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Cemetery Strolls with Writers: Cees Nooteboom

Translated from the Germanby Diana Leca
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Berlin, Germany
December 16, 2009

“Writers in cemeteries around the world? That book already exists. Cees Nooteboom wrote it.” I remember turning very red on that day in early 2009 when my colleague at Deutschlandradio Kultur spoke those words. “He made it in collaboration with his wife, a photographer.” My heart throbbed in my throat. I went to the nearest computer to do a search and found Nooteboom’s book Tumbas: Graves of Poets and Thinkers. I eased myself into the office chair. Nooteboom had not written about any living authors in cemeteries.

The Dutch author has undertaken countless journeys with his wife, Simone Sassen, to the gravesites of his colleagues. Which cemetery would he choose for our conversation? “There is a young female pilot who killed herself,” he told me after I interviewed him abouthis book The Foxes Come at Night, a collection of short stories teeming with death and departures. “She is thought to be buried somewhere in Berlin. Can you find out where exactly? She is very interesting to me.”

One week before Christmas, we enter Invalidenfriedhof, a snow-capped cemetery in Berlin. The cemetery was built in the mid-eighteenth century near a house for disabled war veterans; when the veterans or their relatives died, their bodies were interred here. Nooteboom now stands in front of a captain’s tombstone: “A grave in the middle of the path—how strange! The hearses must all drive around it. I find that highly intriguing.” He bends over the metal fence with the intention of wiping snow from a headstone. After hesitating, as if the headstone itself were a body, he withdraws his hand and puts it into the pocket of his black woollen coat. “Perhaps it’s not proper to check to see who is buried here,” he says. “I’ll have to return another time.” In the spring, he means, when the snow has melted.

“There is a lot you can learn in a cemetery,” Nooteboom says. “This one here is a uniquely German cemetery, with a von So-and-So and a first lieutenant.” The scores of military graves provoke some consternation in the Dutchman, as his father lost his life in the bombing of The Hague in 1945. Nevertheless, Nooteboom feels at ease here in the cemetery. In many spots, it resembles a park.

Nooteboom cannot put aside his desire to interpret gravestones. He believes they can tell us something about the ways in which individuals have faced their deaths. In a cemetery in Zurich, he visited the gravesites of James Joyce and Elias Canetti: “Joyce sits in a chair, relaxed, a proper statue, amiable and untroubled. Meanwhile, Canetti’s gravestone has his frenetic signature engraved on it. Canetti is said to have been angry about the fact that he had to die, which I can see. Yet the alternative, eternal life, does not make much sense to me either,” laughs Nooteboom. “We are simply a part of nature and in the end, in nature things die.”

He stands in front of a slab of grey concrete: “The wall—here? Cutting across the cemetery?” The Dutch author can hardly believe this could be the Berlin Wall. “It looks so unlike itself. Perhaps because it has no graffiti on it.”

He moves away from it and suddenly finds himself in front of the object of his visit. The tombstone sits only four metres from the wall. He proceeds to read the engraving out loud: “Flying is worth one’s life. Marga Wolff von Etzdorf.”The inscription is oddly positioned—facing the wall, instead of turned away from it, as you would expect. “It’s as if someone turned the stone around,” says Nooteboom. “She died at only twenty-five, in the same year I was born: 1933.” Two years before, she had become the first female pilot to fly from Germany to Japan. She was proud of her feat and celebrated for it. Suicide? It would have been unimaginable.

Nooteboom is moved by this unexpected coincidence in the hinterlands of East Berlin: the tombstone of this ambitious aviator and the wall at her feet. It’s as if the Dutchman is magnetized by historically significant sites, or by ones that will one day prove historically significant. In 1956, he witnessed the people’s uprising in Hungary, but left the country before the Soviet Army crushed the struggle for liberation. Then, in 1963, he visited East Berlin: “This was the forbidden kingdom, protected by guards, dogs, towers, barbed wire, barriers. It was cold, winter. There was snow on the ground, and the searching, panting dogs you could see from the car looked sinister against that whiteness,” he writes in Roads to Berlin.

