Self-Portrait of an Other
Cees Nooteboom


It is late in the year, he is alone on the sheltered beach in the small bay. He came there to
swim, the water wasn't too cold yet. After swimming, he read. With that he must have fallen
asleep, for when he wakes up he notices he is no longer alone. At the other end of the beach,
next to the primitive boathouse where the ship, which he has never seen, can be brought to
water via a stone ramp, sits an old man on the rocks. He has a stick in his hand, and on his
feet are tattered sandals with frayed, drooping wings. His torso is bare, you can still see that it
used to be powerful. Now the skin is shriveled and dry like a lizard's, it must be unpleasant to
touch him. His hair under the helmet-like hat is tangled, it is dirty and gray. This is the first
time the bather has seen an immortal, he keeps very quiet and hopes the god has not noticed
him. The guardian of all travelers is tired, he stoops with difficulty to the seawater washing up
against the rocks and strokes his face with it. He looks out over the sea for a while, then
stands up and walks slowly toward the path that winds along the coast to the adjoining bay.
Only later, when the swimmer dares to move, does he notice the tracks of the sandals—and
the strange, repeated sweep of the feathers next to them—in the damp sand next to the rocks.

When he is alone the crowds become a riddle, among the others
he doesn't know himself any more. Who are they? Does he
recognize his own mask? Sometimes, in trains or on sidewalks
under skyscrapers, he gives them names. He goes home with
them, lies in their flesh-eating beds, cooks on their filthy stoves,
sleeps with their bodies, possessed by love. Later they visit him in
his numbered rooms, their ever varying faces all caressing lips,
their suitcases full of sex and teeth. Fragile and mighty they have
left their homes and nestle themselves in his repulsing dreams.
Powers and thrones with wings, rulers of improper flesh.

Nearby the large square with the obelisk is the building with the woman's
head above the entrance. The city lies on the other side of the island,
sometimes he drives there to look at the head. It is veiled, but not like you
might think. In the mild arching above the gate, a rectangle has been
spared that is almost too small for her. The veil does not cover the bottom,
but the top of her face. The nose is rough, the head feminine and quite
round, the small mouth with full lips rests half open. The tongue behind it
is not to be seen, but could make an appearance at any moment and lick
briefly and lasciviously over the lips. The strangest is the void of the eyes:
they are there and not there. The cloth, which hangs halfway down her
nose, is pressed against the eyes by some inexplicable force, and the stone
creases traverse diagonally across the large spheres. He thinks that she is
blind, but precisely because of the cloth, which is not a blindfold, he
cannot be certain. The longer he looks at her, the more mysterious she
becomes. If she were to speak, it would be in his language. Every time he
leaves her, he has the sensation that he has failed.

The wind must have changed direction while he lay on
the black rocks dreaming. The odor of the water has
become insipid, tainted. He looks at the Arabic
watchtower directly above him and thinks that from
there he must have looked like a sculpture of a dead
man on a medieval gravestone. Above the cathedral, in
which he had been swimming among the other fish
only an hour earlier, plastic drifts by, and jellyfish,
seaweed, foam the color of ash. It had been silent and
bright in the lofty space below, without weight he swam
between the swaying grasses and made his eternal
circuit along the high walls with the butterfly plants.
The others he had encountered turned their faces away,
silent and subdued. Sometimes they swam in a school,
a silver cloud that could turn away from him in a single
flashing motion as if he were a leper. Later, there where
in an earthly church the altar would have been, he had
seen a large fish, the barb of a harpoon still in its scaly
body. He made a stroke to swim by it a second time and
saw the image still in front of him: the white lips that
moved quietly, the trail of bloody mucus, the eye that
had looked at him as mercilessly round as a target, its
black pupil the bull's-eye.

