Lost Paradise by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"Angels, it is said, are often unsure whether they pass among the living or the dead." (Rainer Maria Rilke)
When trying to characterize Cees Nooteboom's novel Lost Paradise (2005) in one word, "ethereal" immediately comes to mind. Synonyms of "ethereal" are many: "delicate, exquisite, dainty, elegant, graceful, fragile, airy, fine, subtle". Except for "fragile", all these adjectives fit the book perfectly. I would add three more adjectives to specify my perception of the book: "whimsical, enchanting, and magical". Now, what do the real critics - people who unlike me can write well in English - say about Lost Paradise? Their adjectives are "luminous, numinous, glorious, dreamy, self-conscious, daring, poetic, provocative, cleansing, brief, beautiful, mysterious, radiant, imaginative, dense, layered, magical, innovative, cool, sophisticated, ironic" (the last three are courtesy of J. M. Coetzee).
Even if one can say that Lost Paradise is about angels, the novel has an earthly plot, and not an insubstantial one at that. In a stunning Prologue, Mr. Nooteboom performs the best metafiction trick ever. Let's only say that suddenly - while being inside the story - we are outside of it and looking in. Highly virtuosic! Part One takes us to Australia where two young Brazilian women, girls really, fascinated with the indigenous people's culture, visit the sacred Aboriginal places. For one of the women, the narrator, this journey becomes a life-altering event, in spiritual, physical, and artistic dimensions. Towards the end of the story the women perform as angels in the Perth Angel Project (this is an event that really happened in 2000). Part Two is narrated by a middle-aged Dutch literary critic who travels to a rejuvenation clinic in Austria and is subject to sophisticated healing and anti-aging treatment. Eventually, the two stories merge - obviously angels must have helped.
While the synopsis may sound superficial, an incredible amount of weighty substance is packed into this slim volume (150 pages; Mr. Nooteboom obviously follows Italo Calvino's advice that "books ought to be short"): the dying of the Aboriginal culture, the serendipity of intersecting trajectories of human lives, the transforming power of art that lifts the human existence to transcend its earthly form, the celebration of life, the role of chance, loving as the essence of being, even the trauma of rape, and - perhaps most touchingly - the homage to the ancient humans, our ancestors from tens of thousands of years ago.
This being a Cees Nooteboom's work, it is beautifully written, and the translation from Dutch by Susan Massotty is superb as well. (After the rating I am quoting a dazzling passage.) And despite all the depth, this is a very readable book! The last scenes of the first part, the vividly portrayed happenings from the Perth festival, are unforgettable.
Cees Nooteboom has joined the list of my most favorite authors. After the ascetic and serious Rituals, metafictional In the Dutch Mountains, and unforgettably beautiful The Following Story, Lost Paradise is another exceptional work by the Dutch writer. One may be stunned by how different the books are - the supreme quality of prose is the only similarity between them - which to me is one of the marks of truly great writers and artists in general; they rarely if ever repeat themselves.
A few weeks ago I asked my wife - who knows much more about serious literature than I do - to read Nooteboom's The Following Story, which has recently become one of the very best books I have ever read. She liked it, but not as much as I did. "Impenetrable", she said, "Too enigmatic." Maybe. Well, if we put these three novels on a scale of impenetrability, then The Following Story would be somewhere in the middle, with Rituals at the enigmatic end, while in Lost Paradise all is in the plain view of the reader - thus yielding a very low score on the impenetrability scale. Perhaps only the references to Milton's Paradise Lost are a little obscure.
Finally, I should add that the readers who have seen Wim Wenders' magnificent movie about two invisible angels who roam over Berlin, Wings of Desire, will find some similarities in the overall mood. Perhaps one needs angels to reflect so sharply on the human condition.
"I would like to say something about my body, about how I have realised, more than ever, that it will be there only once, that it coincides with what I call 'me', but I reach a point where things can no longer be described in words. One cannot talk about ecstasy. And yet that is what I mean. I have never existed as much."
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