Modern Angel

Sunday, November 4, 2007


By Cees Nooteboom

Translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty

Grove. 151 pp. $23

Cees Nooteboom has been called a Dutch Italo Calvino, a Netherlandish Nabokov, but his name remains virtually unknown among American readers. Nooteboom, who began publishing in 1955, wasn't translated into English until 1983. Soon the poet, essayist and novelist had an international audience, and his name began gracing Nobel Prize shortlists.

The hypnotic Lost Paradise, Nooteboom's ninth novel, begins with the narrator captivated by a woman seated near him on an airplane. "The riddle that other people represent," he reflects, "has occupied me all my life." While contemplating an essay he is writing on cemetery angels, he watches the woman skim magazine articles on Sao Paulo and Aboriginal art. From this simple scene, he spins a dream-like story.

In this tale, Alma, a young art student, travels to Australia after being gang-raped in a Sao Paolo favela. While searching for Aboriginal art, she is joined by angels, the subject of her dissertation. "Who banned angels from our thoughts?" Alma asks. "I can feel them all around me." She soon becomes an angel herself, costumed with gray wings, hidden in a cupboard in an abandoned building in Perth as a performer in a play/scavenger hunt called the Angel Project.

In the novel's second half, literary critic Erik Zontag, frustrated with his work, visits a remote Austrian spa where Alma is now working as a masseuse; it turns out the two have met before.

Nooteboom's characters are gripping, his dialogue humorous and his narrative brimming with musings about identity and redemption. His genius, however, is his seamless integration of contemporary, mythic and historic images.

Take Zontag's observation of the spa's fitness center, where "slaves were working out on torture machines. One young woman was running a Sisyphus-like race on a rubber belt . . . the Russian from the waiting room was trying to lift a massive set of weights on a pulley from a sitting position, and another victim . . . was fighting gravity as he tried to raise himself. All that labour, he thought, and not a single product to show for it."

Nooteboom is just as skillful at melding the corporal and ephemeral: In Australia, standing before the rock paintings at Ubirr, a character says: "It makes me feel ancient too, as if I've been here forever. Time is nothing. A mere fart."

Juxtapositions such as this -- eternity and flatulence -- give his fiction its weight and its delightful whimsy. Nooteboom is a novelist of big themes, but he is never heavy-handed. He embeds philosophical musings in observations of the commonplace, so that his ideas sneak up on you, appearing unexpectedly, breathtakingly, like angels hidden in abandoned cupboards.

-- Jennifer Vanderbes is the author of the novel "Easter Island" and a writing fellow at the New York Public Library's Cullman Center.

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