Rammstein’s Engel made bookish. A Review of Lost Paradise by Cees Nooteboom
“Jeder Engel ist schrecklich” wrote Rilke whose thoughts meet Walkabout in this short book about Alma a young woman who seeks the transfiguration, and a Dutch literary critic Erik Zondag who wants to lose weight. Zondag, if it wasn’t obvious, means Sunday in Dutch, and we should know this because Nooteboom intends that we recognize connections around religion, Paradise, angels, struggles, desires, and life. Or for the theme in a nutshell, just pin your ears to Rammstein’s song Engel.
After travelling through the outback Alma signs on as a half-hidden angel at a festival in Perth. She hides in a cupboard with her wings on, and she meets a man with whom she spends a week. In part two of the book, Zondag attends a spartan spa where dinner consists of either a bread roll, or a single potato, dribbled with linseed oil and dabbed with two teaspoons of salmon mousse or avocado mush. Herbal tea comes later.
Nooteboom references a good deal, he sways from Botticelli’s Annunciation to Australian Aboriginal concepts of The Dreaming, (Dreamtime) from Milton to Dutch writers. We recognize the connections for their obviousness. Rilke’s Duino Elegies acts like the off stage director. In prose form we see Nooteboom following Rilke’s lead as he mixes up his terrifying angels, a self questioning of who in the hierarchies of angels would hear if she, Alma, or he, Zondag cried out. The whole experience is of interest but at the end of the day, just as Alma can never reach or touch the Aboriginals’ Dreamtime, Nooteboom can’t quite reach Rilke’s Lebenskraft.
I found the writing to be anamorphic, much like images are reflected upon a reflective cylinder, a presentation from its origin, but lacking substance and profundity. Certainly we see reflections but similarities remain simply similarities. It’s not that the book is bad for this, but it seems either the author wants more or he asks us to supply more mystery, more dreaminess, and more ethereality. When not struggling through these various connections, Nooteboom engages in a tidbits of meta-play, just two or three droplets scatted in the book that don’t really form a theme. For example, the book that the woman on the plane is reading is the book we are reading, which it seems this author wrote, this author either meaning us, or the narrator, or Nooteboom. Well the narrator admits, he doesn’t know any books that aren’t about misunderstandings.
Themes found in the 1971 movie directed by Nicolas Roeg, Walkabout appear here to a degree. The mute languages inherent in cultural juxtapositions that disallow a full inhabitation of each person’s other, is seen in Alma’s desire to get to Dreamtime or in a more metaphoric sense, the fallen angel’s desire to return to Paradise. Or, stretching the metaphor a bit, although I don’t find the book distinctly pursuing this theme, a reader is always outside the work of fiction yet desiring to enter. Nooteboom writes, “There is a moment in which something that appears to be quite ordinary suddenly becomes mysterious.” What carries Walkabout in this manner is that the themes and the story is, or nearly is, overtaken by the glorious, slow-paced, inebriating, heat-baked beauty of the scenes.
I wish that as syntax this had a parallel in the book. But the writing is obvious and assertive, designed to tell the story, and only infrequently do sentences become something special. For example, this is sharper, “If only I could be more quiet myself, I am sure I would be able to hear the shifting grains of sand, the slithering of the desert lizard and the wind in the spinifex and the balgas — the grass trees.”
It may be that, “Life is a gamble and an illusion, fraught with risk,” as Zondag thinks, but the connections between concepts in the novel are so thin that we can’t make much of his musing. The author writes, “A woman listens to a serpent just once and is cast out for all time, and then a ship lands on an unknown coast where people with painted bodies are hiding in the bushes, or a woman drives in to the wrong neighborhood and will never be the same again. You know, I think the title is the best part.” It’s ideas and wishes for heaven by the earthbound that drives the characters. They play their roles, as if pretending to be an angel helps them transfigure — it doesn’t. Darn that thwarting human agency. Shakespeare wrote, “Our hope is loss, our hope but sad despair.” (Henry VI, part iii, act ii, scene 3.) Angels have lost their Paradise but the route back is unavailable.
There is no easy transfiguration here, no exit from the reflections except perhaps that which will end us, “And that must end us; that must be our cure — To be no more. Sad Cure!” (Milton, Paradise Lost.) Yes, nearly as sad as remaining here.