by Cees Nooteboom
Reviewed by J.M. Coetzee
New York Review of Books
In the summer of 2003, as part of that year's Lincoln Center Festival, members of the public were offered a guided walk around selected New York sites, beginning on Roosevelt Island and ending in the Chrysler Building. As they proceeded from site to site, they were invited to keep an eye out for angels. And at certain sites they did indeed get to see angel-actors, some with wings, some without, some gazing into the distance, some sleeping. At other sites there were merely traces of past angelic visits: feathers, for example.
The event was the brainchild of the British theater director Deborah Warner. In its first version, dating back to 1995 and as yet sans angels, it was set in a huge abandoned nineteenth-century London hotel; its goal was to evoke ghostly presences from the building's past. In 1999 Warner presented a revised version with angels added. For the angels, said Warner, she was indebted to Rilke. "There's a wonderful quote from Rilke which says that angels are uncertain if they are walking amongst the living or the dead." In 2000 the revised version was exported to Perth, capital of Western Australia.
Responses of participants in the Angel Project varied widely. According to some, the presence of otherworldly beings changed the nature of their gaze, aestheticizing their view of the city. Others dismissed the project as mere Disneyfication, exploitation of a millenary craze for angels. Yet others were deeply moved. "They cried a lot," said Warner, looking back on the 1999 London performance. "We put angels up at the top of the empty floors of the Euston Tower watching over London. And again, people's response, terribly, terribly emotional. I think it's about loss of innocence."
Among visitors to the 2000 Angel Project was the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom, in Perth to take part in the city's arts festival. Nooteboom's novel Lost Paradise, published in the Netherlands in 2004, draws heavily on recollections of that visit, as we shall see.
Alma, the heroine of Lost Paradise, and her bosom friend Almut are young Brazilians of German descent (their grandfathers came to Brazil after the Second World War). Almut is down-to-earth and hedonistic, Alma (whose name means "soul") more introspective and melancholy -- she has a "shadow" within her. Both are graduates in art history. One day, for no good reason, Alma drives into São Paulo's most notorious favela. Her car stalls; a gang of men drag her out and rape her. She descends into a profound depression. For both this condition and the men who caused it she uses the phrase "black cloud."
Why did she venture into the forbidden territory of the favela? Her answer: she was in the grip of a demon that she calls "the mood" (Dutch stemming, from stem, "voice"). The mood has been long familiar to her, in the way that a demon or an inner voice can be a familiar. She gives a close account of its three stages: premonition, possession proper, aftermath.
Since childhood Alma has dreamed of going to Australia, which she thinks of as a place of healing where she will be set free of her demon. In reproductions of Aboriginal rock paintings she and Almut have seen white ghost-figures whom she thinks of as be-schermheiligen, patron saints but also guardian spirits.
In the wake of the rape, Alma and Almut set off for the "Sickness Dreaming Place" they have pinpointed in Australia. Their first impressions of the country are not favorable. Aboriginal settlements seem to them like concentration camps without fences; white Australians strike them as blinkered and callous; they miss the lushness and sensuality of Brazil.
In due course, however, Alma meets an Aboriginal artist, never named, whose paintings make a deep impression on her. With him she spends a week in an isolated beachside cabin. The experience, if not idyllic (he barely speaks to her; she finds their relations "perverse" in ways she does not elaborate on), is life-changing. Making love to a man as dark as her Brazilian attackers has somehow freed her from the black cloud. "This man has helped me catch up with my shadow, and that is good. We are one now: I am both dark and light."
Even more importantly, from him she absorbs enough of the Aboriginal worldview to shrug off her fear of death. For that has been the deeper nature of the sickness afflicting her soul: not so much rape trauma as an inability to face her own mortality. After she has died, she now believes, her soul will return in some other embodiment. She is thus, in a sense, immortal.
