In the summer of 2003, as part of that year’s Lincoln Center Festival, members of the public were offered a guided walk around selected New York sites, beginning on Roosevelt Island and ending in the Chrysler Building. As they proceeded from site to site, they were invited to keep an eye out for angels. And at certain sites they did indeed get to see angel-actors, some with wings, some without, some gazing into the distance, some sleeping. At other sites there were merely traces of past angelic visits: feathers, for example.
The event was the brainchild of the British theater director Deborah Warner. In its first version, dating back to 1995 and as yet sans angels, it was set in a huge abandoned nineteenth-century London hotel; its goal was to evoke ghostly presences from the building’s past. In 1999 Warner presented a revised version with angels added. For the angels, said Warner, she was indebted to Rilke. “There’s a wonderful quote from Rilke which says that angels are uncertain if they are walking amongst the living or the dead.” In 2000 the revised version was exported to Perth, capital of Western Australia.
Responses of participants in the Angel Project varied widely. According to some, the presence of otherworldly beings changed the nature of their gaze, aestheticizing their view of the city. Others dismissed the project as mere Disneyfication, exploitation of a millenary craze for angels. Yet others were deeply moved. “They cried a lot,” said Warner, looking back on the 1999 London performance. “We put angels up at the top of the empty floors of the Euston Tower watching over London. And again, people’s response, terribly, terribly emotional. I think it’s about loss of innocence.”
Among visitors to the 2000 Angel Project was the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom, in Perth to take part in the city’s arts festival. Nooteboom’s novel Lost Paradise, published in the Netherlands in 2004, draws heavily on recollections of that visit, as we shall see.
Alma, the heroine of Lost Paradise, and her bosom friend Almut are young Brazilians of German descent (their grandfathers came to Brazil after the Second World War). Almut is down-to-earth and hedonistic, Alma (whose name means “soul”) more introspective and melancholy—she has a “shadow” within her. Both are graduates in art history. One day, for no good reason, Alma drives into São Paulo’s most notorious favela. Her car stalls; a gang of men drag her out and rape her. She descends into a profound depression. For both this condition and the men who caused it she uses the phrase “black cloud.”
Why did she venture into the forbidden territory of the favela? Her answer: she was in the grip of a demon that she calls “the mood” (Dutch stemming, from stem, “voice”). The mood has been long familiar to her, in the way that a demon or an inner voice can be a familiar. She gives a close account of its three stages: premonition, possession proper, aftermath.
Since childhood Alma has dreamed of going to Australia, which she thinks of as a place of healing where she will be set free of her demon. In reproductions of Aboriginal rock paintings she and Almut have seen white ghost-figures whom she thinks of as beschermheiligen, patron saints but also guardian spirits.
In the wake of the rape, Alma and Almut set off for the “Sickness Dreaming Place” they have pinpointed in Australia. Their first impressions of the country are not favorable. Aboriginal settlements seem to them like concentration camps without fences; white Australians strike them as blinkered and callous; they miss the lushness and sensuality of Brazil.
In due course, however, Alma meets an Aboriginal artist, never named, whose paintings make a deep impression on her. With him she spends a week in an isolated beachside cabin. The experience, if not idyllic (he barely speaks to her; she finds their relations “perverse” in ways she does not elaborate on), is life-changing. Making love to a man as dark as her Brazilian attackers has somehow freed her from the black cloud. “This man has helped me catch up with my shadow, and that is good. We are one now: I am both dark and light.”
Even more importantly, from him she absorbs enough of the Aboriginal worldview to shrug off her fear of death. For that has been the deeper nature of the sickness afflicting her soul: not so much rape trauma as an inability to face her own mortality. After she has died, she now believes, her soul will return in some other embodiment. She is thus, in a sense, immortal.
In her newly healed state she stands under the southern night sky harkening to the harmony of the spheres. From her art-historical studies an image revisits her: Saint Denis writing his book about the angels while, above his head, angels appear arrayed in nine arcs, playing musical instruments:
Angels, desert lizard, rainbow snake, the heroes of creation—everything at last comes together. I have arrived. And when I leave, I will not need to take anything with me. I have everything.
Bidding farewell to her lover, Alma heads for Perth, where according to the grapevine there are vacancies in the forthcoming production of the Angel Project. From early on, Alma has had an obsession with angels. Her favorite European painting is Botticelli’s Annunciation, which shows a winged being kneeling to announce to the young Mary that through her God will enter the world. The painting sends Alma into a trancelike state, as if she herself were being addressed by an angel.
