Lost Paradise by Cees Nooteboom (translated by Susan Massotty)

“That is what everyone has always been looking for, isn’t it? A lost paradise?”

Several years ago before they refurbished and made soulless Manchester’s Central Library, pulping a significant proportion of what was an eclectic and varied collection, I happened across this slender, unassuming little book and unwittingly opened a door I didn’t expect to. I still remember the way I felt reading this book for the first time, the sense of something extraordinary happening, a kind of ecstasy, though as Alma – the main character in the first section of the book – comments “One cannot talk about ecstasy” – yet this is exactly how it felt, like I had opened a portal to another way of existing, a place in which my nerves vibrated at the slightest breath of air and the colours were brighter and everything, even the smallest thing, was so much more than I could have ever imagined. I lived for the next couple of days in this strangely heightened mental state and then bumped back to earth, and to this day I do not know why or how it happened or what it was, but I went and bought that little book, a fortuitous choice as the Central Library copy became one of the many victims of the pulp, and it has become one I regularly return to. I have never achieved quite that state again, I suspect it was a one-time thing, but this book still has the power to move me in a way which is inexplicable, unknowable and I wish I could figure out, but then if I did perhaps the magic would be lost and on balance I’d rather have the magic.

“Who banned angels from our thoughts?”

The inspiration for Lost Paradise is made plain by Nooteboom in the prologue, a strange little interval in the opening to the second part, and the epilogue all of which could perhaps be discarded except that Nooteboom obviously wanted them there. These post-modernist sections into which the writer, the inspiration for the stories and their various characters and locations, are interjected stand as an odd framing device to two otherwise brief but powerful stories. It’s an interesting insight into the mind of the writer, and yet I think when I read the book I unwittingly faze these parts out, focusing instead on the two interconnected stories. I think what I’m saying here is that it’s not a perfect book, and perhaps my judgement is clouded by my extreme emotional attachment. Nevertheless, it is beautiful.

Running through both stories is the connection to Paradise Lost, the ‘lost paradise’ of the title, and the stories centre around this idea of being cast out, of making one small mistake – a ‘misunderstanding’ as the real or not real muse in the epilogue suggests – for which the consequence is cruel and extreme and unbalanced when measured against the gravity of the original error. But isn’t that what life is like? And then there are angels hovering in and out of the story, always present if banished from our daily thoughts in this modern age in which religion and its mystical proponents are, in themselves, ‘cast out’, banished from daily life except, perhaps, for the truly dedicated.

The first, and most powerful of the two stories begins in Sao Paolo and ends in the outback of Australia. Alma, the main character, a Brazilian of German descent drives from her home, driven out by a ‘mood’, her ‘shadow’ as her friend Almut refers to it, into the favelas where her car breaks down and she is ‘lost’ in a ‘black cloud’ which descends upon her; an unforgivable cliché that she uses to describe the gang rape she’s subjected to. Her friend Almut, the more pragmatic of the two, suggests they travel to Australia, a place they had been dreaming about since childhood, to the ‘Sickness Dreaming Place’ they read about as children where Alma might recover. So they travel to Australia, a place of dreams, of the ‘Dreamtime’ of aboriginal belief, a place which is not exactly what they were expecting. What they were looking for was a ‘lost paradise’, a place of mystical certainty where people have lived for thousands of years in conditions so unforgiving it is a wonder they can live there at all and yet they have and do. Yet even these people who live so lightly on the land have become ‘cast out’ by the whites who have claimed their lands and the commodities that lie beneath their sacred grounds; they have become ghosts, soulless unrooted people who have lost their past and can’t exist in this present in a way which is in any way meaningful to who they are. Except for a few that do, of course. Alma meets and enters into a short relationship with an Aboriginal man; he becomes, unexpectedly, her ‘sickness dreaming place’, a place in which she can become reconciled to her cast out status, despite saying little and offering her nothing, as she describes so movingly in chapter 7 in a few small pages which never fail to make me catch my breath:

 “I stood out there last night, and there were only two things in the universe – me, and all of those other things, in which case it no longer matters that I will disappear from it one day, because I have seen and understood everything. I have become inaccessible, I feel above it all. If I were an instrument, I would produce the most wonderful music. I know you can’t say any of this to another living soul, but it is true.”

