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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

Like Cervantes' Don Quixote, He Looks for Spain's Romance : ROADS TO SANTIAGO. DETOURS AND RIDDLES IN THE LANDS AND HISTORY OF SPAIN by Cees Nooteboom; Translated from Dutch by Ina Rilke; Harcourt Brace $25, 352 pages

March 26, 1997|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

Spain's general, the Duke of Alba, enforced his sway over Holland in the 16th century; ultimately in vain, except that he became the loathed imperial presence around which Dutch nationality took form.

Cees Nooteboom, a Dutch writer, is the anti-Alba. He has followed his Spanish obsession for 30 years, returning repeatedly to wander Spain's byways. He has attempted to take possession not by arms but by incessant traveling, meditating and writing. He is closer to mastering Alba's country than Alba ever came to mastering his; not by conquest but by letting himself be conquered.

The roads in "Roads to Santiago" are a poetic paradox and worthily Spanish. Nooteboom's chain of essays recounts a personal pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela--object of the greatest pilgrimage in medieval Europe--that is accomplished only in an afterword. He proceeds like Lewis Carroll's Alice; walking one way in order to go the other.

Nooteboom's road is a perpetual series of detours. It is the grand Spanish road, whose purpose is precisely not to arrive; the road evoked, for example, by the two greatest Spanish poets of this century.

Federico Garcia Lorca:

White moon, black nag,

olives in my saddlebag.

Though I know the road

I will never get to Cordoba.

Antonio Machado:

Why call them roads?

They are chance furrows.

Anyone who walks, walks

like Jesus: upon the water

Driving west from Barcelona on a course to Santiago, "the roads frayed like rope," Nooteboom writes. His route is a scrawled palimpsest, zigzagging all over Spain. He visits monasteries, shrines, ruined villages, a Civil War battlefield, the hillside outside Granada where Boabdil, the last Moorish king, paused after surrendering to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand and beginning the Moorish retreat to Africa. He visits the Prado Museum to ponder the work of Velazquez and Zurbaran; and the Escorial palace to consider Philip II and the successor Hapsburg rulers of a declining empire.

In the Basque country he watches the funeral procession of an ETA guerrilla, and ventures a comparison of Spanish centralism as the Creon to the Antigone of its separatists. On a quiet Sunday in San Sebastian he sits in a cafe and--fraudulent and deeply sincere at the same time--wishes "that my entire life were a provincial Spanish Sunday morning and I the sort of man who belonged there."

Nonsense, of course. He is back in his car and driving through the Mancha where he claims that the windmills really do resemble Don Quixote's giants. His wanderings are very similar, in fact to those of Cervantes' hero. Like the Knight of the Mournful Countenance--Nooteboom's face on the book jacket has a distinguished droop--he travels with a romantic vision and transforms what he sees by what he has read.

Quixote read books of chivalry and saw knightly challenges in every broken-down inn and washtub. Nooteboom has taken in vast quantities of history, literature and art; he has lived the crowded past and present of Northern Europe; he seeks a place of romance whose landscape, monuments, ruins and history have not been exhaustively visited and commented upon by his contemporaries.

Thus he avoids the coast and its tourism and travels in the beautiful barrenness of the Castilian plateau, the mountains of the north and the hot Extremadura plains, with their wealth of ruined fortresses, medieval churches and monasteries. He both celebrates and rages against their relative neglect by the European cultural mainstream. At the ancient citadel and cathedral of Albarracin, he writes:

"If you took hold of Spain by the edges and dragged it with giant's strength over the Pyrenees to lay it on top of France, much of what now remains hidden from most people would be suddenly part of the treasure house that is the European cultural heritage. . . . If Albarracin had been situated on the Cote d'Azur it would be swamped by tourism by now, like Saint-Paul-de-Vence, so I suppose I should be grateful. . . ."

Nooteboom writes exquisitely and evocatively, though he stuffs in too much undigested history and too many untransformed guidebook details. His reflections on history and art are uneven; some facile and obvious, others stimulating and unexpected. His love for bare Spain--"megatons of emptiness, eons of rest, hectoliters of silence"--is a genuine and persuasive passion.

In all his traveling and pondering, though, there is barely a single live Spanish voice. Only history, art and landscape speak to him. Traveling, his mind offers him the same safe seclusion that a tourist bus offers a tourist. His thoughts are plate windows through which he peers out at Spain.

Don Quixote also traveled in his mind and his books, of course; but he had Sancho Panza, not to mention the windmills, to jar him back to earth. Nooteboom has no Sancho, and his windmills turn beautifully but harmlessly.

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