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 Mokusei is one of the rare Japanese flowers with a scent and seems to perfectly fit his mysteriously withdrawn lover.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.