All day long he has been walking through the sweltering city, going in and out of the subway
like a mole, blinking more and more blindly against the light each time he comes up again.
He has no purpose, he's chosen the stations arbitrarily: streets with high and low numbers,
squares in forgotten neighborhoods, decrepit parks with ruined swings. Everywhere he is
encircled by other people, and he has stored the endless succession of their faces away for
later, when he will be alone again. He has followed a woman with a dog that doesn't belong
in cities. As they were disappearing behind an unpainted front door, the dog gave him a long
look such as a dog shouldn't give a human. So he even needed to remember that one.
As the day wears on, he sees the faces change and become unrecognizable. He asks himself
how it is with him, but doesn't dare to touch his own face and avoids his glance in the
windows. When he climbs up from underground again for the last time, he hears how they
follow him in the distorted night, how close they already are. The soft ticks of their nails
sound like a watch running faster and faster.

The knife with which he has gone diving lies next to him on the hot rock, a thing.
Through his goggles he saw a school of green fish, they moved as if they were one body. In the
liquid twilight he tried to cut the crown of thorns from a sea urchin, he followed the
transparent soul of a jellyfish on its hovering, wandering way. Now, naked on the rock,
he sits in the sunlight like a living segment of the sun itself, a body of fire. And still he has
questions. How is it that the underside of the surface of the water, which is after all no
different from the topside, is so much more mysterious than the moving surface that
he sees now? The underside had been shining, transparent like the glazed, living jellyfish,
wavering and dancing crystal that separated the domain of water from the domain of air. How
easily he could disappear now, he had thought, someone who left his clothes
behind on the rocks and entered the mirror for good, the thin membrane, the living
mirror that seals off the silence. Bereft by the word he had to become, his most distant
destination so endlessly close among the always silent fish, released from his name.

He stood at the open window of a train and it was war.
Of that voyage he later remembered only the departure,
but no longer from whom. People on the platform, the
dusky, curved height of the awning, maybe his mother
wearing an unforgivable hat. The children on the train
waved little paper flags. That image has now become
black and white, the black of crows, the white of snow.
The landscapes that he must have seen have been
erased, just like the thoughts, the words that he may or
may not have said. All that remains is a girl whose face
has disappeared. She satin an undulating, hostile
pasture and pissed with legs wide apart, her child's
body turned toward him. The eye between her legs had
moved, it looked at him from behind the arc of water.
Fear does not decay. He often returned to that station
later in his life. A girl with yellow hair in a corner, her
back toward him, a needle in her arm. A black man
with ocher eyes whose skin had become gray. A man in
rags, crucified on the stone floor. He thinks of the
sound of the locomotives, of the white steam in which
all the faces disappeared. Photographs of him must still
have existed, but he didn't want to see himself in them.
The number of lives in an older body is unbearable.

He sways to the song that keeps repeating itself, sirens who won't finish off their temptation, who keep him lingering at the edge of their territory. In this way he cannot go either there or back, and in the confined space that is left to him he turns his narrow gyres, he screams his distress in the singed air. He sees everything-the rat among the thistles, the burning bush, the chain gang of his shadow. Through his longing he has divorced himself from their calls: he hears voices, not words. The existence of his wings is his only freedom. As the lures become louder he makes a quick upward movement in order to find their hiding place. Then the voices diminish and recede toward the coast and the water. There he cannot go. The evening breaks the ban: through veils of silk he flies back to his sleeping place. In his impoverished dream the song creeps through his restlessness, the hours of a hidden nunnery. At first light come their earliest calls. He flies off and hunts the prey that he himself is.

Walking between the polluted river and the edge of the woods,
he saw his neglected body. It had its eyes closed and a pair of
worn-out shoes on. He wanted to go and touch it, but that wasn't
possible. He thought of the woman in the jungle who had
washed herself over a rusted barrel, of the black woman who had
dictated the lies he had to write to her father, of the mitered man
in his open casket, of the murdered man on the sidewalk with the
coin of betrayal in his mouth. All of them he had seen sometime,
somewhere. Suddenly he heard how quiet it had become.
Whether his body had recognized him he did not know. Now it
walked toward the river, as if it wanted to evade something.
He closed his eyes and let the crowd pass him by. He too was
surprised by the many dead they had known.

He had woven a mask of ferns for himself that had still
been green that morning. Now it was fragile and
withered, flimsy armor behind which he would no
longer be able to hide himself. The birds dove like
weapons into the absorbing waves. He remembered the
ever-increasing speed of the fall, the water like writing
around his body. He had lain like that for hours.
Whether this was how the island came into existence he
could not say. He only knew of the inertia after the fall,
the acquittal of the force that had released him, the
embrace of the sea.

