Cees Nooteboom: Mokusei! (1982)

Cees Nooteboom’s novella Mokusei! Een liefdesverhaal – Mokusei! a Love story is my second contribution to Iris’ Dutch Literature Month. It is currently out of print in English but there are German and French translations available.

Cees Nooteboom is one of those writers who simply never disappoint me. While reading this short book (70 pages) I was once more wondering how he does it. How can he write such stories that are feathery and light and still so full of meaning. His writing is inventive and informative, playful and deep, beautiful and melancholic. Apart from Nooteboom I know only the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi with a similar style.

Arnold Presser comes to Japan to shoot pictures of a woman in a Kimono standing in front of Mount Fuji. He has a image of Japan in his mind that is very idealized. He thinks, he knows what the real Japan is like. It is the Japan of Kimono’s, Basho’s Haikus, Hokusai’s paintings, the Japan of the many views of Mount Fuji, the Japan of rigid traditions and beautiful gestures. The modern Japan which adopts Western traditions, buys into consumerism, the big cities, the traffic and pollution are not Japan for him. Same as he has fixed ideas about the country he knows what a beautiful Japanese woman has to look like. It takes a while until he finds the perfect model but then he discovers Satoko.

He photographs her and falls in love with her. Their story will last five years. Five years in which they are more separate than together, five years of secret love-making and intense moments in which she will never tell him about her life, never introduce him to his parents. Presser has three names for her, her real name Satoko, the one he calls her to himself, Snow Mask, that implies that he cannot read her expressions and the term of endearment he uses when he calls her, Mokusei. Mokusei is one of the rare Japanese flowers with a scent and seems to perfectly fit his mysteriously withdrawn lover.

Mokusei! is masterful for many reasons. It’s a short, intense and tragic love story, and a meditation on Japan and the images and ideas we can have of a foreign country. What is so amazing is that Nooteboom writes at the same time about an idealized Japan, the real Japan and manages to adopt the Japanese writing style. The concept of wabi sabi pervades this novella on every page. There is a scene in which Presser goes for a walk in a garden and sees a dead leaf hanging not on a branch but on a torn spider web. This image captures beauty, fragility and perishability.

Mokusei! is a beautiful and profound piece of writing and I am glad I finally read it thanks to Iris’ event.

21 thoughts on “Cees Nooteboom: Mokusei! (1982)

  1. Now Cees Nooteboom is someone I have heard good things about and should add to my list. My library has several of his books (though not this one) and they are all fairly short. I like a writer who can convey so much in so few words.

    • He has written a few longer ones but they are like collections of shorter pieces. He is usually a writer who does very well in a short form. Lizzy reviewed a short story collection The Foxes Come at Night that sounded extremely good too. Rituals is wonderful. I also enjoyed Lost Paradise. I haven’t herad of a bad one so far or read a bad one myself.

    • I really recommend him. He has done a lot of travel writing that you might enjoy as well. And novels, like this one that have travelling and foreign cultures as a main topic.

  2. Pingback: Rituals by Cees Nooteboom « Book Around The Corner

  3. My schedule cleared up today, I could finish my post and read yours after all.

    Your review echoes exactly the feeling I have after reading Rituals. He’s a master at playing with complex ideas in a light, funny and poetic tone.
    The Japan theme is present in Rituals, with the same question. One of the character is fond of that old Japan (the Hokusai cliché we have in mind) and he refuses to travel to Japan to meet the modern society it is now.

    I’d like to read this one and the others. I’m happy to be French, lots of his books have been translated into French.

    • I’m really gald you liked it. I have to re-read Rituals and Mokusei! as well. It was enchanting and thoughtful. There are a lot of French translations and German ones of course.
      Japan is an important theme for Nooteboom, there is another book on Japan, I think. And he is a traveller. He explores the world, looking at it from an outsider’s view, trying to understand form inside as well. He has a look at the concept of exotism but he remains light, that’s what I like, no heavy teaching.
      And he manages to capture this particular Japanese concept of wabi sabi which is very interesting by the way. I’m still reading a book about it that is very fascinating.
      Do you still think there is a similarity to Djian?
      I will read your post tomorrow. I feel not so well tonight.

      • Yes, it made me think of Djian, at least in Rituals. Not sure it would be the case in Mokusai!
        I hope you’ll feel better tomorrow. Sleep well.

  4. Quite a cover there, Caroline. I just read a review of RITUALS over at Bookaroundthecorner, and that title has more appal due to the subject matter. I’d never heard of this author.

    • I think the title A Love Story points into the wrong direction. It isn’t conventional at all. I have read Rituals and they are similar. Nooteboom is Noteboom whatever he writes, the love story is pretty toned down. The cover plays with the core theme of being fascinated by something or someone who is exotic and different. I think you would appreciate this one anyway.

  5. When I read the title on my RSS feed, I knew it has something to do with Japan…glad I am right 😉

    How could the writer wrote 5 years of love story in 70pages? that is amazing.
    It is sad that Japan is more westernized now, like the writer I like the old Japanese tradition more.

    • I think we are all fascinated by the old Japanese traditions but he alo tries to show that this is problematic. You cannot preserve a culture eternally and if it chnages, is it then not hat culture anymore. There is still the language and many other things.
      BEcause he can write something like this in 70 pages he is such a masterful story teller. A few sentences and you see everything.

  6. I’ve noticed this author cropping up among the Dutch lit posts across the past month with consistently good reviews. How exciting to come across a completely new author who seems able to do such clever and intriguing things! Definitely someone whose work I now want to read.

    • I was thinking after leaving my comment on your last post, that should have mentioned him. Decidedly one of the great living authors of literary fiction.

  7. Im annoy this is out of print ,I ve read a number of cees books over recent years ,but not this one o well I ll have to hope it turns up somewhere ,he did a interview on my blog recently ,all the best stu

    • Hello Stu, I will have to come and read the interview. I was under too much pressure at work that week. He is a fantastic writer. Maybe you can find a copy somewhere.

  8. Pingback: An Overview of Posts for Dutch Literature Month (2) | Iris on Books

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