Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 151 pages; 2008. Translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty.
I’m not quite sure how I feel about Cees Nooteboom’s Lost Paradise, which is split into two seemingly unconnected parts that eventually come together in a not particularly convincing way.
Nooteboom is a Dutch writer with a hefty body of work, spanning poetry to travel writing, to his name, as well as a slew of literary awards. Lost Paradise, his 12th novel, was first published in 2004 and translated into English in 2007.
Unusually (for a Dutch writer), the story is largely set in Australia.
A novel in two parts
The first part focuses on two young Brazilian women, (the confusingly named) Alma and Almut, who are obsessed with Aboriginal Australians. They travel to Australia to learn about this ancient culture and to make their dream of visiting the “Aboriginal Sickness Dreaming Place” come true.
Toward the end of their journey, which takes in Adelaide and Alice Springs (among other places), they arrive in Perth, where they take part in an international arts festival event called The Angel Project. (This, apparently, was a real art installation, staged across 13 sites for the Perth International Festival of the Arts in 2000. It has also been held in London and New York.) Here, they are required to dress as angels and remain as still as statues in places dotted around the city.
The second part is about a middle-aged literary critic, Erik Zondag, who travels from Amsterdam to Austria to stay at a remote spa resort on the advice of his girlfriend who wants him to return a changed man. While there he encounters a woman with whom he once spent the night in Perth many years earlier, a woman he still occasionally thinks about, a woman who was, at the time, dressed as an angel.
And hence, you have the unlikely connection between these two seemingly disparate halves of the one book.
An outsider’s view
One element of Lost Paradise that works is the outsider’s view of Australia, the realisation that the outback is inhospitable — and completely alien — if you are unfamiliar with it. Here’s how Alma describes it:
We get out of the vehicle beside a river. The silence is broken by unknown sounds. ‘CROCODILES FREQUENT THIS AREA. KEEP CHILDREN AND DOGS AWAY FROM THE WATER’S EDGE.’ I stare at the gleaming black surface, at the red soil beneath my feet, at the dry eucalyptus leaves, curled into the shapes of letters as if they had been shaken from a tray of type. There is very little traffic on this road, so we are alone in our cloud of dust. The few cars coming towards us can be seen from miles off, like clouds or apparitions.
Similarly, Erik’s sudden awareness of the sheer size of the country is brought vividly to life in this passage:
It had been summer when he arrived in Perth. He had never been cooped up in a plane fror so long. The 18 hours to Sydney had been followed by a flight across a Continent with a population only slightly larger than that of the Netherlands, though it was nearly as big as the United States. Much of the land was empty: a rocky, sunburnt, sand-coloured desert, where the Aborigines had led their unwatched, automomous lives for thousands of years. The others — the sheep ranchers and the wine growers — lived on the periphery.
But this slim volume also explores bigger — and more complex — themes related to why we travel, what we hope to escape from and what we wish to find. There’s an emphasis on literature and art. Angels are a recurring theme — “Angels do not exist and yet they are divided into orders much like the hierarchy in an army” — and there are many nods to Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The prose style is sparse and elegant, beautifully translated by Susan Massotty, and reading it feels very much as if you are caught up in a dream. It’s sad and lonely and haunting.
But for all that, there’s no doubting this is an odd book. I came away from it unable to decide whether it might be just an old white man’s self-indulgent fantasy or a slice of understated genius. And weeks after having finished it, I still don’t know…