From “The abduction of Europa”

“How does one become a European? In the first place by being one, and this can, for example, be attained by being born in The Netherlands. It has been said that this is also possible in Sicily, East Prussia, Lapland and Wales, but since I happen to be a Dutch European it seems best to me to talk about this. To become Dutch is easier than one would think. Who is prepared, in the persons of his forefathers, to push back the sea, to dry the land, to have himself be governed by Burgundians in the Middle Ages, to swap his duchies and counties early on for a number of provinces and then to unite them under the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, who wants to wage eighty years of war with Spain and to colonize island kingdoms on the other side of the globe and to wage war at sea over some resting monopolies with Englishmen who for centuries will express their rancour over every single lost battle in idioms such as double DutchDutch uncle, and going Dutch, who subsequently lets himself be made part of a French dream of imperial grandeur by a brother of Napoleon as a renewed Batavian and who will let himself be walked over one hundred forty years later by German armies for five years and during all this time continue to make calculations, eat herring, trade, keep the soil dry, and thank God paint as well, invent the microscope and pendulum clock, polish up naval law and harbour Europeans from very different backgrounds who have been driven out of their own paradises; who, finally, is possessed of good intentions for the rest of the world and who also à tort et à travers wishes to push on because he is convinced that he can get to know the world better than the world itself because he has gathered his knowledge as buyer, seller, administrator and victim; so who wants to take the burden on himself of being both very small and very big is Dutch. If his father and mother have additionally stayed in the right place during this prescribed period he will as such be born like this and thus meet the first requirement of being a European, and perhaps also to become one.


Because almost every writer starts with the decorum of his own life I wrote a novel when I was twenty years old in which a sensitive young Dutch man wanders through Europe to find a mysterious girl about which he has told in the Provence. The book was called Philip and the others, where the others were those who one meets while travelling and who express diversity. As you can see I started this reading in time. Of course, the young man finds her, and of course, he loses her, but only after he has populated the harbour of Copenhagen for her with all the personalities from his first, personal mythology, Scarlatti, Paul Éluard, the Spanish poet Bécquer and the Dutch poet Lodeizen, whom we carefully hide from you behind the shroud of our language since Dutch, together with Albanian, might be the most hidden language of the continent. After I finished that book and so was promoted to the status of a writer, I should actually have died according to my friend the German philosopher Rürdiger Safranski, but this was because he didn’t like that I distanced myself from my previous innocence. Dying I didn’t do, I thought of something better, I went to Spain, and I never actually left there; an incurable European schizophrenia separates me in a southern and a northern being; in winter I life in Amsterdam and Berlin, in summer I’m at Spain’s mercy, one of those ever misunderstood hybrid beings which is at home in three places at once and nowhere at all at the same time, perhaps the first real Europeans, brave guinea pigs of the new continent, who have incorporated unity and diversity in their very being. We should be researched, we are very valuable to science. We read the Frankfurter AllgemeineThe GuardianLe MondeVrij NederlandLa VanguardiaLa Repubblica and if we have to Diário de Notícias and the Osservatore Romano, we despise the bêtise of large countries which speak no language other than their own and who ensure that this will be the case for another generation by camouflaging all other languages behind their own on television and in the cinemas so that even the sound of that other language is obscured; we are perplexed that those same progressives who weep when some insignificant bird species goes extinct laugh when they see someone, perhaps the last of his kind, wearing traditional Bavarian clothing; we feel humiliated when another McDonald’s wins over a plate of Swabian lungs, Florentine tripe, haggis from Edinburgh or stockfish in Navarra; we support regionalism if this is meant to preserve something essential and against it, if it is directed against the Other; we despise the cancer of violent nationalism regardless if it comes from the Irish, Croats, Basques or Serbs; we are, in short, those people nobody listens to.”

From “Zeno’s arrow”

“[T]he names of the Miloševićes and the Karadžićes of the last century might have disappeared, the place names, Kosovo, Sarajevo, have remained unchanged, like Macedonia, Serbia, Herzegovina; those who want to die for them and who do that, in reality, are not lost in space, but in time, and the Europe of unification looks impotently at the Europe of bloody fragmentation. Exactly because it is an anachronism Europe is afraid to intervene, that is part of the past, it has already let itself be torn apart for this once before. But it also doesn’t want to take on the consequences of the tribal war, an unending river of refugees from this war and wars to come, which slowly flows in the direction of the West, where the weather map confirms its own predictions. The only country that momentarily bears the full burden of all this is Germany, three hundred thousand last year, five hundred thousand this year; as a reward it is called xenophobic by some. There are people who say that this Europe has enough vitality to absorb such amounts. However, there are plenty in Germany who say that Germany doesn’t have to do this alone – and then I do not mean those who say that Germany shouldn’t have to do it at all, and who evoke a wholly different and horrific déjà vu by how they make this clear. However, he who is eager to point this out might do better by taking a look at himself first. It does not take long to make the balance.