In her newly healed state she stands under the southern night sky harkening to the harmony of the spheres. From her art-historical studies an image revisits her: Saint Denis writing his book about the angels while, above his head, angels appear arrayed in nine arcs, playing musical instruments:
Angels, desert lizard, rainbow snake, the heroes of creation -- everything at last comes together. I have arrived. And when I leave, I will not need to take anything with me. I have everything.
Bidding farewell to her lover, Alma heads for Perth, where according to the grapevine there are vacancies in the forthcoming production of the Angel Project. From early on, Alma has had an obsession with angels. Her favorite European painting is Botticelli's Annunciation, which shows a winged being kneeling to announce to the young Mary that through her God will enter the world. The painting sends Alma into a trancelike state, as if she herself were being addressed by an angel.
By European standards, Perth, founded in the 1820s, has no history worth speaking of. On the other hand, like the rest of the continent on whose rim it sits, it is haunted by a human prehistory going back 40,000 years. In Perth Alma is accepted as a junior angel. She is fitted out with a pair of wings and installed in a cupboard in a vacant building, facing inward, with instructions to speak to no one, respond in no way to solicitations.
One of the visitors who finds his way to Alma in her cupboard is a middle-aged man who for a long while stands staring at her, stricken (though she cannot know it) with a mixture of fear, tenderness, and desire. The next day the man comes back. Stumbling for words, he reaches out and touches her wing. "Please go away," she says, obeying orders, and turns on him a look both forbidding and inviting.
She and the man meet again at the big end-of-festival beach party. To his surprise, she enfolds him in her wings. They kiss; he is about to remove her clothes and uncover her naked form when they are lit up by the beam of a spotlight. Police jeeps roar onto the beach, disrupting the party. It is only a drug raid, but to the man it is like expulsion from paradise. Alma vanishes into the night, throwing over her shoulder words that he does not catch.
Three years later Alma finds herself working as a masseuse at a spa in a forest near Innsbruck in Austria. One of the clients on her massage table turns out to be her adorer from Perth. His name is Erik Zondag; he comes from Amsterdam, where he is a literary journalist; and he is at the spa to lose weight but also to try to recapture his old zest for life. Erik is eager to take up with Alma where they left off, but Alma cuts him short, repeating her fateful words from the Australian beach: "Angels can't be with people." Thus, abruptly, ends the story of the lovers.
The encounters between Alma and Erik, summed up here through Alma's eyes, are in Nooteboom's account rendered through the eyes of Erik, to whom the second half of the novel is given. From his perspective we rehearse his experiences three years earlier -- his arrival in Perth, which strikes him as "the very last place you would expect to find angels," to speak at the arts festival, his involvement in the Angel Project, his first brushes with Alma -- and then his rediscovery of the lost beloved in Austria.
As the black cloud in Alma's head is more a fear of death than the after-effect of rape, so Erik's soul-sickness comes more from a midlife wakening to his own mortality than from concern over his weight. In Alma's case, cure seems to have been effected through a reanimation of her shadow, the non-Western, American Indian side of her soul. In the case of Erik, "the only man who had ever been embraced by an angel," it is union with the celestial that promises healing, a union that Alma frustratingly withholds.
Nooteboom's tale of Alma and her two lovers is somewhat of a puzzle to interpret. Is it really being claimed that a week of sex with a man whom Almut -- who tends to play Sancho Panza to Alma's Quixote -- disparages as a pet noble savage will heal her friend's troubled soul; or are we to understand that, on the contrary, Alma's salvation narrative is self-delusion from beginning to end? And what of angelhood? Does a pretty young woman change the nature of her being simply by strapping wings on her back?
The latter question has more interesting ramifications than the former. Through his fable Nooteboom may well be suggesting that the hunger of the soul does not require direct experience of the transcendent to be satisfied, that complicity in an aesthetic illusion can take the soul surprisingly far.
