cover image ALL SOULS DAY


Cees Nooteboom, , trans. from the Dutch by Susan Massotty. . Harcourt, $25 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100566-6

There's a scene in Nooteboom's latest novel that functions like the keynote to a score. Arno Tieck, an old German scholar, tells the well-known story of Hegel's remark, after he "heard the distant roar of Napoleon's cannons from his study in Jena," that history was already over. While this was a stimulating observation in Hegel's time, almost 200 years later it seems more like an observation about cultural exhaustion. Arthur Daane, a 42-year-old Dutch documentary filmmaker living in Berlin, is indeed weary. His wife, Roelfje, and his son, Thomas, died in a plane crash. He keeps company with four friends (Arno; Arno's sister-in-law, Zenobia Stejn; a stout Russian physicist; and Victor, a Dutch sculptor) who exchange bon mots in Berlin restaurants. Popular topics with this crowd are the guilt of the Germans, the difference between German and Dutch character, and Berlin's multiple layers of history. Arthur is whisked from this dishearteningly abstract atmosphere by a fierce young Spanish-Dutch student, Elik Oranje. Elik is a beautiful woman with "Berber eyes, " a distinctive scar on her right cheekbone and very mysterious habits. Arthur is a bit tepid for amour fou, but their affair is passionate. He breaks her spell for a while by accepting a job to make a film in Estonia, and then in Japan, but when she heads for Spain, Arthur eventually follows. Nooteboom's attempt at an intellectual novel is worthy of respect, but Arthur and his friends are frustratingly static in their habits and thoughts, their perorations inflated with hot air. More enervating than invigorating, the book fails to communicate the vitality of a life of thought. (Nov.)