By European standards, Perth, founded in the 1820s, has no history worth speaking of. On the other hand, like the rest of the continent on whose rim it sits, it is haunted by a human prehistory going back 40,000 years. In Perth Alma is accepted as a junior angel. She is fitted out with a pair of wings and installed in a cupboard in a vacant building, facing inward, with instructions to speak to no one, respond in no way to solicitations.
One of the visitors who finds his way to Alma in her cupboard is a middle-aged man who for a long while stands staring at her, stricken (though she cannot know it) with a mixture of fear, tenderness, and desire. The next day the man comes back. Stumbling for words, he reaches out and touches her wing. “Please go away,” she says, obeying orders, and turns on him a look both forbidding and inviting.
She and the man meet again at the big end-of-festival beach party. To his surprise, she enfolds him in her wings. They kiss; he is about to remove her clothes and uncover her naked form when they are lit up by the beam of a spotlight. Police jeeps roar onto the beach, disrupting the party. It is only a drug raid, but to the man it is like expulsion from paradise. Alma vanishes into the night, throwing over her shoulder words that he does not catch.
Three years later Alma finds herself working as a masseuse at a spa in a forest near Innsbruck in Austria. One of the clients on her massage table turns out to be her adorer from Perth. His name is Erik Zondag; he comes from Amsterdam, where he is a literary journalist; and he is at the spa to lose weight but also to try to recapture his old zest for life. Erik is eager to take up with Alma where they left off, but Alma cuts him short, repeating her fateful words from the Australian beach: “Angels can’t be with people.” Thus, abruptly, ends the story of the lovers.
The encounters between Alma and Erik, summed up here through Alma’s eyes, are in Nooteboom’s account rendered through the eyes of Erik, to whom the second half of the novel is given. From his perspective we rehearse his experiences three years earlier—his arrival in Perth, which strikes him as “the very last place you would expect to find angels,” to speak at the arts festival, his involvement in the Angel Project, his first brushes with Alma—and then his rediscovery of the lost beloved in Austria.
As the black cloud in Alma’s head is more a fear of death than the after-effect of rape, so Erik’s soul-sickness comes more from a midlife wakening to his own mortality than from concern over his weight. In Alma’s case, cure seems to have been effected through a reanimation of her shadow, the non-Western, American Indian side of her soul. In the case of Erik, “the only man who had ever been embraced by an angel,” it is union with the celestial that promises healing, a union that Alma frustratingly withholds.
Nooteboom’s tale of Alma and her two lovers is somewhat of a puzzle to interpret. Is it really being claimed that a week of sex with a man whom Almut—who tends to play Sancho Panza to Alma’s Quixote—disparages as a pet noble savage will heal her friend’s troubled soul; or are we to understand that, on the contrary, Alma’s salvation narrative is self-delusion from beginning to end? And what of angelhood? Does a pretty young woman change the nature of her being simply by strapping wings on her back?
The latter question has more interesting ramifications than the former. Through his fable Nooteboom may well be suggesting that the hunger of the soul does not require direct experience of the transcendent to be satisfied, that complicity in an aesthetic illusion can take the soul surprisingly far.
This seems to have been what happened with numbers of participants in Deborah Warner’s project: being told to look out for angels led them to see angels—to have, so to speak, angelic visions. Knowing that the angels were paid actors did not spoil the effect. As Desiderius Erasmus, Nooteboom’s intimate spiritual forebear, put it five hundred years ago:
If a person were to try stripping the disguises from actors while they play a scene…showing to the audience their real looks… would not such a one spoil the whole play?… Destroy the illusion and any play is ruined…. All things are presented by shadows; yet this play is put on in no other way.
By “this play” Erasmus means no less than the play constituting our lives. The shadow play in which we are allotted parts may not be the real thing, but it is the only thing we earthlings have, so we may as well play our role with a good grace.
As for Alma’s affair with the painter, the episode is too thinly rendered to bear a complex interpretation, while the accompanying pages on Aboriginal thought systems (“dreamings”) and rock art, which one presumes are meant to lend substance to the affair, read as if copied from a guidebook. It might be argued that the uncritical attitude toward traditional belief expressed here belongs not to Nooteboom himself but to his romantically inclined heroine; and indeed Nooteboom works into his narrative an aged anthropologist who warns Alma and Almut, coming from the “place of chaos and confusion” that is the West, against turning Aboriginal Australia into an illusory lost paradise. Nevertheless, Alma’s conversion experience is skimpily presented and unpersuasive.