This seems to have been what happened with numbers of participants in Deborah Warner's project: being told to look out for angels led them to see angels -- to have, so to speak, angelic visions. Knowing that the angels were paid actors did not spoil the effect. As Desiderius Erasmus, Nooteboom's intimate spiritual forebear, put it five hundred years ago:
If a person were to try stripping the disguises from actors while they play a scene...showing to the audience their real looks...would not such a one spoil the whole play?...Destroy the illusion and any play is ruined....All things are presented by shadows; yet this play is put on in no other way.
By "this play" Erasmus means no less than the play constituting our lives. The shadow play in which we are allotted parts may not be the real thing, but it is the only thing we earthlings have, so we may as well play our role with a good grace.
As for Alma's affair with the painter, the episode is too thinly rendered to bear a complex interpretation, while the accompanying pages on Aboriginal thought systems ("dreamings") and rock art, which one presumes are meant to lend substance to the affair, read as if copied from a guidebook. It might be argued that the uncritical attitude toward traditional belief expressed here belongs not to Nooteboom himself but to his romantically inclined heroine; and indeed Nooteboom works into his narrative an aged anthropologist who warns Alma and Almut, coming from the "place of chaos and confusion" that is the West, against turning Aboriginal Australia into an illusory lost paradise. Nevertheless, Alma's conversion experience is skimpily presented and unpersuasive.
If the half of Lost Paradise devoted to Alma comes with none of the ironic qualifications and vertiginous narrative processes typical of Nooteboom's fiction in general, Erik Zondag and his story are accorded the full Nooteboom treatment. Erik is accepted into the novel only after being picked out of a crowd at a train station by a swooping storyteller figure. In return he is allowed to criticize his author: Nooteboom and the rest of the old guard of Dutch letters -- Gerhard Reve, Harry Mulisch, Hugo Claus, Jan Wolkers -- should retire to make way for younger people.
Used to stumbling through life, Erik takes a long time to recognize what kind of story he is in, to discern the shape of his destiny, namely to fall in love with an angel and thus raise questions about eros and its ambiguous objects ("What I hate about angels," comments Almut from the sidelines, "is that you can't tell if they're male or female"). Yet so arbitrary is Erik's love in its genesis, so brisk is its evolution, and so swiftly is it cut off that it hardly has the substance to support the weight of the philosophical concerns loaded onto it.
As if to remedy the thinness of the stories of Erik and Alma, Nooteboom embeds them between a substantial prologue and epilogue in which his elegant, subtle intelligence finds more room to flex its wings. The prologue presents a man on a plane to Berlin, a professional writer who is and is not Cees Nooteboom, surreptitiously spying on a fellow passenger, a beautiful woman reading a book whose title he cannot make out. The writer himself is meanwhile paging through an in-flight magazine which features articles on São Paulo -- the mansions of the rich contrasted with the favelas "or whatever you call the things" of the poor -- and on Australian Aboriginal art. When the woman eventually falls asleep, the writer turns to the task of drafting an introduction to a book of photographs of cemetery angels, a book not unlike Tumbas: Graves of Writers and Thinkers, a lavish collection of photographs by Simone Sassen published in German in 2006 with substantial accompanying texts by none other than Cees Nooteboom, Sassen's husband.
"The riddle that other people represent has occupied me all my life," reflects the writer in a pessimistic mood:
I know there is a story here, and at the same time I know that I will never find out what it is. This book will remain closed, like the one on the seat [beside the woman].
Then, as the plane is about to land, the woman wakes up and for a dizzying moment holds her book high enough for him to read its title. "It's this book, a book out of which she is about to disappear, along with me."
We may read this prologue as a little allegory about inspiration, about how the baffled poet is visited by a goddess/muse/angel who, in the same moment that she gives him the germ (the title) of a story, gives him the fruitless yearning too out of which the story -- a story that germinates in idle voyeurism and flowers as yearning for union with the divine or at least the semidivine -- will grow.