Is there no solution? The biggest folly is perhaps to think that the world ought to be logical, and with this I mean that no meaningless wars ought to be waged anymore in which people die for causes which you should not die for anymore. But who decides that? Can you measure that? We are occupied with our beautiful and magnificent unification, and now you come from under the rock of your dictatorship which secretly we have always blamed you for, and spoil the oh-so logical and promising, by the future so clearly prescribed path of history with your backward, anachronistic obsessions, which you moreover are the victim of! And look at what you are doing to us! We no longer know ourselves anymore! Old ghosts of the past surface again, many things are surfacing, the pound is melting, the lira withers, money dashes bitterly around the world now it suddenly has become apparent that we cannot pay attention to everything at the same time because everything is connected to everything in a way which nobody has yet been able to figure out. Evil processions roam our apotheotic dreams, we are reminded of everything which we had wanted to forget, the stereotypes of the antiquarian puppet theatre are in fashion again: the egocentric Frenchmen who tackles Europe in a fury, the arrogant German who beats around him with his mark and so doing hits the perfidious Englishman who already had his hands on the dagger intended for Europe’s back, the corrupt Italian who lives above his means and trusts that the hardworking North will provide for this parasite, the Dutch who tell everything how it should be done and in the meantime profit of it all, the Danes who as the only sensible people realize just in time that something is rotten in Brussels and Strasbourg – oh, Europe!”

From “European memories”

“And if I were to have any recipes for this Europe of ours it would be that all countries which belonged to it at some point still do, that large countries should learn from the small and their history, that the extortionate rates which limit Intereuropean travel should be abolished, and finally that the South shouldn’t imitate the North in pursuit of a soulless modernity, and that the North looks long and attentively to the South and its pace and traditions, and with the South I mean the true South, that which everything originates from.”

From “Uralte Verwirrung”

“Last week I was in this same city. Then the subject was Europe, now it is, one more time, Germany. I recounted how I, on 10 May 1940, six years old, was made into a European with a great thundering blow by the arrival of German troops. I recite this because I can’t tell the story of my Europeanisation, let’s call it that, or that of my relation to Germany – and those two are related – without this peculiar signifying moment. It of course not true that my life started at this moment, but it does seem like it. How unimaginable as it might sound I have no conscious, precise recollection whatsoever of my time before that tenth of May. Never will I be able to write an A la recherche du temps perdu because those first six years, my childhood, are in fact perdu, lost, blown away, drowned in the noise of Heinkels and Stuka’s which bombed the airport of Ypenburg near The Hague. My father, who would die in a bombardment later in that same war, has put an armchair on the balcony and observes. Naturally, he must have said something, but in my memory he says nothing, he sits there, looks over the pastures and sees the same as I, silly men with parachutes who fall out of the sky, who come to ‘occupy’ our country, for the first time that word meant something. Later I realized, or remembered, or made up that my dad despised me. I was shaking continuously, my back was washed with ice-cold water so it would stop.

I remember two kinds of sound of aeroplanes, the hellish shrieking and screeching of those first days, the red horizon of burning Rotterdam, the accompanying sirens, anti-aircraft fire, distant explosions, and then, a few years later, unending monotone pounding, as if a bass the size of the heaven itself was being bowed, of the air force which was on its way to bomb Germany, it was a threatening sound, revengeful, fated doom and death were part of it, death which was being returned to where it came from. Lancasters was the name of these planes, and the answer to them was Werner von Braun’s V2s, which also happened to be launched near our house in the direction of London, a screech from the underworld which seemed to come forth from an apocalyptic glow, all of it the stuff of nightmares.

A few days later the troops came marching in. The enemy’s troops. Strangely enough, I remember that as something which happened in complete silence, and that is not possible. They wore boots, there were banners, drums, orders were given which I would only hear later when I saw the war movies, that loud shouting which is caught up in the wind and clashes against the ears. But back then I only heard that nothing which is called silence, and that must have been the silence of the adults around me, that of defeat. Only much later I realised that German must have been the first foreign language which I heard, certainly the first foreign language which I read. Proclamations of the Orstkommandant, death sentences on posters glued to the walls, the inescapable voice which sometimes carried through windows on inside and announced another victory, a sign on a corpse which read ‘I am a looter’, songs of troops marching which, when they marched in the other direction, later on, did not sing anymore.”

* * *

By Cees Nooteboom from De ontvoering van Europa (1993).

These excerpts have been translated by myself. I mostly have tried to stick to Cees Nooteboom’s use of commas in Dutch, because it seems a conscious choice of style on his side.

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