He loved to be in the field of falcons. To get there he had to cross through
the field of sodom apples. The path between the stones was red and dusty
during the summer. The bushes with their angular branches came up to
his middle. The apples themselves did not look like apples, they were
small and vivid green, he felt their poison when he looked at them. Later
they would become black, shriveled, withered: out of their dried pulp you
could make a deadly drink. The next field was called the field of figs, for in
the middle of it there stood a fig tree around which a low stone wall was
built. It smelled sweet there. The branches hung over the wall, in the
hottest month you could pluck purple figs. Only after this did you get to
the field of falcons. In the dilapidated shed, ash still lay, someone had
made a fire in a hole in the ground. The shed was built up against a cliff
face in which the pair of falcons nested; he often heard their high shrieks.
Now that the sun was going down, he saw his shadow against the
scorched slate. Ink against ink, the absence of self as long as he did not

You got there by hiking up a long road in the shimmering heat. Bramble
patches on two sides, a buzzard in his own circles. Then you had to climb
over a gate made of tree-branches that was always closed, only to find your
way between the outbuildings of a large farm. He expected to hear the
barking of the dog that he would be afraid of; but it remained quiet. A man
with a bare torso stood on a ladder, busy painting a wall so white that it
forced you to close your eyes. He asked where the graves were, and without
turning around the man pointed the way. Now he went past empty stalls
that smelled of hay and came to the path again. In the distance he could
see the sea, and shortly after that he saw, much closer, the two stones
taller than people, one lying horizontally over the other, which stood
vertically on the ground. A ring of smaller, much more rough-hewn stones
encircled the monument. He felt the change when he stepped in the circle.
Now there was nothing more than silence, the forms which it took on
here. He sat down and thought of the people who lived there thousands of
years ago. What did their voices sound like? No one came by. The
landscape must have been exactly the same, nothing could have changed.
The wind rustled through the stone oaks, it seemed as if someone wanted
to say something after all. He lay his hand against the lower stone, a
different, broader hand than that with which he had written that very
morning, and he recalled the name of the man he had buried not far from
there, his sorrow, and the word that expressed it. That night he dreamed of
a building he had never seen, of a man in a blinding wash of light who
hadn't shown him his face.

He saw the woman on the street and went with her. Stairs, a
humbled home. The woman is young, she is a descendent of
the desert. They are both strange to the city, what binds them is
banishment, exception. Lust is the pretext. The other stays,
a rumor among people. She kneels on the bed, so that he no
longer sees her face, and reaches for the purple opening in which
he must disappear. They barely speak, and not in their own
languages. A woman from a landscape of sand who can store her
thirst. You turn the stranger into either a dog or the dead. She
keeps her face to herself and is blind to his. Of all the forms of
love, that between strangers is the most mysterious, and the
most compelling. They return each other to the city in which
they must disappear.

The ants had eaten at the rhinoceros beetle for an entire week,
but the carcass was still intact, a black, gleaming basilica. He
asked himself what the ants were still doing in there. The horn
was gone, there were now holes where the eyes had been. He had
seen such faces in large cities, in the evening when businesses
closed and the swarms streamed out on the way to their distant
homes. It seemed then as if everyone were bound to everyone,
giant beetles with ransacked, gnawed-out faces that read
newspapers and disappeared underground on invisible trains.
Their conversations concerned the plague and the cancer of ants,
the obliterated value of money.

Without, that word he said softly to himself. Without, without, and with
that he drew the large wing of mountains surrounding him. Would anyone
ever know what was hidden in there? The tracks of the deer, the web of the
spider, the music of the weaving, the tightly stretched string that would
sing ever louder with the death of the victim, the slow binding of its
transparent wings, as if bandaging and healing. Death as a tender
wrapping, the antlers at the foot of the tree, the dew on the fabric that laces
up a carcass. Never again the mating calls, never again the bite of the
weasel, never again the prey. The emptied cadaver that was forbidden to fly
anymore, the discoloring moltings left behind on the grass, banished
from the cold, higher air in which one had briefly lived, and slowly dies.