Now, almost half a century later, Nooteboom stands in the snow in the Invalidenfriedhof, in the spot that can be thought of as a double death strip: bodies below the earth and the threat of death above. The western bank of the nearby canal marks the former border. East German authorities ordered a line drawn through the cemetery, parallel to the canal—which, along with the neighbouring Invalidenfriedhof, was territory of the German Democratic Republic—then erected a watchtower and a fence, and later the wall. In order to give the border patrol guards a clear line of sight of the death strip, most of the graves between the wall and the canal were bulldozed. Tons of steel and concrete were removed, including the headstone of Marga von Etzdorf. Out of the three thousand gravestones in 1961, only 230 remained in 1989. Living in West Berlin as a stipendiary fellow at that time, Nooteboom once again witnessed and became a literary commentator on history.

A man in a purple tracksuit jogs along a concrete path across the cemetery. Does the jogger know that he is crossing the escape route of a twenty-nine-year-old man who was shot dead as he attempted to climb the cemetery wall, bound for the canal? Cyclists swish past as if there is no snow. A woman pushes a stroller, while pulling a boy along behind her. “It is indeed a public path,” remarks Nooteboom. He observes the goings-on with fascination for a few more seconds before turning back to the graves: “There comes a time when one knows more dead than living and that is when one begins to get accustomed to the thought of one’s own death.” He says at that point it makes little sense to dramatize it all, especially in a cemetery so pleasant and peaceful that it almost makes up for the fact that death could, in fact, be final.

Nooteboom cannot really imagine life after death. Having had a strict Catholic upbringing by his stepfather, he leaves the question to others. He once heard a radio interview with a Dutch cardinal: “One would think that, as a cardinal, he would have achieved absolute certainty on the issue. After all, he has been arguing the point all his life. But the cardinal’s answer to this question was anything but grandiose. Indeed, it was rather small: ‘In the end, one has to pass through a very small gate,’ he said. I thought a cardinal would walk straight into heaven!”

“The ecstasy of being so high up that you no longer belong to the world below,” reflects Nooteboom, trying to put himself in von Etzdorf’s place as she floated above the clouds during her record-breaking twelve-day flight from Berlin to Tokyo. Where did she land? At which points did she allow herself breaks? What thoughts shot through her mind? She began another record attempt—a flight to Australia—on May 27, 1933. But the following day, her light aircraft was damaged during a landing in Syria.

“Perhaps she thought she wouldn’t manage to find another sponsor or was afraid of being laughed at upon her return,” Nooteboom ventures, imagining her emotional state. “She said: ‘I want to be alone for half an hour.’ And it was in that half hour—there on that Syrian airstrip, which we have to imagine as immensely underdeveloped—that she shot herself.”

The sun has disappeared. To warm up, Nooteboom takes a short walk among the graves and then returns to the snow-covered headstone, which cemetery volunteers returned to its original place after the fall of the wall. The Dutch author gazes again at the pilot’s engraved name. Behind him, the Berlin Wall shimmers. “It is the irony of history that she is looking at the wall. She could not have known that one day a wall would split her country, her city, and, right under her nose, her cemetery. It is strange, indeed. A German fate, in the truest sense.”

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Tobias Wenzel is a journalist and photographer based in Berlin. He has published two works of non-fiction, most recently Solange ich lebekriegt mich der Tod nicht: Friedhofsgänge mit Schriftstellern (As Long As I Live, Death Won’t Catch Me: Cemetery Strolls With Writers). His photographs and radio reports have been exhibited in solo shows in Germany and Switzerland.

Diana Leca is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge. She has studied in Montreal and Berlin. Her interests include translation, the literary avant-garde, and the relationship between literature and philosophy.