Friday, February 29, 2008

Nooteboom's Lost Paradise

I'm all set to read Cees Nooteboom's Lost Paradise, which has just come out in English translation. Nooteboom shares with Harry Mulisch the somewhat back-handed accolade of being one of the few heavy-weight Dutch writers known outside of the Netherlands. One reason his prose works well in translation is that it is a prose of ideas, rather than style alone. The esteemed J.M. Coetzee reviews Susan Massotty's translation of Lost Paradise in a recent New York Review of Books and places Nooteboom in the international realm of letters:

Nooteboom has a reputation as a postmodernist, not only in respect of his
fictional procedures, where he has plainly been to school with Vladimir Nabokov,
Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino, but in his sensibility too, cool,
intellectually sophisticated, ironic. He may come from the dark, heavy north and
speak a northern tongue but his heart, he implies, lies in a brighter, lighter
south (he is a devoted Hispanophile). He is a son not of Germany, whose high
peaks and dark forests breed in the soul dangerous metaphysical yearnings, but
of the commonsensical Low Countries. Even from the Dutch he keeps a critical
distance: for example, his 1984 novel translated under the paradoxical title In
the Dutch Mountains criticizes the complacency, greed, and hypocrisy of his

Perhaps that is what most appeals in Nooteboom--his resistance to provincialism; he is concerned more with manipulating ideas than with the dreary, fixed details of time and place.

The novel's story is (perhaps undesirably) fanciful, influenced by Rainier Maria Rilke's poetry as Coetzee sees it and, more directly, as I see it, by Wim Wender's film Wings of Desire. I won't go into plot summary here since Coetzee does a thorough job.

Coetzee also has this to say about Massotty's translation:

Massotty's translation of Lost Paradise reads fluently. Some of that fluency comes, however, at the cost of precision. Nooteboom is a careful
prose stylist of a notably philosophical bent. In a book concerned so centrally
with questions of dying and living beyond death, it is remiss to write of
someone who is burning with curiosity that he is "dying of curiosity," of
someone who is crying out to be seen that she is "dying to be seen," and of
someone who has one question above all to ask that he is "dying to ask"

I would imagine his judgment is likely to be valid since Coetzee is, himself, a fine translator from Dutch and appears to know a thing or two about Noteboom. His slim translation of the work of Dutch poets, Landscape with Rowers, includes a poem by Nooteboom. In his collection of criticism, Stranger Shores, Coetzee has also written on Nooteboom.

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