A collection of very odd symptoms sent me off to the GP on Thursday, and I came back with a diagnosis of shingles, an instruction to rest along with some anti-virals with a dosage strong enough to sink a whale. My first thought (typical reader that I am) was ‘great, I can sit around and read for days.’ My second thought was a more sobering: ‘but what I am capable of reading in this state?’ Whilst I’ve been fortunate not to be in extreme pain – barring a couple of lymph nodes which have fired up like hot burning rocks by my ears – my brain feels like it’s been wrapped in a thick layer of wool, and I’m tired and I can’t concentrate for long periods of time. I pick books up and put them down – notably Hustvedt’s The Burning World which seems far too complex, if doubtless entertaining, for my current capability – and then I pick up Nooteboom and I know immediately that this is a book I can read. Nooteboom is not ‘easy’ as such, occupied as he is with life’s meaning, with Gods (Poseidon here, representing the gods), with infinity, with the abstract and unknown, but the shortness of each letter – maybe a maximum of four pages long – makes it much more digestible. A pick up and put down book, with little pockets of profound wisdom, it feels like the perfect choice for sick-room reading.
For anyone who hasn’t encountered Nooteboom, you definitely should. Nooteboom is well-known as a travel writer, but my first encounter with him was his short, but impactful, Lost Paradise which remains one of my most loved books of all time. Another firm favourite is the sardonic Rituals, which is a complex and yet lightly written book. Surprisingly, I am yet to read any of his travel writing, and this is my first encounter with Nooteboom’s non-fiction, though the letters are a blend of both and a kind of memoir and strangely unplaceable. In some respects they occupy the same vague space as Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and perhaps the similarity is not accidental: Saturn / Kronos ; Neptune / Poseidon and if you enjoy Sebald’s work then I think Letters to Poseidon is a book you will enjoy.
Comprised of a series of short letters, musings, thoughts or little stories, Letters to Poseidon makes for a strange but interesting read. There are various letters directed to Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, dealing with questions of life, of Gods, of what it means to have been an abandoned god, how the Greek gods and the western God exist alongside each other, how humans relate to the gods, and so on. Nooteboom doesn’t really seek or expect answers, of course one can’t expect to be answered by a god, but the questioning is very insightful and humanistic. Nooteboom imagines what it means to be immortal, how that experience might affect your interrelation with the world and with others. There’s a strange compassion towards the god, imagining what it might mean to exist after the world and all the worshippers have ended, contemplating emptiness in the same way that humans do even though the gods are said to exist in a way that humans cannot relate to. Perhaps the fuzzy head helps, but it felt strangely profound to me. Nooteboom has an interrogative style, a boundless sense of the unknown, which flows through in the letters, like here in Poseidon IX where he muses on the origin of the name Poseidon:
“What are names? A name designates a thing or a human being, but that person or object is not actually that name. We bear our names, but we are not them. We depart from our bodies and do not take those names with us, they remain behind as empty shells or as words on a gravestone. Or perhaps it is the other way around and, when our body dies, what we believed ourselves to be cannot endure without that body and so vanishes into the same state of absence as before our birth.”
It is a simple question, yet Nooteboom opens it up very simply into a more complex matter. We bear our names, but do our names bear us? Who knows?
Between the letters to Poseidon are other shorts, all of which are inspired by something Nooteboom has read or seen, and the source origin of each of the shorts is detailed in a little section at the back of the book. This includes photographs and short descriptions which give an outline of where the idea for the short piece came from. These include a wide variety of interesting sources ranging from ancient Japanese texts to Dutch masters, donkeys, bullfighting and space. It’s an eclectic mix, representing the ranging interests of an enquiring mind. The shorts are brief (not surprisingly) yet profound and quite beautifully written. Like here, from River, where Nooteboom writes about a river boat trip in Peru:
“A monkey in make-up sits down beside me and looks at me as if it wants to enter into a discussion about proofs for the existence of God, but then the rain comes, not falling, but standing upright, a grey, almost opaque screen of water, and when it stops the ground starts to steam as if the mud is boiling. The light is now made of zinc and iron, and as we set off again it hurts our eyes. We will see pink dolphins dancing alongside us and clouds constantly changing shape.”
Letters to Poseidon turned out to be my perfect sick-room reading. It is beautiful and profound, deceptively simple yet surprisingly complex. It has affirmed Nooteboom’s place in my mind as one of the greatest and, perhaps, underappreciated writers of our time (along with the many other underappreciated, there seems to be a whole colony of them), a man with a beautiful mind and a wonderful way of expressing it. If anyone has the right to write to the Gods then Nooteboom is a worthy choice and whilst I hope he one day receives an answer, hopefully it is not too soon (but he is kind of old).
Letters to Poseidon is published by Maclehose Press