Amsterdam: A City of Rituals

Amsterdam: a city of rituals

Modern Traveller digests a Dutch classic on the canal-side streets of the capital.


The Athenaeum Bookshop stands on Spui Square in Amsterdam, just metres from the Het Lieverdje statue. It is here, in the adjacent Begijnhof, that a secret Catholic Church survived for centuries; here that the Provo movement handed out radical leaflets in the 1960s; and here that friends now pause to sip a coffee in the shade.

Each of Amsterdam’s cobbled streets, where bicycles zip past little children with ice creams and couples perch on wooden benches overlooking quiet canals, is a snapshot, a postcard-worthy scene. The crooked, brown-brick and white-painted townhouses have borne witness to umpteen days and nights, played background to the mishmash of overlaid moments which make up the city’s collective past.

Much-lauded Dutch poet Cees Nooteboom’s celebrated classic, Rituals, embodies, in a sense, that essence of Amsterdam. Here, the past feels ever-present, its layers inescapable.

Nooteboom’s novel, set in 1963, 1953 and 1973 respectively, is akin to a series of polaroids stacked on top of one another. Inni Wintrop, the horoscope-writing protagonist, lurches from his own 1963 suicide attempt to his impromptu meeting with the bizarre Arnold Taads, a man who runs his life like clockwork, a decade earlier, and finally to another chance meeting, this time with Taads’ confused and obsessive son Philip, in front of a mysterious black bowl in 1973.

The past is ever-present, Nooteboom seems to be saying. It is, for his characters, both inescapable and unforgettable. All notions of time are intermingled. The endless rituals of everyday life for Inni and those he meets unroll against the backdrop of Amsterdam itself – an Amsterdam which feels incredibly similar to that of today, where life centres around the contemplative canals, the near-silent arteries of this serpentine city.

Seated on stone steps in the sunshine, I leaf through Nooteboom’s novel. In it, I begin to see Amsterdam.

A row of stooped townhouses, little painted doors firmly shut, contain new secrets. Craning my neck to catch sight of the attic windows with their wooden casements, I wonder which might house Taads’ white-roomed flat, which might hide an ancient tea ceremony, or conceal an orange box of books and an Elvis Presley poster. Every bridge trodden might be that bridge. Every gallery window glimpsed could be that window. And so it could.

In his wry, insightful prose, Nooteboom spins time on its axis, revealing it to be a mere contrast of the human mind, calling into question the very purpose and existence of his protagonist — of most of his characters, for that matter — and leading us to question our own reasons, our own rituals.

Is it confusing? Yes. Frustrating? Of course. Inni could be more likeable, the conclusion more uplifting – but Nooteboom isn’t trying to create a hero. He has chosen instead to sketch an outline of humanity, with all of its quirks, insecurities and untold secrets, inviting the reader to scrutinise, to recognise and to reevaluate our possibilities and, ultimately, our raison d’être.

Not bad for a little volume picked up at the Athenaeum on an early autumn afternoon.

Cees Nooteboom’s Rituals was originally published in Dutch in 1980. Adrienne Dixon’s English translation is published by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus, London (2013).

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