In the epilogue, which is set a year or two later, the writer -- who has just polished off his story of Alma and Erik and is going through the consequent postpartum depression -- encounters the same angel/messenger, this time on a train from Berlin to Moscow. (The coincidences are piling up, some higher-order being must be scripting the narrative, but who can that be?) She is carrying what seems to be the same book as before. This time, however, its title is reversed: Paradise Lost, not Lost Paradise. (A neat trick indeed. "The person who thought that up knew what he was doing.")
The writer asks her what she thinks of the book. She doesn't like it much, she replies. A single slip, amounting to no more than a misunderstanding, and one is expelled from Paradise forever -- the punishment strikes her as too severe. And Paradise itself -- what a boring place. Whoever dreamed it up must be a pretty poor writer.
The author of Alma and Erik casts a last glance over the world -- Brazil, Australia, Austria -- he is about to leave, then requests his muse to reveal to him how best to end his book. In response she hands him Milton's poem with the last lines underlined in pencil: with wandering steps and slow, our first parents retreat from Paradise. "The World" -- the world in which they are going to have to live henceforth, without the company of angels -- "was all before them."
To the writer bidding farewell to Berlin, the city where he wrote his book, Alma and Erik are beings who for the past year have been visiting him day and night, but are now beginning to recede as they resume their own lives in whatever parallel universe they inhabit, a universe with laws of its own, including laws governing time and space. In a note, unsigned, added to the English translation, the scope of these laws is emphasized: "The Angel Project...did take place in Perth...in 2000, although that is not necessarily the year in which this story took place." That is to say, in Erik's universe the date may have been quite different.
The tacit contract according to which we entertain novels like Nooteboom's, and are in return entertained by them, requires us to accept that they play themselves out in an autonomous ontological realm. Truths that hold in this realm may or may not hold in the realm in which we the readers have our existence; as for the author of such truths, he/she may or may not be the puppet of some other (higher? lower?) author/creator. If we accept the Nooteboom contract without proviso, we must put aside for the duration any belief we might have in a single, real world presided over by an ultimate authority, some Unmoved Mover who anchors all meanings.
Do angels exist? Does God exist? It is not only in the universe of postmodern fiction that such questions have a quaint, old-fashioned -- that is to say, pre-postmodern and perhaps even pre-modern -- air. In tolerant, post-Enlightenment societies we are free to make up answers to them as we choose, without risk of punishment. Indeed, in its advanced form the principle of enlightened tolerance simply refuses to take such questions seriously. If God works for you then he must be true (that is to say, true-for-you); and ditto for angels and the rest of the heavenly hierarchy.
The chief trouble with Nooteboom's Lost Paradise is that it is hard to reconcile the skeptical, relativistic spirit of the book as a whole, particularly its prologue and epilogue, with the story of the girl from Brazil who exorcises her demon by absorbing traditional Aboriginal beliefs. It is also hard to make sense of her grounds for excluding the troubled Dutchman from the paradise he seeks in her arms, namely that angels cannot consort with human beings. The gods and goddesses of Greece were not shy of bestowing their favors on mortals. Why should angels be different?
In respect of relations between human beings and angels, it is worth reading Lost Paradise side by side with Nooteboom's 1998 novel All Souls Day. All Souls Day is set in Berlin of the mid-1990s, when the euphoria over the demolition of the Wall and the reunification of East and West had died down and a more sober look could be taken at the city and its history. Its hero is a Dutch photographer named Arthur Daane, who is engaged in a project to record on film, in the public spaces of Berlin, traces of a past mysteriously coexistent with the present, a past that, by a sort of Heisenberg effect, his interventions seem capable of inflecting. The theme of the book is thus historical consciousness as a habitual and indeed haunted state of mind -- a state of mind that may be the property of a generation presently in the process of passing away.
