Cees Nooteboom is the one name which keeps coming up when people talk about Dutch literature, so I looked him up on my local library database and was lucky enough to reserve a copy of a recent novella, Lost Paradise (translated by Susan Massotty). It's a slight work, running to 150 sparsely-filled pages, with two main strands, connected late in the book by a surprising reunion - and by the writer's insistence on putting himself in the story...
In the first part, we meet Alma, a young Brazilian woman full of an insuperable sadness. After a traumatic event back in São Paulo, she and her best friend Almuta decide that it's time to go off on their long-awaited travels around the world, ending up in the place they have always dreamed of visiting - Australia. A chance encounter with an Aboriginal artist helps Alma to finally rid herself of the shadow which has haunted her for so long, and a chance part-time job over in Perth gives her the opportunity to become the one thing she is obsessed with - an angel...
Meanwhile, over in the Netherlands, literary critic Erik Zondag, a grumpy middle-aged scribbler, is off to an Austrian health farm to detox, hoping to shed not only a few kilos, but also some of the anger and frustration he feels. In a high-class institution in the mountains, far from the eyes of the outside world, Erik begins to relax and let out the pent-up emotions he has been keeping inside - and then one morning...
...well, that would be telling ;)
When I started reading Lost Paradise, I had my doubts. The first, introductory, section really grated: the narrator was pompous, the language stilted, the behaviour slightly arrogant and sexist... and it's meant to be. It's actually the writer himself, introducing his main character personally (literally!). Once we get into Alma's story, the tone changes, swapping the irreverent tone for an excellent lyrical stretch of writing. My favourite part of the book was the seventy-five pages that made up this section, a tale which probably could - and should - have been a (longish) short story in its own right.
The idea behind the book is a simple one, and the title, as you would expect, gives the reader a clue to this. It is the idea of a yearning for something else, a simpler time, an escape from modern life - and a deliberate reference to Milton's Paradise Lost (a book which is both seen and quoted from in Nooteboom's work). Both Alma and Erik are looking for something that isn't really there; Erik tries to alleviate his ennui in the isolated Austrian mountains, and Alma wants to leave her Weltschmerz behind in the ancient Australian Outback. As a man Alma meets remarks, this is something that many people are desperate to do:
It is a yearning for simplicity, for simpler times, that leads us to run away, looking for our own lost paradise..."For people coming from a place of chaos and confusion, it's quite tempting. Especially since it has been destroyed, or almost. That is what everyone has always been looking for, isn't it? A lost paradise?" p.51, Harvill Secker (2007)
There's a lot to like in Lost Paradise, but there are also plenty of things which don't quite work. As an Australia (of sorts), I'm a little uneasy with the way the writer has used the Aboriginal people and ideas in the novella, playing with this idea of mysticism and exoticism. He never attempts to really portray the culture beyond the surface clichés, and while this may be deliberate, it often feels... well, just wrong.
I'm also less than convinced by the meta-fictional elements, with the writer lusting after, and eventually speaking to, his young female creation. Zondag's story also suffers from this, with many a nod and a wink to Nooteboom's fellow Dutch writers. At one point, as Erik's girlfriend condemns his over-savage critiques of certain works, he says:
"There was no question of making love after that. Dutch authors had a lot to answer for." p.84In fact, if you had no idea of any Dutch authors, a couple of hours in the company of Lost Paradise would be a great place to start learning more ;)
In the end, I was left with the feeling that while Nooteboom is a talented writer, Lost Paradise is a slight, experimental, flawed work. I've heard that he has written some good short-story collections, and this book almost feels like a couple of short stories extended and blended into something which doesn't quite come off. I love the writing (for the most part), and I think Susan Massotty's translation is excellent; it's certainly very easy to see the different styles the writer originally used in the different sections. However, if you're looking for a masterpiece of Dutch literature, I think you would be best advised to try something a little more substantial.
Possibly by the same writer ;)