Books: from one writer came another

The ambience in my house resembles that in a Borneo longhouse. I have lodgers. They sit in long rows, shoulder to shoulder and talk to me and each other. These friends have come to stay with me as a result of curiosity, lucky strike and coincidence. Par le beau hasard, as the French say. Hasard comes from an Arab word which means dice. From one friend came another. But I hasten to add: ‘luck hits those who are prepared’.

Here is just one example among many lucky chains of friends who came to inhabit my bookshelves. A long time ago, one of my sons drew my attention to a book by Cees Nooteboom: ‘Roads to Santiago, a modern day pilgrimage through Spain’. That book inspired me so that we went wandering around his places in Castilla and Léon. Some time before leaving, I went to refresh my Spanish with Molinos de Viento, a superb Spanish language school in Amsterdam, run by women. One of them, an Urugayan, let me read aloud short stories by Borges, such as The Aleph and Emma Zunz. Love at first sight for the blind Borges. Back from Spain I read Rituals by Nooteboom.  In that novel, the raconteur refers to One Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata.  Curiosity. I read it. Under the spell of those two novels, I read all books by sensei Nooteboom and sensei Kawabata.  Followed by more Japanese authors. Traveling through Japan, in my head of course, I ran into Robert van Gulik and I read all of his work. Just by chance another son, in an antiquarian bookshop, leafed through a book by F.C. Terborgh, an almost forgotten Dutch diplomat-writer. It intrigued him so he bought it. A few weeks later he lent it to me. Result: I read all of Terborgh’s work and translated some of it in English. By another lucky chance I was offered the opportunity to decipher his diaries or rather mnemotechnic notes as he called them, which took my head and me to Spain during the civil war, to China as the Japanese invaded that country, to London and Lisbon and spies’ nests in the years 1942-1945 and finally to Warsaw as the communists took over, 1945-1948. What a spidery scrawl, his handwriting. Quelle patte de mouche. How’s that? Why French? The same son who lent me Terborgh’s book, emigrated to France and married a Française. I now have 450 French lodgers. My wife now listens to France Inter radio station all day. She says Antèr. Nasally. Then my other son, the Nooteboom one, marries an Italian. Are you still with me? She arranges a trip to Venice for me and my wife. For just a few days. We go to the cemetery island, San Michele, because I wish to visit Joseph Brodsky’s grave. We follow mystifying arrows in Russian-Orthodox direction, closing in on Strawinsky and Diaghilev at the other end of the island. Once there, we still have some difficulty to find the grave. A young woman, a girl almost, is in search of the same. All the way from Mexico. We talk about Joseph. In Spanish. So, now we have two permanent Mexicans in the house. Kahlua is drunk nightly. ‘Holy mackerel, why?’ The young woman’s story is the first in a collection called Papeles Falsos (Sextopiso, 2010). Her debut. Her name is Valeria Luiselli (1983). I think that she is going to conquer the world. Watch it Cortés, Mexico strikes back. In 2011, she followed up with a novel called Los Ingrávidos, The Weightless Ones. Translated in to English under the title Faces in the Crowd (Granta Books, May 2012). As innovative as her first. Penetrating and so very original. In the Netherlands, Papeles Falsos will be published 15th september next (Valse Papieren, Karaat). According to my daughter who lives in Shakopee, MN, the Spanish originals of Luiselli’s books are almost unfindable in U.S. bookstores, least of all in Shakopee. I find that remarkable, in a country with such a very large Hispanophone population.

Joseph Brodsky rests in peace also under my roof. In the beautiful book Tumbas by Cees Nooteboom with photographs by his wife, the photographer Simone Sassen. About the graves of famous writers, poets and thinkers all over the world. It has been published in Dutch, German, French and Spanish. I hope for you that an English translation will follow soon. You will see the grave of Joseph Brodsky under two different tombstones. When placing the first,  someone forgot his identity. The cross was replaced soon thereafter. Shalom, Brodsky. I’ll pass by later this afternoon. To take a break. All those friends. The radio, France Inter. Nasal stuff. All that waiting for the next beau hasard.

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