genuine
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