Book Blitz

Paradise Lost

Cees Nooteboom takes on our jet-fueled millennium.

Click here to read more from Slate’s Fall Fiction Week.

What is a global novel? This sounds distinctly like a 21st-century question, but it goes back at least as far as 1827, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature (weltliteratur) is at hand.” Echoing Goethe, Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that cosmopolitanism meant “national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures there arises a world literature.”

Of course, this has not exactly come to pass. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries—especially since the end of the Cold War—the world of literature has certainly become more “international,” with global festivals in major cities gathering writers from every continent, and even the notoriously translation-averse American reader has become accustomed to novels set in Afghanistan, China, Botswana, and Chile (if not necessarily written in Pashto, Mandarin, Tswana, or Spanish). Yet national literary traditions, and their roots in distinct cultures and histories, still matter; in a sense, they matter more than ever. Even the Nobel Prize, that sine qua non of international literary esteem, is awarded, like the secretary generalship of the U.N., on a rotating geographical basis, so that when José Saramago won a few years ago, it was clear he had edged out all the other well-known Portuguese writers of his generation.

Why is this so? Why is it not acceptable, for example, for me to write “the novelist Cees Nooteboom,” without having to attach that ubiquitous appendage, “the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom”? Because we assume his novels express some trace or essence of Dutchness, some distinct, if ineffable, coloring that makes them necessarily different from German, Swedish, Danish, or, for that matter, Japanese novels? Because, as readers, we resist the idea of an undifferentiated world culture, dominated by instantly recognizable (primarily American and European) brands, i.e., “Things go better with Philip Roth”? These are difficult, perhaps even slightly ridiculous, questions, but they are entirely relevant, as it happens, to the work of Cees Nooteboom. In the United States, Nooteboom is thought of—if he’s thought of at all—as a writer of whimsical, cerebral, postmodern fables, not unlike Calvino, Nabokov, or Milan Kundera. His narratives often have a tricky, self-reflexive quality, at pains to remind us that storytelling is a fallible and self-interested human act. But he is also a master portrayer of restlessness and aimless wandering, in its late capitalist, jet-fueled, turn-of-the-millennium guise. Lost Paradise, his new novel, lends a poetic and even spiritual cast to this feeling of homelessness, without taking itself too seriously; it constructs a wry portrait of two ruined civilizations meeting and perhaps creating something new.

The characters in Lost Paradise all belong to that tiny subset of the world’s population that is highly educated and able to travel more or less anywhere, for business, pleasure, or sheer curiosity; they are the kind of person who spends so much time overseas that the question of “home” becomes almost academic. This is particularly true of Alma, the first of the novel’s two protagonists, a young Brazilian woman of German descent, whose wealth and mixed ethnicity insulate her from any particularly strong feeling for her home country. One night, in the midst of some unspecified depression or psychic breakdown, she drives into the middle of São Paulo’s most dangerous favela, is set upon by a gang, raped, and left for dead. Trying to recover and reignite her life, she travels with her best friend to Australia, full of romantic visions of the outback and Aboriginal relationship with nature.

Not surprisingly, when she arrives, she realizes how useless and naive her preconceptions have been: “My Australia was a fiction, an escape,” she says, “which I realized the moment the plane touched down.” Instead of turning and fleeing, however, she drifts across the country, finally meeting and falling in love with an enigmatic Aborigine painter, who refuses to talk about his background or explain the symbolism in his art. He agrees to spend a week at a remote beach cabin with her, with the implicit understanding that afterward they will never see one another again. It’s a paradigmatic example of people from separate worlds drawn together by the eros of strangeness—each unashamedly exploiting the other for the thrill of a fleeting encounter. For Alma, the alienness of his physical presence startles her into a kind of strange, quasi-spiritual ecstasy:

I have become inaccessible, I feel above it all … I know you can’t say any of this to another living soul, but it is true. For the first time in my life I understand what they meant in the Middle Ages by the ‘harmony of the spheres.’ When I stand outside here, I do not just see the stars, I hear them. Who banned angels from our thoughts? I can feel them all around me. 

This kind of breathless epiphany is, needless to say, tricky territory: In another writer’s hands it might reek of the kind of acquisitive spiritual globe-trotting that characterizes so much Western literature of travel, from Kipling’s Kim to Marlo Morgan’s Mutant Message Down Under. But Nooteboom’s sympathetic and delicate touch allows us to appreciate Alma’s mystical awakening without necessarily believing in it as anything more than a momentary delusion. Once the painter has left her, the feeling of desolation returns, and after some more wandering, she finds herself involved with a conceptual art project, “The Angel Project,” in which living angels (in costume, of course) are scattered across the city of Perth, and visitors are taken to find them in a kind of highbrow scavenger hunt. Her assignment is to crouch in a cupboard inside an abandoned building, facing away from the door, so that only her back and wings are visible.

It is here that the novel’s second focal character, Erik, a Dutch book critic in town for a literary festival, discovers her. Erik is a sedentary man who has tired of the endless circular debates within the insular world of Dutch literature, but sees no way of escaping them; he participates in the festival reluctantly and somewhat cynically, feeling that his opinions are as relevant to the rest of the world as “an obscure tribal war in Swaziland.” Nonetheless, when he stumbles upon Alma’s figure hidden in the cupboard, he finds himself hypnotized by her. In this case, the relationship need not be temporary; Erik—a representative of the tradition from which Nooteboom himself springs—has been seduced by Alma’s foreignness and inaccessibility, and sees it as a means of escape from his own stultifying life. Despite his entreaties, however, Alma flees, claiming, “angels can’t be with people.” When they meet again, by accident, at a German health spa where he is a client and she a massage therapist, she again rejects him; her urge to wander, it appears, has become permanent, blotting out any human attachments. Erik’s desire for homelessness is, at most, a temporary escape from bitterness and torpor; in the end, he must return home, altered, perhaps, but unsatisfied.

The symbolism of Paradise Lost is strewn throughout Lost Paradise, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways; Nooteboom goes so far as to end the novel with Milton’s description of Adam and Eve expelled from Eden: “The World was all before them, where to choose/ Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide …” This seems to suggest, on the one hand, that wandering may be, at least in the Western tradition, hardwired within us, as fundamental as our assumptions about free will and individual agency. Or, on the other, that wandering is always a kind of mourning, a small consolation for having been abandoned by the music of the spheres and left rootless in modernity. If we go searching for meaning by seeking out indigenous cultures in their original “habitats”—Tibet, the Amazon, the Australian outback, the Hopi mesas—we risk staring into our own habitual blindness, our inability to see the world as an organically related whole. This may sound like a bleak assessment of the mind of the contemporary traveler, but Lost Paradise is not that at all. Nooteboom structures the book as a succession of fleeting pleasures juxtaposed with large, permanent miseries, as if to suggest that a “global novelist,” if there is such a thing, doesn’t need a coherent pattern, a single consistent cosmology, to create a small, oddly beautiful work of art.