All Souls Day
Amid the sordid history and ghosts of Berlin, documentary filmmaker Arthur Daane tries to epoxy the shards of his life together. His wife and child are gone, the victims of a plane crash. He has traveled hundreds of miles from his home in the Netherlands to be near his intellectual friends, who entertain him and help him--in their unlikely ways--to see the world as the annals of history have framed it.
But Daane knows history is a ruse, at least as illusive as it is concrete, with a shape formed by the living, not the dead who once lived it. When he isn't off making a few dollars as a cameraperson amid Eurasia's newest ruins, Daane tries to transcend time and tide by recording what no one really looks at--the anonymous, nonartificial, unnamed world of natural phenomena: "I want to preserve the things that nobody notices, that nobody ever pays attention to. I want to capture the most ordinary things and keep them from disappearing."
In All Souls Day, Dutch author Cees Nooteboom's ninth novel (translated by Susan Massotty), Daane becomes the quintessential Continental: adrift, in lockstep with the past even as he tries to break free from it, an existentialist to a fault. That Nooteboom can make Daane entirely genuine and original while evoking a host of philosophical (Albert Camus, Friedrich Nietzsche) and literary (Milan Kundera, Gabriel García Márquez) forebears is proof of his gift. A deep, dark, frequently poignant, and fragile work, All Souls Day examines the weight of time and the unbearable heaviness of being.
Daane's peregrinations and spiritual rootlessness flirt with meaning when he encounters (well, initially stalks) a young student named Elik Oranje. Like Daane, Oranje is scarred (literally) by the past and has her feet in two countries (genetically, in Spain and the Netherlands). Oranje is also obsessed with the dead; she envisions the writing of her thesis on an obscure medieval Spanish queen as an act of love, rescuing her subject from her grave of dusty documents and depositions. A woman so consumed by the past isn't likely to embrace the future, to Daane's great eventual disappointment. But disappointment and a numbed determination to go on mark this novel's mood, and its evocation of the dark shock of memory recalls the works of the recently departed W.G. Sebald.
That All Souls Day ends with echoes of Europe's blood-soaked past is hardly surprising. For Nooteboom, the human condition hasn't changed, only the names and faces. The difference in modern European humanity, Nooteboom believes, is an emotionally muted resiliency: "We're the greatest heroes in history," says Daane's friend Victor. "No other generation has ever had to know, see, and hear so much, suffering without catharsis, dragging a heavy load of horror along with us for the new day."