There are some armchair travel books I would put into a category simply labeled “Something Special,” and Cees Nooteboom’s Nomad’s Hotel: Travels in Time and Space (Mariner Books, 2009) is one of them. This collection ranges over a number of years, and includes essays originally written between the 1970s and the present decade. The two earliest pieces are from 1975: one, a prescient account called “An Evening in Isfahan,” and the other a charming tale of an unexpected trip Nooteboom took to The Gambia, in Africa. (It was unexpected because he had actually intended to journey to the Spanish Sahara but ran into visa difficulties.) What sets Nooteboom’s travel articles apart from many others is that he is both a real reader and a real writer. By that, I mean that he frequently refers to the experiences of other writers (but in a way that doesn’t make you feel inadequate because you haven’t read them) and is also able to capture the essence of a place in a paragraph or even a single sentence, which meant that I felt I had experienced the soul of, say, Venice, without ever having set foot on a vaporetto. Much has been written about Venice, but this is how Nooteboom does it:
In Venice anachronism lies at the very heart of things: in a thirteenth-century church you look at a fifteenth-century grave and an eighteenth-century altar; what your eyes see is what the no longer existent eyes of millions of others have seen. Here, on the contrary, that is not tragic, for while you are looking they go on talking, you are constantly accompanied by the living and the dead, you are involved in an age-old conversation. Proust, Ruskin, Rilke, Byron, Pound, Goethe, McCarthy, Morand, Brodsky, Montaigne Casanova, Goldoni, Da Ponte, James Montale, their words flow around you like the water in the canals, and just as the sunlight causes the waves behind the gondolas to fragment into myriad tiny sparkles, so that one word, Venice, echoes and sparkles in all those conversations, letters, sketches, and poems, always the same, always different. Not without reason did Paul Morand call his book about this city Venices, and actually even that is not enough. There ought to be a superlative degree of the plural just for this island.
In the article on his trip to The Gambia that I mentioned earlier, Nooteboom describes a young woman who is headed off for a two-year Peace Corps stint as someone who ”resembles the beginning of a novel that is destined to have an unhappy ending.”
For me, the most moving chapter dealt with a trip Nooteboom made to Canberra, Australia, to the war memorial and museum dedicated to the men who fought and died in the Battle of Gallipoli in the First World War.