In Berlin Arthur finds himself visited not just by ghostly presences hanging around from the days of the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic but also by material presences from a remoter past. From the upper floors of Charlottenburg Palace he observes, in the grounds below, statues of bare-breasted women lashed by the snow, dancing and swaying. In the gardens of Sanssouci stand statues of women and angels disfigured by the passage of time. And at the Brandenburg Gate he confronts the massive seated statue of Pallas Athene, "the goddess no one worshiped anymore" yet "the only thing [in Berlin] that might seem familiar to an Aborigine."
Angels and goddesses look down mutely upon Berlin. In a series of interchapters a chorus of angels or perhaps Furies comments upon unfolding events. No one but Arthur seems aware of the divinities, and he only in intermittent flashes. They belong to a pantheon as remote from modern Europe as the gods of Australia. Yet, Arthur cautions himself as he reflects upon his own observations, there is nothing inherently superior about a mind like his own, infused with historical consciousness, moving with ease between ancient Greece and precolonial Australia, between one layer and another of Berlin's deep archaeology, as long as to such a mind nothing glows with meaning, as long as everything is just an image or sign pointing to some other sign, on and on without end.
Arthur's particular spiritual dead end, so appropriate to All Souls Day, otherwise known as the Day of the Dead, is prefigured in the epigraph to the novel, quoted from Scott Fitzgerald: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." And Fitzgerald's image of the self laboring to find a future but being borne backward into the past is counterbalanced by the epigraph to Lost Paradise, taken from Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" -- the famous image, painted by Paul Klee, of the angel of history being sucked backward into the future, his helpless gaze still turned on the catastrophe of the past. All Souls Day and Lost Paradise in fact make up a couple, the earlier novel giving a fuller, more tragic version, the later a sketchier, more comic version, of the plight of the self haunted by a need for ultimate truths in a world from which the gods have withdrawn.
Nooteboom has a reputation as a postmodernist, not only in respect of his fictional procedures, where he has plainly been to school with Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino, but in his sensibility too, cool, intellectually sophisticated, ironic. He may come from the dark, heavy north and speak a northern tongue but his heart, he implies, lies in a brighter, lighter south (he is a devoted Hispanophile). He is a son not of Germany, whose high peaks and dark forests breed in the soul dangerous metaphysical yearnings, but of the commonsensical Low Countries. Even from the Dutch he keeps a critical distance: for example, his 1984 novel translated under the paradoxical title In the Dutch Mountains criticizes the complacency, greed, and hypocrisy of his countrymen.
Writing from within Berlin, the heart of Germany, therefore represents a deliberate backward step for Nooteboom, with all the connotations allowed to accumulate in All Souls Day around the notion of back-ward: from the postmodern, postmetaphysical back into the Europe of history, where the gods and goddesses (Mediterranean) and angels (Judeo-Christian) still linger as powerless presences. All Souls Day is the most ambitious project in Nooteboom's oeuvre, and -- at least for half its length -- his most impressive (the less impressive half recounts Arthur's pursuit of an elusive young woman in whose arms he hopes his yearnings will be stilled).
Susan Massotty's translation of Lost Paradise reads fluently. Some of that fluency comes, however, at the cost of precision. Nooteboom is a careful prose stylist of a notably philosophical bent. In a book concerned so centrally with questions of dying and living beyond death, it is remiss to write of someone who is burning with curiosity that he is "dying of curiosity," of someone who is crying out to be seen that she is "dying to be seen," and of someone who has one question above all to ask that he is "dying to ask" it.
There are other instances of carelessness on Massotty's part. She writes -- mystifyingly -- of the "aerial" roots of a plant when the roots are simply spreading. In some cases her inattention to detail changes Nooteboom's meaning. Alma overcomes her fear of death by accepting (in the Dutch) that only one time round (i.e., for only one cycle of existence) will her present physical embodiment coincide with what she calls "me." This is quite different from accepting "that it [my body] will be there only once, that it coincides with what I call 'me.'"
J. M. Coetzee, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003, is currently Visiting Professor of Humanities at the University of Adelaide. His latest novel, Diary of a Bad Year, was published in December.