A brief, sweet book, rich with dreaming and gentle
philosophizing, Lost Paradise is best read at a leisurely clip all in one
afternoon. To split its 150 pages (with generous margins and small trim size)
would be to lose the thread a remarkably gossamer thread that could easily
be broken by a day of work or night of sleep. Placing trust in ideas and
ruminations, Cees Nooteboom does away with the trappings of traceable plot lines
and solid characters until the very end, when the myopic lens through which
we've been peering clicks into focus and reveals the tableau that we've been
squinting at all along.
What seems at first like a writer being bossed about by his characters, and in the process getting bogged down by their exclusive meditations, becomes an often beautiful show, in which the puppet is revealed to be holding the strings, and proves deft and charming in both roles. Murky Aboriginal concepts of The Dreamtime (see sidebar) meld with Botticelli's The Annunciation and references, of course, to Milton's Paradise Lost. The chapters are brief and fleeting, their sequence disorienting. The author himself appears in the first and last few pages, book-ending the story with the self-conscious musings of a curious observer and compulsive storyteller, revealing what might be the crux of the entire novel.
As much an experiment with the form and purpose of the novel as a lovely aesthetic endeavor, Lost Paradise could be read so many different ways by so many different readers -- and perhaps by the same reader on different days. Is it a writer's exercise, exploring the role of the author in his own work, his inspirations, and his quest to connect? Is it a challenge to the reader to drop his or her craving for "knowing" or "getting it", and to experience the novel in a purely aesthetic and philosophic form, free from conventional expectations? Is it really about how the divine touches our lives, as the jacket says, or is it more about how we seek hard enough for the divine to conjure its form ourselves?
Whether those questions will be worth pondering, or even whether Lost Paradise is worth reading to find the answers is ultimately an intensely personal question. No doubt it will be divisive, declared alternately a masterpiece, masterful, and a real "piece of work" by critics and readers of all stripes. Some of us don't like to work quite so hard to get to the bottom of things, while others find greatest pleasure in the challenge. Still others won't care about dissecting and distilling, choosing instead to read this slip of a novel for its dreamy, grainy-film-like qualities, suspended in time and just outside of the concrete world.
About the Author
Born Cornelis Johannes Jacobus Maria Nooteboom in The Hague in 1933, essayist, poet and novelist Cees Nooteboom (pronounced sace, rhymes with face, note-boom) is one of Holland's most renowned authors. He has won the Pegasus Prize, the Constantijn Huygens Prize, the Aristeon European Literary Prize, and has been frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. Although first published in 1955, none of his work was translated into English until 1983. Lost Paradise is his ninth novel to be translated into English (partial bibliography at BookBrowse).
This review was originally published in November 2007, and has been updated for the November 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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