"A Way to Away"

The Dutch novelist and travel writer Cees Nooteboom was born on this day in 1933. Though his allusive, intellectual novels can be demanding, Nooteboom is often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel, and his travel writing is unreservedly praised. Roads to Santiago, which follows the medieval pilgrims’ route through Spain to Santiago de Compostela, has been described by one reviewer as “a Michelin for the soul.” Nooteboom devotes one chapter of the book to his attempt to visit various Cervantes shrines; below, he seeks out the prison in Argamasilla where literature’s most famous knight-errant was born:

We follow the directions of a shepherd and walk through the narrow streets of the village to a big green door. I knock, and after a long pause I hear an old, shrill voice calling out Si! Nothing else. I let fall the big iron knocker once more, and then appears and old woman, bent almost double. Her hair is white and she has a beautiful face. The cave is somewhere else, she says, and we follow her through the rain, two giants suddenly, with a dwarf, invented by the writer. She unlocks a door with a key bigger than her hands and points to a descending flight of steps. This is where the writer was gaoled, and where he is said to have written the first chapters. I believe it all, for there is a small wooden table with an inkwell and two quills….

In “Eye of the Storm,” a 2002 travel piece collected in Nomad’s Hotel, Nooteboom ponders his attraction to travel as a way to stay engaged, to do his “soul’s bidding,” to find “a way to away”:

Once, when I had no way of knowing what I now know, I chose movement, and later on, when I understood more, I realized I would be able, within this movement, to find the silence necessary in order to write; that movement and silence are balanced in a union of opposites. That the world, with all its drama and crazy beauty, its baffling vortex of countries, peoples, and histories is itself a traveler in an endlessly voyaging universe, a traveler on its way to new journeys…. 

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.