Now the dog, which usually walked right through him,
came toward him. The midday burned like straw, he
longed for the river and the boats with their soft voices.
He knew that he still existed only because he was
enslaved to thinking, the series of words that he hung
over things which, despite their names, could not be
named. It had been a long time since he had been
touched by someone. He couldn't do it himself either:
apparently his body did not exist. When he looked for
it, it was always somewhere else.

in a field of stones and thistles he saw his father, whom he hadn't seen for
more than half a century. He wore a sinister uniform covered with mold, in
his hand he held a revolver. He didn't want the man to recognize him and
turned his face away, but when he looked again his father sat on the
sidewalk, naked, covered with sores. Now he wanted to go to him, but the
old man looked at him with so much fear that he lurched back. His ribs
stuck through his gray skin, which the rain seemed to give a cold sheen,
and his penis lay on the wet stones like a large worm that someone had
stepped on. It was clear that his father would soon die. When he looked
again from a distance, he saw that a circle of men and women stood
around him. In the field of thistles the man with the revolver still waited.

Someone on a country road, a silent figure, shrouded by his own
shadow. Only then the progression: a child, a dog, a priest, three
older women. He didn't know what to make out of this. He went
to sit on a stone, you could say he was pondering the evening.
Slowly it became dark, he heard the pebbles in the creek, how
they softly jostled each other, a light shifting and ticking, the
sound that they would also make if he were not there. And so
they are polished, he thought, and felt their round forms in the
palm of his hand. Later, when the mist hung over the water, the
night became an owl. He shuddered at the screaming that made
the silence unbearable.

He remembered the end of the friend who was supposed to die after him. When he entered the death room his friend hadn't moved, as if he were already taken up by something else and no longer expected anyone. He had seen that the eyes of the man in the bed were open, that he stared outside without seeing anything. Only after some time did the sick man turn his head toward him, slowly, searchingly. That movement had something very solemn about it. "You here?" he had asked, so that it appeared that the visitor was lost, intruding on forbidden terrain. "Yes," he had answered. The eyes of the other, dark as always, had looked at him slowly, his glance had taken much longer to reach him than in the past. The thin, transparent tube that ran from his nose to a machine had seemed an adornment in the late light, something from a world that the other would never be able to enter. Then the man in the bed had laughed, again very slowly, and said: "You are the last person I will ever see." Neither of them had spoken a word after that.

With autumn the rains came to the island.
As he drives back home one night he sees
thousands of snails crossing the road, as if the
road is once more inadequately paved with
living porcelain. It's impossible to avoid them.
The crackling under the tires sounds like
obscene whispering. An army of suicides, and
he the violent accomplice. They want to reach
water and find death. in a curve of the road he
sees the unkempt old man who, for years now,
has been building a ship, bedecked with
tinfoil, somewhere in the middle of a field.
He stands there in the beams of the headlights,
encompassed by the rain, a mad king who calls
for his daughters. He seems to be singing.

He is back in the old city, which has become the city of questions. It is spring, and he must have seen himself at least a hundred times in all of his former guises-drunk, shredded by anxiety, happy-go-lucky, on a sidewalk in the snow, next to a grave, in a hospital, a brothel, a monastery, with women and friends who have since died. The city is changed and unchanged, he himself has changed and changed again, the impossible has stolen into his desire, something irrevocable attends him everywhere. Like a shadow? A shadow attends him everywhere, the doppelgänger with a dog's head, the man who knows more than himself. He sees the new leaves on the chestnut trees, the other, the new people, the river, the cathedral, the bridge, he senses the ghosts that encircle him, the lure of that crowd. Presently he must depart from the city as if he will never come back, a man hand in hand with himself.

