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The Snow Queen is one of Andersen's most remarkable tales; a plea for the precious uniqueness of childhood, an appeal against the premature induction of the child into rationality. Little Kai is stolen by the Snow Queen and kept captive in her castle in the cold and snowy North. His faithful playmate, Gerda goes in search of him and after many adventures and tribulations she arrives, borne on the back of a reindeer, at the Snow Queen's great hall of ice.
Here, she finds Kai, blue with cold, playing an endless solitary game, trying to fit shards of ice together like puzzle pieces. Gerda's warm tears melt the ice around Kai's heart and he is freed from the Snow Queen's spell.
In Nooteboom's version, Kai and Gerda become Kai and Lucia, a beautiful, happy couple who share a life and make a living as illusionists for the theater. In their act, Kai blindfolds Lucia and holds up an object before her, which she then "sees." This couple is of one mind and their serene perfection is continually compared to the reunited halves of a self that, as in the fable of Plato's Symposium, has been split in two.
This happiness and oneness arouses the jealousy of a mysterious femme fatale, who has Kai kidnapped and whisked off to her own castle. There she keeps him in thrall, obliterating his memories of Lucia while subjecting him to her lust. For this coldly beautiful mistress, Kai feels a mixture of both fear and desire.
Near the end of this story the novelist-narrator, who by this point is indistinguishable from Nooteboom, himself, gets entangled in a debate about truth and fiction tinged with shades of Plato, Milan Kundera and Hans Christian Andersen. "Why," asks the narrator, "do I have this irrepressible desire to fictionalize, to tell lies?" "From unhappiness," answers Andersen. "But you are not unhappy enough. That's why you can't bring it off."
This is the most penetrating self-insight in this novel, which, like the rest of Nooteboom's fiction, is as much about its own processes and raisons d'être as it is about the fictitious activities of its characters. Despite contortions of self-reflexiveness that in another writer (Samuel Beckett, for instance) might give rise to agonies of the spirit, Nooteboom and his narrator-atavars seem far too urbane, too cosmopolitan and too much at home in the world to genuinely suffer. This is Nootebooms particular affliction as a writer: perhaps he is just too intelligent, too sophisticated, too cool, to be able to commit himself to the grand illusion of fiction.
At one of its most reflexive levels, Nooteboom's fiction has, of necessity, been about a search for a level of emotion that can be carried over undiminished into literary creativity. In the Dutch Mountains, Andersen's diagnosis turns out to be correct: for all the wit, for all the insight into self and its fictions, for all the elegance of style, there is finally just not enough raw emotion to drive the story forward.
This is also a story of two men and two women, or three teachers and one student. This is a story of love and jealousy or love and revenge. The very important thing in this book is a relationship between materialistic world of science with all his natural principals, and spirituality. The last moments of life are just the right ones to think about the connection between them.
The novel is very short. In some way, it is cyclic and written in such a way that at the end the reader has a feeling that the story is beginning not ending. But there is already the time for a following story - the story of the next traveller on the journey to the eternity.
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The second success of the novel is it's accurate portrayal of a specific intellectual time - Hegel, Camus, Volans, Pedereski, Hildegard ... it was so familar as to be eerie ... for the novel Berlin with Dutch, German, Russian individuals. And yet in some strange way the same as my college days in rural Wisconsin with students from Uganda, Honduras ... In some way Nooteboom has captured the intellectual life of an era and successfully made it universal.
Throughout the novel - verbally and by plot - the volume addresses the issue of history - personal, recent, and ancient. The juxtaposition of Arthur's visual record of history, of his friend's intellectual understanding and of his "girl friend's" archival search for history is effective at forcing the reader to think. Often this is done by small details - a statue that fallen still has a cap in place where a real cap would have fallen off, the timeless sound of conches in Japanese monasteries, the sound of tires on wet pavement ...
This is a novel that challenges the way you perceive the world rather than simply presenting the challenge that Arthur is facing. Arthur having lost wife and child in an airplane accident is forced to reevaluate his world. The novel says the rest of us should do so without a prod like Arthur's.
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