Writers & Company

Dutch author Cees Nooteboom on the pull and the power of Spain (encore episode)

Eleanor Wachtel interviews Dutch novelist, poet and travel writer Cees Nooteboom. This interview originally aired in 1997.
Dutch novelist and travel writer Cees Nooteboom never attended university, but is often touted as a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Simone Sassen/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

He gets compared to Calvino, Borges and Nabokov, but Cees Nooteboom is a surprising and unique talent all his own. Often touted as a Nobel contender, Nooteboom is also a literary traveller — he took his first hitchhiking trip out of the Netherlands when he was barely out of his teens and has travelled extensively ever since. Along the way, Nooteboom has written books about Africa, South America, Japan and Europe. 

Nooteboom's Roads to Santiago, published in Dutch in 1992, isn't exactly a travel book — it's more like a meditation, erudite and atmospheric, drawing on 40 years of roaming and living in Spain. ​In 1997, when the book was first published in English, he spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in Toronto.


Spain is quite a heavy country, and it certainly was when I got there for the first time, which was in 1954 under the dictatorship. There's not this lightness that you find in Italy. And yet... I love Spain because of the landscape. Because of the old Romanesque churches. Because of something stubborn in the Spanish character. And also because of something foolish. I may have some of that in myself. If you travel in the meseta, which is practically two-thirds of Spain, it's this barren landscape. Lots of people find it dreary, but I have a feeling of elation — I love it when I'm there. I think it must have something to do with my character.


The whole idea of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain is extremely appealing. First of all, people don't realize what an important role it has played in European history. Monasteries were built along the route by Benedictines and other orders. Millions of people left their homes to do this, and it was around the year 1200, and they were risking their lives! They made out their last testaments and went. It took a year maybe because there were no real roads.

I went there two years ago and spoke to the modern-day pilgrims. I asked them, "Why are you doing this? Are you a Catholic?" And some of them said no, they were agnostic or they didn't believe in anything. So why were they doing it, then? Quite often they didn't know the answer, but they wanted to do it. I saw somebody describe their motivation as "to think." And I thought, well, that's it, isn't it? To think.


I was baptized, but I wasn't really educated in the Catholic faith for the first 14 or so years of my life. Then my mother remarried somebody who was very Catholic. I didn't get along with my new so-called father, and so they put me in this Catholic boarding school. I am a very curious person, so I found it all fascinating — the mass, the liturgy, all of that.

After that, I went to this Trappist monastery. Extremes have always attracted me, and the Trappists are a very severe order of the church. They were not allowed to speak, and they looked interesting in these medieval habits, and they were in this monastery that lay far away from everything. They have this law that they will never leave this place.

So it fascinated me, and I was too stupid and too young to see that I could never do that. And this abbot saw right through me and said, "Here is the life of Saint Abelard in Latin, and here is a note block and a pencil. Go to your cell, and you can eat with us, but the other times you will translate Saint Abelard." After a few days, I knew this wasn't for me. I got to page 10. One admires most the things one cannot do, I think.

Cees Nooteboom's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the show: "Xacaras por Primer Tono" composed by Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz, performed by the Harp Consort, from the album Spanish Dances.