He has taken the narrow red path that leads to the sea. From the forbidding last house along the shore, music resounds that does not resemble music and that tells him something about the form of time. Intervals, accents, hiatus, single and double tones that bend over each other, withdraw, stop. Meditation, no history. No outcome. The shutters of the house are closed, the piano must be near the window. Someone who lives in the night by day, for whom no hours exist. He continues to wait, his hand against the stacked stone wall. How long he stands there he doesn't know, not even he. The music will not flow, does not stream, yet something is still being measured, it is not always clear in what direction. It could also be backwards, like memory. The thought that the silence between the tones is counted as time moves him. So the absence of sound is music after all, invisible and inaudible as time itself. Audible, inaudible. He walks on in that silence until the larger silence has absorbed everything, sound and its absence, into itself. Only then has he reached the sea. Rhythm, the cipher of the waves, sequence.

This night too it is night, winter, and war. Loud voices and the rare sound of a car have woken him up. In order to see what's going on, he has to shove a chair in front of the window. He's not allowed to turn on the light. In the cold of that night that still endures, he sees the shining black of the car, the boots and the caps of the officers who do not speak his language. The snowflakes melt on the hood of the car. Two identical women stand against the wall, no matter how long he looks he can't see any difference between them. Their faces are white in the light of the street lamp, their mouths red and large. He sees the white crystals of snow in their identical high hairdos, and the women mimic each other as they press their wide fur coats against their shivering bodies. He knows, without understanding it, that this is about fear and flight. Their horrible likeness is a threat to him, he doesn't yet know that twins too can grow old. It's almost fifty years ago now, and, frozen in the celluloid of their image, they have never changed. When they call to him he still feels his betrayal.

There was still a shape with him that obscured his own.
Maybe his face also did not exist anymore, but that
wasn't important. The shape would multiply itself, he
would exist everywhere, usually invisible. The concern
was to have a voice that almost nobody could hear.
That's why as few words as possible were needed. He
stretched himself out on the ground, which was already
cold. Out of one of his dreams came his mother. She
walked along a road with bowed trees as if she were
plated with silver. He heard her singing. Then for a
long time nothing happened. Now he needed thoughts
in order to replace his face, the absent shield. Even for
his hands there were now replacements,
he practically didn't need them anymore.

Thus incomplete he does not want to see himself again.
Blood from a nostril, the face of another. Degenerate,
thin, in deep drunkenness, hair cut like a monk, the
denial of decay. Or not? He gazes into the void of that
face. Abyss, the danger that must always be there.
On such a night in the very same city he lay down on a
frozen sidewalk. The woman who found him still
remembers: the face of a dead man with an idiotic smile,
hidden under the poison of the snow. Desire for sewer,
bed, grave, the satisfaction of being underground. This
lesson too stays with him. Transmigration of the soul
does not happen after, but during life.

This time he was with his double. With his birdside he
could bear the night sounds better. In the distance he
heard a drone as of drums, in the sky he saw rings of
fire. In the high cliff face were statues wrapped in cloth,
their eyes shut, red and ocher mildew covering their
stone faces. Most of all he wanted to lie under one of
those statues so that he could look at it for a long time,
but then the other lifted him up with an angry flap of
his wings and dove away from the rocks to the field of
shifting script.

This must be the tenth year that he has passed the wreck. The ship had run
aground in a winter storm, and during the first year it still had the
appearance of a house searching for its dead. Slanted, as if it had been
caught in the furious sideward movement of a wave, the wave itself
petrified. There was no one in the pilot-house anymore, the nameplate
stolen. Voices only of wind and surf. After that he had seen it deteriorate
from year to year, become less, the destroyed form of a ship. There were
still beams remaining, ribs of broad, dead wood, an inverted vault, held
together by nuts and bolts of rust. Slowly the sea would hollow the carcass
out until there would be nothing left, only he would recognize the last
traces. It was a question of who would hold out the longest, he or the
wreck. He leans against the absent railing and sees himself disappear
among that which must remain, among everything that was already there.

Half a century ago, maybe less. He is somebody else but still has
the same eyes. A city in the country to which he keeps returning.
In the distance the shadow of the only car. One lamppost visible,
the other only half The square is so light that it drifts, no world
is to be found under it. The gray of that light cannot weigh
anything at all. A woman has crossed the square, she approaches
the place where he stands but will never see him. She has
withdrawn within herself as only women can, she embraces
herself as if she would otherwise break. He cannot see her eyes,
her mouth is hidden. Even now he knows that it was cold then,
the cloak flaps just below her knees. Her hair was blond, and not
meant for anyone right then. Across the square three men have
stopped, a pair of cyclists have gotten off their bikes, but maybe
that was already the case. Nothing more took place at that time
except that he still knows it. A first lesson in absence.