I think this, Alma’s reconciliation with her inevitable end, is what makes this book so moving for me. I think I am drawn to stories of people who emerge from suffering to a new kind of peace and self-certainty (I am yet to watch V for Vendetta and not sob my way through Valerie’s story into Evie’s ‘rebirth’; it gets me every time) and this book has this wrapped in a kind of crystal clarity which makes its power unavoidable.

The second part of the story is briefer and sadder in a way. Erik Zontag, a middle-aged Dutch literary critic (who may or may not be modelled on Nooteboom himself, it’s hard to say) travels to an Austrian spa resort where he suffers, lightly, from exercise and a diet which is designed to cleanse him. Erik is sad, he is a sad and lonely man who doesn’t know who he is or who he wants to be, though he has everything that anyone is supposed to want: success, a young and vibrant girlfriend, a nice apartment, respect, status. Yet he, too, is seeking his lost paradise. A few years earlier, Erik visited a literary festival in Australia. On one of the down days he visited a tour which was taking place in the city, a tour themed around Paradise Lost in which angels had been hidden around the city. During his tour, Erik makes an encounter he did not expect, an encounter which changed him, which cast him out from what he thought was his life into something else. I won’t say what the encounter is, but somehow in this remote spa resort hidden in the hills of Austria something happens which forces Erik to confront it, to admit that he too is searching for a ‘lost paradise’ and like Adam and Eve, his paradise may never be regained.

It’s extremely difficult for me to articulate what it is about Lost Paradise which moves me so deeply. All I know is that it had a profound impact on me the first time I read it and whilst each re-read is different in its own way it is a book which never fails to elicit a strong emotional response. It is invariably the first part which evokes that response, the second part is much more muted and yet it is still necessary to read both parts. I wonder, with my more critical eye, if there’s an imbalance here, but if there is it makes not the slightest bit of difference to me. I am not sure if I can recommend reading Lost Paradise, I think I can because I think it is a good book irrespective of my blind spot, but I cannot say that it will have the impact on anyone else that it has had on me. Books are just made that way; perhaps it was just the right time, perhaps I have just the right kind of shadow in my own history so that Alma’s shadow resonated strongly with me, perhaps it simply coincides with my own way of thinking about eternity. There is something powerful in looking up at the stars and knowing that everything you’re seeing is older than you’ll ever be, and there’s something of an echo of that here which Nooteboom taps capably into. Perhaps we’re all searching for that lost paradise, and for one brief moment, with this lovely book, perhaps I found it.

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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4 Responses to Lost Paradise by Cees Nooteboom (translated by Susan Massotty)

  1. SimplyMe says:

    “It’s extremely difficult for me to articulate what it is about Lost Paradise which moves me so deeply” I have a book like this in my personal collection as well. The mystery of not knowing, of befriending an open-ended question, is closely associated, I suspect, to the experience of wonder,in the best sense of that word.
    On another note, your reference to the night sky made me smile. I live with a man who looks and always says simply, “The stars are my friends.”
    I was delighted to discover that I can request Lost Paradise through our library system. I will respond to the content of your post more fully once I have read the book.
    All the best to you.

    • bookbii says:

      Oh I’d love to hear what you think when you have read it. It’s such a lovely book, but strange in its own way. How lovely that your husband sees the stars as friends. I love the stars, not just for their brightness and incomprehensibility but for their sense of the endlessness of time and the way in which they highlight the contrasting brevity of our own existence.

  2. JacquiWine says:

    An author I keep meaning to try. In fact, I think I have a collection of his stories tucked away somewhere. You make this book sound so intriguing…

    • bookbii says:

      Nooteboom is definitely worth looking up Jacqui; both this and Rituals are books I can return to and return to, though Lost Paradise is the one which really punched me in the gut. His short story collection The Foxes Come At Night is also pretty special.

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