Look Homeward, Angel

Lost Paradise

by Cees Nooteboom, translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty
Grove, 151 pp., $23.00

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…

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