The disappearance as favor, song of withdrawal in the
earlier landscape. Still in the darkness he tugs at his
ropes, but not to free himself That's what he wanted to
be, the free prisoner who in his memory had studied
the sea, the suction of water, movement. World—
of that less and less. One could also do without. With
his back turned to the whispering, the voices, all that a
blind one hears in the unfathomable house that he is.
House without guests, hallways and stairways, degrees
of comparison, his thoughts like maxims always the
same. And now still the dream of waiting, footsteps,

He is back in the field of thistles and stones. Now that
he is blind he sees everything better. The direction of
the path, the tortured pine tree, the impossible bushes.
When he lies down he feels the ground flow, he drifts
away among the stones. Nowhere is it as dry as it is
here, the water is of leaden silk. He shields his eyes
against the light of arrival. His body has become the
distance that it has traveled, it wouldn't say anything
anymore. For this voluptuousness he had made all his
journeys. Now that he is deaf he hears everything
better. He hears the stones as a stone hears its own
sound, the unbreakable now of time.

This memory was not a dream. He drove along a coastal road in the tropics. It was very early in the morning, there was no traffic yet. Veils of mist, the heat wouldn't come until later. After he had driven some miles he saw, suddenly, in a curve, a dead mule that was being eaten out by two dogs in the middle of the road. They sat before the open abdomen, diagonally across from each other. He remembered their faces among the intestines: with their meal they had acquired the appearance of human beings. It wouldn't have surprised him if they had spoken with each other. He had gotten out and walked toward them. There was blood around their mouths. They had looked at each other briefly while chewing, and then shrugged their shoulders as people do when they are disturbed during dinner. In the evening, at the hotel for traveling salesmen, he had looked at himself long and intensely in the mirror, but because of the poor lighting his face wasn't very clearly visible. He had actually had only eyes and a mouth. His pupils had almost disappeared from his eyes so that he didn't look like himself.

His head had been tied up. In this darkness nothing could ever
be the same again. He felt the sharp threads of the rope in his
mouth, they cut into the corners. But he wasn't blindfolded, the
darkness belonged to the space in which he now found himself,
which could be nothing other than the space that he himself was.
It was not at all necessary to move; he wouldn't have known
where he should go. Only after days did he hear voices, but he
couldn't prove anything.
At the end of the plain a crowd that looked like rocks. They
moved in his direction with their petrified faces, then heaved
back and disappeared. Now everything was empty. His body was
that of a snake, long and sand-colored. A hand, perhaps his own,
grasped his neck, which was strained from screaming. Even the
one without mouth must be there, and the whispering.
Over the last few days the rains brought desert sand, it seemed as
if the heavens had wept blood, red dust against the white walls.
At his feet he was a dream, which made the roads passable.
Of a direction there was no question. The one who continually
threatened him knew what he was doing.That was the third vision.

He was reluctant to move again, even if it would be for the last time. The dog had gone ahead, startled by the punishment of its own hearing. Even inside the stone it was now no longer quiet, he could hear the slow erosion. Which direction he had to go in he didn't know, the traces were so numerous that he couldn't read them anymore. Once he had thought that you could write the world with words, from the beginning. By being uttered, words would transform into things, obedient to their names. That made all languages sacred. Now he didn't know if that was true anymore. The things that encircled him had gradually retreated into themselves, as if they knew that they would lose their names. He asked himself how it would be if nothing no longer had a name, if all things were exclusively themselves. He took his suitcase and stood for a while in front of the window of his empty house. Outside the wind was calm. There was no more flying. He thought of the first word, and then of the last, and imagined that a voice, sometime, somewhere, would pronounce that last word just like an other voice, the same that had once uttered the first. Things bereft of their names and unmade, the words erased until even the first had never been said. Only then would it be silent again. Only then did everything become silent.

Translated from the Dutch by Duncan Dobbelmann