A great little work of Dutch literature: The Following Story

The Following Story (Het volgende verhaal in Dutch) began its life as a free book, given away during Boekenweek (Book Week), but has risen to such importance Vintage Classics now publishes it. The work won writer and poet Cees Nooteboom (what is now called) the European Union Prize for Literature and it helped put him up for consideration for a Nobel Prize.

Published in Dutch in 1991 (and in English in the UK in 1993 and the US in 1994), The Following Story opens with narrator Herman Mussert waking up in a hotel room in Lisbon, a curious occurrence as he went to sleep the night before in his apartment in Amsterdam. Mussert soon realizes it is the very same hotel room where had he engaged in an affair with the wife of a colleague.

The 64-year-old former school teacher, recognised by the hotel staff and fluent in Portuguese, recounts the events leading to his dismissal as a Latin and Greek instructor as he spends time in the city. He has become a travel writer to support himself but is forced to publish under a pen name, as he shares a surname with (though no relation to) the founder of the Dutch Nazi party. Eventually, Mussert boards a ship destined for Brazil, a journey that culminates in the book’s title.

Nooteboom’s strength in description seeps through the book. He describes opening a can of beans as ‘one of the most sensual experiences.’

‘The sensation of the tin-opener ripping through metal, the unmistakable toc as you pierce the air-tight tin and you get a whiff of the contents, the way it guides itself round the rim and the indescribably sound that goes with it.’

As the narrator is a former Classics teacher, the book is filled with references to Greek and Latin philosophy, literature and mythology. Mussert’s career change to travel writer harkens to the 15-volume Latin poem Metamorphoses. Much like Plato, he grapples with the immorality of the soul. At school, Mussert is even referred to as Socrates.

For all this, the 30-year-old book does feel dated at times. The affair in which Mussert is complicit is revenge for another affair. Mussert’s friend and colleague had a relationship with his brightest student, a teenager who is described as the mastermind of the entire ordeal. The girl dies tragically, while the adults metamorphose into new lives.


The book was translated by Ina Rilke who also translated the Dutch classic Max Havelaar, as well as W. F. Hermans’ The Darkroom of Damocles and Beyond Sleep. She does smooth and competent job in turning the work’s creative language into English, making for an easy and poetic read.

Nooteboom’s dozens of novels and poetry collections have taken home nearly every Dutch language literature prize and The Following Story was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year when it was published in the United States. His works are wide-ranging and he’s also a successful travel writer and has even penned song lyrics for a previous girlfriend, Dutch singer Liesbeth List.

At less than 100 pages, The Following Story can easily be read in an afternoon and showcases the strengths of one of the Netherlands’ great writers. You can get your copy from the American Book Center.

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