Lost Paradise, a novel by Cees Nooteboom, translated by Susan Massotty (Grove Press)

First published in 2004 as Paradijs Verloren, Lost Paradise completes the second half of an orbit achieved by its mirrored opposite, Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” which is quoted or mentioned here and there. The story begins with Alma, a young Brazilian woman from an affluent family, who drives off in her mother’s car to one of São Paulo’s favelas – shanty towns – where she is raped. Her voice narrates the first half of the novel. “The only person who was allowed to ask me why I had driven there that night was Almut,” Alma says, referring to her closest friend. “Was it the mood?” Almut asks. This mood is a desire “to be consumed by the menacing darkness, to seek out your fear so that you can surrender yourself to it … and when it’s over, I’m left with a terrible clarity – in which I realize that I don’t want to be alive, that everything is riddled with hate.” This is the fallen world. From their early teens, the two friends share a vision and mission: to travel to the outback of Australia and experience an aboriginal, prelapsarian world. “We read about the Dreamtime, the time before time and memory began, when the world was flat and empty and shapeless and there were no trees or animals or food or people.” An Eden without plentitude, yet pure, in equilibrium. “I am here to exorcize a demon,” Alma says, when she speaks to us from Adelaide.

nooteboom.jpgIn times of deep distress, we turn to imagery to find the actual world. In certain circumstances, any of us may become part of someone else’s image world. Any of us may appear to be an incarnation of an archetype. Nooteboom’s luminous novel turns on these notions, and also, on the comic sadness and solitary pain experienced by those given up to the search. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden was a ticket to ride, and Nooteboom sets his characters in motion as travelers seeking ways to enter and come to terms with the world. Both Alma and Almut carry their creation and revival myths with them. The tensions of the novel derive from the grating between archetype and experience. While this may sound like a formula for the women’s disappointment, Nooteboom aims for a refreshed yet tragic balance between the values of imagery and experience – a feel for the shape and taste of emerging knowledge.

The equanimity achieved by Alma through her experiences in Australia, city and outback, ultimately intersect with the main character of the second half of Lost Paradise, a 50-ish Dutch literary critic named Erik Zontag. Now the unnamed narrator takes over. Nooteboom must have chuckled his way through the chapters introducing us to Zontag. “He had made quite a name for himself by taking pot-shots at a few literary giants, so the newspaper for which he still worked had offered him a permanent position,” the voice says. “Literature had become a career. Every numbskull who had with gathering distaste studied Dutch literature felt the need to write a novel, which meant that masterly debuts were following on the heels of one another more rapidly than ever. He was part of the clean-up crew.” (A perennial rumored candidate for the Nobel Prize, Nooteboom is certainly one of the “literary giants.”) Nooteboom then dares to place Zontag in a German spa, a most traditional locale for the European novelist, evoking the spirit of Hans Castorp and The Magic Mountain. Here, Zontag discovers that Alma, whom he had encountered in Australia, is his masseuse.

In Lost Paradise, the chapters are very brief, the plot line simple, the dialogue crisp. In counterpoint, the novel’s preoccupations are speculative, spiritual, provisional. What first appears to be a meaningful pattern fails to yield definitive significance. For instance, as an art history student, Alma had been engrossed with angel imagery in Renaissance painting; in Australia, she is hired to play the role of an angel. In this guise, she is discovered by Zontag. Another thematic trace, also opening into the tentative: When Alma comes to Australia, she meets and becomes the lover of a painter. They meet at his gallery show where one of his paintings seems to be the trigger for their relationship. She speaks: “At a private viewing, you stare at a painting too long, tune out everything around you, the voices, the people, think the forbidden phrase ‘like a black cloud,’ wish you could block it all out, the violence, the horror, the fear, and feel yourself being sucked back into that cloud.” The “black cloud” is the same phrase she had used to describe the feeling of rape. Speaking about the painter, she says, “sometimes I think he doesn’t see me, that even when he touches me or has sex with me, I am invisible to him, someone without a soul, a mere shape or figure – and he is right about that – as if what we do has no substance, as if his pre-announced departure can be felt in everything, in his long silences, his stillness, his refusal to see me although I am dying to be seen and I know I won’t be – I knew all that the moment I saw the painting.” By frustrating our desire for conclusiveness, Nooteboom treats us as the painter treats Alma: as if we have no substance. The effect is bracing. This novel contains at its heart a black core that demands an encounter. Dressed as angel during a city-wide arts program, people hunt for the angels and stare at them; the angels don’t move, don’t respond. For Zontag, the new Adam, the angel remains elusive.

A slight correction: The novel begins with the voice of “the author” who, while riding on a train, sees a woman reading a book. “It’s this book, a book out of which she is about to disappear, along with me.” Both he and she reappear at the end. Along the way, this all-knowing writer’s-voice occasionally intrudes with asides about his characters. This Kundera-ish behavior by Nooteboom is, by now, the sort of post-innovative technique that Zontag might have criticized. But I won’t. Lost Paradise is a delight, filled with sparking sentences, an aura of wonder, and a great story-teller’s facility.

[Published 10/23/07, 160 pp., $23.00 cloth]