“Lost Paradise” by Cees Nooteboom

Reviewed by Robert Buckeye

Image of “Lost Paradise” by Cees Nooteboom

"The Darkness of the Lived Moment"

One does. She, someone, she is not sure, leaves her home in a wealthy neighborhood of Sao Paolo and drives, she does not know why, perhaps it had been the car or Bjork on the tape deck that had done the driving, to "the very worst favela of all, a hell rather than a paradise," where the engine dies and the favela dwellers come out of the night, "a hate and rage so deep that they could swallow you up forever" and leave her behind, "as if she were rubbish." "It had been like a black cloud," she tells police of her violation. Afterwards, she has to get away from the mystery of why she had gone into the favela and goes with her friend Almut to Australia, a secret talismanic site from their teenage years, to locate Aborigine Dreamtime, "the time before time and memory began," where she meets an Aborigine artist and stays with him for a week, "a man who has taken nothing of mine."

One doesn't. He is middle-aged and out of sorts. Divorced, a literary critic increasingly disappointed and dyspeptic, out-of-touch with the new generation of writers, his girl friend, Anja, half his age, tells him. He no longer has a future, and the novel he writes he consigns to the trash can. "It was too late to learn Norwegian," he notes, "or emigrate to Australia." ("Too much past can kill you," Cees Nooteboom comments in All Soul's Day.) His friends and Anja advise him to go to a spa in Austria—he will come out a new man they say— and force him out the door against his will. Once he arrives at the spa he questions his decision. At dinner the first evening—a potato with thick drops of linseed oil on it—he is reminded of "the cod liver oil he had been forced to swallow as a child."

One does. At the spa, the substitute masseuse is the woman he met as an angel in Perth, Australia, three years before. He had been at a literary conference—the usual kind—and out of boredom had gone on a tour whose aim it was to discover how many angels could be found in Perth. He tells her at the spa that he fell in love with her the moment he saw her in Australia, but after the tour at the angel party at a beach—"Tonight we're being expelled from Paradise," she tells him—just as they are about to make love, police arrive and she flees because she has no work permit. He cannot find her and returns to a life he no longer wants. When he sees her at the Austrian spa, this time he does not want to lose her.

One doesn't. She has found a lost paradise in the Aborigine's world, but it is not hers. His painting will never be hers no matter how much she identifies with it; his silence returns her only to her own; his gestures may point but do not explain. Her black cloud can never be his nor his hers ("All past time is present time"). She must seek the Indian in herself, the shadow that her friend Almut sees in her, "as if you always have someone with you, and be "a wanderer, so I can make the world my desert" (as the limitless expanse of Australia is the Aborigine's desert because it is his). She has put Brazil behind her for Australia, a gig as an angel instead of one in the fast lane of the affluent, trained as a masseuse, surfaced for the moment in Austria. At the spa, she reminds him of the last words she said on the beach in Australia before she fled from the police, "Angels and people aren't meant to be together." "See you next time," she adds, reminding him (and us, perhaps her) that our efforts to regain paradise never cease.

The epigraph for Nooteboom's novel, Lost Paradise (Grove Press, 2007), comes from Walter Benjamin's meditation on Klee's painting, Angelus Novus, whose angel faces the past and sees the catastrophe of events pile up into wreckage at his feet while a storm from Paradise rushes him towards a future he cannot see, since his back is turned, and thus he cannot warn anyone about what is coming. "This storm," Benjamin notes, "is what we call progress."

Since Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise, the storm we call progress has been one train wreck after another. "What started out as a misunderstanding," the author (Nooteboom and not Nooteboom) says in an epilogue, "has gone on to repeat itself over and over into infinity." If Milton's title refers to the Paradise that has been lost, Nooteboom's calls attention to the one we seek.

"There are perhaps paths,"—it is Benjamin once again—"that lead us again and again to people who have one and the same function for us: passageways that always, in the most diverse periods of life, guide us to a friend, the betrayer, the beloved, the pupil, or the master." In Australia, she finds her teacher and he his angel, though they cannot stay with them. The only paradise we can have is the one we cannot regain, though we may find it at moments in the ineffable, the lost and forgotten, silence.

In a prologue, the author on a flight to Berlin-Templehof sees a woman look over a thin volume which nevertheless has numerous chapters and thinks the author "has taken considerable risks." When she holds the book up so that he can see the title, he realizes, "It's this book," the one we have just read. In an epilogue, he sees the same woman on a train to Moscow still carrying, "the book I thought I had written, the book I still have not been able to shake off," and this time talks to her about it. A world where the prose is dense, demanding, the intellect rigorous, a challenge, the detail that of the polymath, the form answerable only to itself. The world of Nabokov, Gass, McElroy—"those cobwebs of yours"—Anja tells him no one reads any more. Today, she adds, "They're used to a fast pace."

Robert Buckeye has had two works of fiction published, Pressure Drop and The Munch Case and has written on film and art as well as literature.