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Cees Nooteboom: Paradijs Verloren (Lost Paradise)

This is one of those novels where two completely different characters and plots seem to be heading off in different directions but then, unexpectedly, coincide. Alma and Almut are two close Brazilian friends, of German origin, who are very close. However, Almut is German on both sides, while Alma’s mother is a mixture, but mainly Brazilian. Almut is tall and very attractive; Alma is smaller and, according to Almut, has the”shadow”, i.e. a dark, hidden side to her character. Both are interested in art and plan to study it, Almut modern art and Alma the Renaissance, as she is fascinated by angels. Alma’s shadow reveals itself when she foolishly drives into the worst slum in São Paulo, her car breaks down and she is sexually assaulted. They both have another aim in common, namely to visit Australia and, in particular, the Sickness Dreaming Place, an ancient site sacred to the Aborigines. Almut, who is more practical, makes sure that they both have a marketable skill and they train as physiotherapists. So off they go to Australia. Alma has a brief fling (brief at his choice) with an Aborigine painter. But things do not really work out. Alma’s fling is over, Almut is fired from her job, they are out of money and have not found what they were looking for. Then Alma finds a job for them in Perth, as angels. Perth is putting on some kind of performance, where people are given cryptic instructions they have to follow and where success is finding an angel. The angels, including Alma and Almut, have to remain perfectly still in a hiding place, waiting to be discovered.

Erik Zondag is a cantankerous literary critic. He has made something of a reputation for a newspaper by damning the older generation of name novelists, Reve, Mulisch, Claus, Nooteboom and Wolkers, as we are told. He lives with Anja, who is an art critic on a rival newspaper and who thinks he is too harsh in some of his reviews. However, Erik has health problems and his friend, Arnold Pessers, strongly recommends a health cure in Austria, which will deny him many of the things he enjoys, such as rich food and alcohol. However, he decides to go. Nooteboom has great fun mocking both Zondag and the health farm. One day his normal physio is not there and is handed to another one. It is, of course, Alma and he has met her before. Indeed, he was in Perth for a conference and did the angel tour, where he met her and came back the next day to see her again. He is clearly attracted to her and wants to pursue the relationship but she disappears, only to reappear in his life three years later. As she reminds him, she had promised him that she would see him again. But, as he learns from her, angels and people just do not mix.

In lesser hands, this would just not work. It would be banal and possibly silly. However, Nooteboom has the skill to carry it off. Paradise and paradise lost but also the meaning of art and how it differs for different peoples, not to mention contemporary Dutch literature, are all grist for Nooteboom’s mill. Indeed, apart from Paradise Lost, this may well be the only work of fiction about angels I have read that it is not trite and continues to prove, contrary to Erik Zondag’s remarks, that Nooteboom remains one of the foremost Dutch writers.

Publishing history

First published in 2004 by Atlas
First published in English in 2007 by Grove Press
Translated by Susan Massotty