I have never really been able to explain what it is that I love about the work of Cees Nooteboom, it falls into the genre of those things which evoke an inexplicable feeling, something so nebulous and delicate that I can barely think about it without causing it irreparable damage. Yet the feeling persists, even when I doubt it. I think it may be best expressed by the Japanese expression mono no aware which means something like the pathos of things, the bittersweet emotion that is evoked by the beauty of impermanence. It is an apt reference because this brief, insubstantial novella has mono no aware lingering around it like the mists around Fujiyama.
Mokusei tells the story of Arnold Pessers, a Dutch photographer who visits Japan to take some photographs involving Fujiyama and a Japanese woman in traditional costume for a brochure. He embarks on a love affair with the woman who models for him, a woman who, to him, has three names: Satoko, which is her actual name, Snowy Mask which is a secret name and Mokusei which is the name of a scented Japanese flower which she introduces him to the morning after their first night together. As the story opens there is a sense that this affair has ended, that Arnold is looking back on his time with her, his time in Japan with mono no aware, the bittersweet knowledge of what had been, how brief it was, how astonishing, how devastating. Alongside his affair he reflects upon his relationship with Japan, largely through reflections of his conversations with a friend, De Goede, who worked at the Belgian embassy in Japan and who was instrumental in Pessers meeting his Mokusei.
“Then he turned to the purple flowers again. The leaves were long and narrow but the flowers themselves had a crumpled look, drops like quicksilver adhered to the green sepals. There was a curious oneness in everything, the sound of the water, the darkness that slowly fell upon the world, making the mist intenser, more sombre in colour; it all seemed to be one thing. And then there was the sound of the crickets, even now in October, and that was what they cried, October, October.”
The bulk of the story covers the time during which Pessers met Mokusei. Pessers was a novice to Japan, he was still enrapt in the ‘idea’ of it (as De Goede refers to it), the aesthetic and spiritual ideal of Japan as a place of purity and self-sacrifice. By meeting Mokusei he begins to learn about the duality, but more than that the mask beneath the mask. Like the woman, Japan has three faces. He will meet them all in his time there. As a photographer, Pessers is alert to the restlessness, the hidden energy that lies behind any image. Despite his intense focus on Mokusei, he is never quite able to penetrate her image. Their affair is doomed to end; something which he knows deep down but cannot allow himself to admit.
“…and this was exactly what the picture showed, a grey, leaden, old-fashioned plain in which prairie and water seemed to merge into each other without distinction. The horizon was a straight line; above it hung an equally desolate sky of a lighter grey, without any nuances. Two fields of grey, in fact, one darker, one lighter. And yet, when you looked longer, something like movement began to appear in those dead expanses of grey, a fraction of the light in the upper area had imparted itself to the darker area below, so that something of the light which had shone on that sombre river that day had been preserved; a few streaks, a few patches, a flicker, just as the light of the stars tries to speak of something that happened before there were people and would try to do so even if no people had ever come into existence, although in that case the question arose: Why or, rather, for whose benefit?”
Mokusei is an extraordinarily beautiful story, it is lightly told and yet layered with meaning and depth. It is a book which benefits from more than one reading. In fact, on my first reading I found myself a little frustrated; the story was so insubstantial, so delicate, that I felt almost cheated by its brevity. However, on my second reading it pulled me firmly in. I noticed the captivated beauty of the writing, the way in which Nooteboom creates space and slows time as he writes. It is a quality about his writing which I have long admired, the way in which he can seemingly write with intense clarity and yet create a nebulous uncertainty, a sense of a space opening inside in which anything and everything is possible. He evokes emptiness, transcendence, with nothing more than a description of a photograph, or a fruit dropped on a pathway, or the sound of the crickets. And he reflects, constantly, on life’s meaning, observing the way the mind works, how it challenges and tricks us. Like here, in a description which made me think again of that strange middle section of DeLillo’s Zero K:
“Long ago, and at the same time a sort of yesterday. For that kind of time no verb tenses exist. Memory flows this way and that between the perfect and the imperfect, just as the mind, left to itself, will often prefer chaos to chronology.”
And I wondered if the two writers, both predisposed to analyse the questions of language and memory, are somehow on the same wavelength, making the same connections and asking the same questions, and I also wondered if this is why I so admire both of their works. Nooteboom remains a firm favourite, a writer who has the strange capacity to evoke mono no aware, a beautiful kind of melancholy, whether he’s writing about Japan or the Australian outback or a suicidal man in Amsterdam. Mokusei may be slight and delicate, but it is also strangely affecting and it left me thinking about it for several days, rturning to a phrase or passage such as those I’ve posted here, wondering what it is that makes them feel so extraordinary.
With thanks to thebookbindersdaughter whose post alerted me to the existence of this previously untranslated novella by Nooteboom.