RITUALS, winner of Mobil Corporation's Pegasus Prize for Literature, introduces the work of Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom to the United States. Mobil's program publishes distinguished works from countries whose writings are not often translated into English, and Rituals shows the value of such a venture. It is an intelligent, incisive novel that follows the impressions and experiences of Inni Wintrop, a 20th-century antihero, through 20 years of his life.
Rituals is structured around three critical events in Inni's life, each of which forms a section of the book. It begins in 1963 when Inni's wife leaves him, moves back to 1953 when he meets Arnold Taads, a man obsessed by order, and resumes in 1973 when Inni meets Philip Taads, the son Arnold never mentioned, whose life is centered on the rituals of the Japanese tea ceremony and an attraction toward death.
An independently wealthy man who dabbles in art, horoscopes, and stocks, Inni sees himself as a dilettante and weak, but this does not bother him enough to change. "If he had ever had any ambition, he would have been prepared to call himself a failure, but he had none." In fact, he takes pleasure in the unpredictable nature of his life with its openness to encounters and eternal possibilities.
The meeting with Arnold Taads is one of these unexpected possibilities and in many ways the most remarkable experience in the book. Even Taads' physical description is striking: "He had a glass eye . . . wore tall bushranger's boots and an old Red Indian jacket with long chamois fringes. . . The man's face was brown, but close beneath his conspicuous health seethed something else, a grayer, sadder element."
Taads is a misanthrope who despises himself as well and is sustained only by the companionship of his dog, extended stays in isolated mountains, and the rigid rules by which he orders his life. He is so inflexible that when Inni and his aunt arrive for their visit ten minutes early he makes them wait outside until the appointed time. He smokes the same number of cigarettes at the same time every day, eats, drinks, and walks at the same time. In his living room, "the orderliness that reigned . . . was frightening. The only form of accident was the dog, because he moved. It was . . . a room like a mathematical problem." He might almost be a caricature or an absurdity, but instead Nooteboom portrays him so vividly that his presence is powerful and convincing.
Inni meets Philip Taads, Arnold's son, 20 years later on a day when he has seen three doves--one dead, one alive, one dazed--which he reads as portents. Philip is bitter about his father, who deserted him when he was a child. He is even more ascetic than Arnold, living in an entirely white room relieved only by a few Japanese postcards on the floor. His aspirations toward purity are a rejection not only of the world but of himself--"I want to be rid of the thing I am," he tells Inni--and lead ultimately toward death. Even this must be in ritualistic fashion, and only comes about when Philip is able to purchase with his life savings the perfect Raku bowl for a final, formal tea ceremony.
Rituals portrays the character of these three men and the way they represent or deny the modern world with its random happenings, loss of traditions, and lack of fixed values. Inni seems to survive, and even experience pleasure, because he adjusts to his surroundings, while Arnold and Philip are too rigid to win against the way things are, however meticulous their efforts.
The novel itself seems to embody something of both these qualities, randomness and order. Told from Inni's point of view, it moves, as he does, freely from idea to idea about the nature of the modern world, time, memory, ceremonies, women, or God.
At the same time, there are numerous connections among the images and symbols used throughout the book. Kneeling at Philip's tea creremony, for example, Inni thinks of the times he has kneeled as a Catholic, and later he muses on the meaning of chalices and bowls. Arnold, once a champion skier, tells how, "the idea of God vanished from my life, like a skier going down a slope into the valley. Can you picture it? Seen from a distance the tiny human figure looks black. It writes itself like calligraphy on the white sheet of snow. A long, graceful movement, a mysterious, illegible letter being written, something that is there and is suddenly no longer there."
Rituals is distinguished by such passages of clarity, beauty, and vividness. Even the depiction of objects, settings, and minor characters is arresting. When Inni sees Philip gazing at the Raku bowl he will buy, "The autumn wind chased tatters of orange and brown leaves across the pavement toward Taads, so that it looked as though, in spite of the rain, he was standing in a flickering, moving fire."
Nooteboom has written six volumes of poetry as well as his novels, and he has a painter's eye. In the end, reading Rituals is like walking through a very modern, well-proportioned art gallery full of light and air and visually striking paintings, offering a wealth of subjects and perspectives for contemplation. Some might focus on a hand or eye, others draw back to survey continents, and the entire collection takes its unity and rationale from the tastes and point of view of the curator who assembled all this work. One could spend days in such a place, or book, pondering the nature of the world, or an hour simply enjoying the skillful craftsmanship.