A documentary filmmaker’s tenuous hold on both reality and the past occupies the foreground of this very discursive 1998 novel by the prizewinning Dutch author (The Following Story, 1994, etc.).
On All Souls’ Day, November 2nd, prayers are offered on behalf of those who dwell in Purgatory. This practice neatly symbolizes the condition of 45-year-old Arthur Daane, who is mourning the deaths of his wife and son in a plane crash, and relocates to Berlin (after reunification)—reasoning that a place that has its own painful history to deal with is where he may as well be. There’s very little more in the way of action or incident here than this, as Nooteboom fills the story with Daane’s meditations on photography, history, art, the ideas of eminent philosophers (he has made a film about Nietzsche, and considers Walter Benjamin as a subject), and other matters: generally, the filmmaker’s (and the writer’s) vain efforts to capture and “stop” time, thus preventing it from elapsing. There are also numerous conversations with fellow émigrés and friends, including sculptor-writer Victor Leven (eternally haunted by the memory of WWII), “philosopher-turned-lunatic” Arthur Tieck (who has appeared in Daane films), and—back home in The Netherlands—Daane’s platonic confidante Erna, who isn’t much more than a device to help keep the talk flowing. When Daane meets lissome history student Elik Olanje, and follows her to Spain, dramatic things begin happening—too late, alas, to vitiate the reader’s conviction that he has been subject to an intolerably overextended harangue.
All Souls’ Day displays with admirable lucidity the workings of a humane, civilized, and consistently interesting mind. But it’s just barely a novel, and few readers are likely to stay its tortuous and redundant course.