A short extract, chosen by the author himself, from the short story Heinz from The Foxes Come At Night.
Heinz is a Dutch honorary vice-consul on a Mediterranean island with a pronounced fondness for good living. Here, he accepts an invitation to attend an official event on a Italian naval frigate, with disastrous consequences.
There will be a video recording of Mr Nooteboom reading from the extract on the blog very soon…
Feats of arms. A diplomatic incident. The trick with the reading glasses. Fear of the ambassador. The car stuck between two walls. Tollens. Shangri-la. Fishing. The freezer in the supermarket. Dutchmen. You name it. Negative heroism, nothing uplifting, never forgotten.
The diplomatic incident was exemplary, not least because of the way it ended. In his secret heart Heinz was quite proud of his vice-title, especially when he was invited to attend some official event along with other “diplomats”. The others, the corps diplomatique, consisted of a handful of honorary consuls: a mildewed Englishman, a Spaniard with five names, an American retiree for whom it was a hobby, a Frenchman who ran a shipping company, and a German who, like Heinz, dabbled in real estate. One of their annual get-togethers was on board an Italian navy frigate which sailed out every September to cast a wreath onto the sea in memory of some wartime act of heroism in those very coastal waters. Several sailors had drowned, hence the wreath, and hence the presence of the admiral, the same one year after year, one of those figureheads kept for show. Offering, fatherland, peace, reconciliation, and then the wreath, floating briefly until, weighed down by the wires that held it together, it began slowly to sink, after which drinks were served. It was September, which meant that the Italians were still wearing those white dress uniforms which set medals and decorations off to such advantage. Someone who was present told me about it afterwards. That Heinz was drunk had not bothered anyone; they all were in the end. Prosecco, Arneis, Barolo, vinsanto, grappa. It may have been the dazzling whiteness, or something to do with both of them having been divers and sailors in their day, but at one point Heinz had seized a dish heaped with penne all’arrabbiata and emptied the contents over the admiral’s head with cries of basta la pasta! Everybody held their breath. Through their alcoholic haze the others saw how the admiral suddenly turned pale, drew himself up, and declared war on the Netherlands. Then he grabbed Heinz’s arm, twisted it behind his back and, holding him close, proceeded to kiss him on both cheeks, causing the thick red sauce to be smeared over them both. Incident closed. Yet more grappa. Even without having been there, I could see his face before me.
Translated by Ina Rilke