A Dutch Nabokov or Calvino.

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Oct. 31 2007 11:00 AM

Paradise Lost

Cees Nooteboom takes on our jet-fueled millennium.

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This kind of breathless epiphany is, needless to say, tricky territory: In another writer's hands it might reek of the kind of acquisitive spiritual globe-trotting that characterizes so much Western literature of travel, from Kipling's Kim to Marlo Morgan's Mutant Message Down Under. But Nooteboom's sympathetic and delicate touch allows us to appreciate Alma's mystical awakening without necessarily believing in it as anything more than a momentary delusion. Once the painter has left her, the feeling of desolation returns, and after some more wandering, she finds herself involved with a conceptual art project, "The Angel Project," in which living angels (in costume, of course) are scattered across the city of Perth, and visitors are taken to find them in a kind of highbrow scavenger hunt. Her assignment is to crouch in a cupboard inside an abandoned building, facing away from the door, so that only her back and wings are visible.

It is here that the novel's second focal character, Erik, a Dutch book critic in town for a literary festival, discovers her. Erik is a sedentary man who has tired of the endless circular debates within the insular world of Dutch literature, but sees no way of escaping them; he participates in the festival reluctantly and somewhat cynically, feeling that his opinions are as relevant to the rest of the world as "an obscure tribal war in Swaziland." Nonetheless, when he stumbles upon Alma's figure hidden in the cupboard, he finds himself hypnotized by her. In this case, the relationship need not be temporary; Erik—a representative of the tradition from which Nooteboom himself springs—has been seduced by Alma's foreignness and inaccessibility, and sees it as a means of escape from his own stultifying life. Despite his entreaties, however, Alma flees, claiming, "angels can't be with people." When they meet again, by accident, at a German health spa where he is a client and she a massage therapist, she again rejects him; her urge to wander, it appears, has become permanent, blotting out any human attachments. Erik's desire for homelessness is, at most, a temporary escape from bitterness and torpor; in the end, he must return home, altered, perhaps, but unsatisfied.

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The symbolism of Paradise Lost is strewn throughout Lost Paradise, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways; Nooteboom goes so far as to end the novel with Milton's description of Adam and Eve expelled from Eden: "The World was all before them, where to choose/ Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide …" This seems to suggest, on the one hand, that wandering may be, at least in the Western tradition, hardwired within us, as fundamental as our assumptions about free will and individual agency. Or, on the other, that wandering is always a kind of mourning, a small consolation for having been abandoned by the music of the spheres and left rootless in modernity. If we go searching for meaning by seeking out indigenous cultures in their original "habitats"—Tibet, the Amazon, the Australian outback, the Hopi mesas—we risk staring into our own habitual blindness, our inability to see the world as an organically related whole. This may sound like a bleak assessment of the mind of the contemporary traveler, but Lost Paradise is not that at all. Nooteboom structures the book as a succession of fleeting pleasures juxtaposed with large, permanent miseries, as if to suggest that a "global novelist," if there is such a thing, doesn't need a coherent pattern, a single consistent cosmology, to create a small, oddly beautiful work of art.

Jess Row is the author of The Train to Lo Wu, a collection of short stories. He teaches in the English department at the College of New Jersey.

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