... it seems a telling error that the dates given at the end of the book actually indicate 523 days, the missing ten in keeping, you might argue, with the book’s peculiar mixture of precision and free-associative, sun-drenched day-dreaminess. Who’s counting, when a description of an unidentified Menorcan insect can lead seamlessly to a memory of shrunken heads in a Mexican museum, and from there, via Zurbarán’s meditating saints and the skull capacity of Australopithecus, to Montaigne, Lucretius, and the inconstancy of human belief systems? ... The digressiveness of Nooteboom’s method owes a good deal to W. G. Sebald, even if, largely because of the rapidity of Nooteboom’s transitions – the constant flitting from nature observation to reflections on literature, language and politics – it lacks the gravity of Sebald’s reveries, the sense that the present, even in its most seemingly inconsequential detail, is inescapably freighted by history ... Likewise, what prevents 533 from disappearing into its own digressiveness is Nooteboom’s appealing habit of introducing, very casually, the sort of weighty idea another writer might have treated with more fanfare ... It’s testimony to the power of this humane, insightful and deeply cultured book that it should resolve the dissonance so gracefully, between the monastic urge to contemplation and the world it would repudiate.
Despite its author’s depth of years, 533 Days doesn’t style itself as a repository of seasoned wisdom. Mr. Nooteboom’s real subject is the one that’s defined his career—mainly, the persistent strangeness of existence and its refusal to be fully resolved by religion, philosophy or science ... Mr. Nooteboom tempers his world-weariness with a youthful curiosity. His journal, which extends beyond his cactus garden to record encounters with owls and geckos, donkeys and spiders, moths and tortoises, can seem like a medieval bestiary, a nature chronicle with the vividness of a dream ... Spotting Cassiopeia in the night sky, Mr. Nooteboom notes that 'I am spinning along with her at a speed I can never feel.' Even in repose, it seems, Cees Nooteboom is destined to be a traveler to the end.