Authors: Cees Nooteboom
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
A Song of Truth and Semblance
In the Dutch Mountains
Philip and the Others
The Knight Has Died
The Following Story
All Souls’ Day
Roads to Santiago:
Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Spain
Travels in Time and Space
FROM THE DUTCH
Copyright © 2004 by Cees Nooteboom
English translation © 2007 by Susan Massotty
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, or the facilitation thereof, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Any members of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or publishers who would like to obtain permission to include the work in an anthology, should send their inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.
First published by Atlas in 2004 as
First published in English in Great Britain in 2007 by Harvill Secker
The Random House Group Limited, London
Printed in the United States of America
Published simultaneously in Canada
FIRST AMERICAN EDITION
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Distributed by Publishers Group West
07 08 09 10 11 12 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Any resemblance in this novel to living persons is pure chance, unless someone insists on recognising them selves or others, in which case they should be warned that fictional characters may be subject to a loss of reality. The Angel Project, however, did take place in Perth, Western Australia, in 2000, although that is not necessarily the year in which this story took place.
For Antje Ellermann Landshoff
A Klee painting named
shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’
is better because more direct.’
From ‘The Secretaries’ Guide’, in the section
New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the
DASH 8-300. HEAVEN KNOWS, I’VE FLOWN IN ALL TYPES OF aircraft, but this is the first time I have ever been in a Dash. It’s a small, compact plane, though it feels bigger because there are very few passengers. The seat next to me is empty. Apparently not many people are interested in flying from Friedrichshafen to Berlin-Tempelhof. Our forlorn little group of passengers walked from the no-frills terminal to the plane – you can still do that here – and is now waiting for take-off. The sun is shining, there is a stiff breeze. The pilot, already up front, fiddles with the knobs. I hear the co-pilot talking to the control tower. Empty moments like these are familiar to anyone who does a lot of flying.
The engines have not been switched on yet. Some people have already started reading, others are staring out of the window, though there is not a great deal to see. I have taken out the in-flight magazine, but am not in the mood to do more than leaf through it: the usual airline propaganda, a few facts about the small number of cities this small company flies to – Bern, Vienna, Zurich – then a couple of freelance articles, one on Australia and the Aborigines, with pictures of rock drawings, brightly painted bark, all the latest trends. And another on São Paulo: a horizon lined with skyscrapers, the mansions of the rich and, of course, the ever so picturesque shanty towns – the slums or
or whatever you call the things. Corrugated-iron roofs, ramshackle wooden constructions, people who look as if they
living there. I have seen it all. I’d better not stare at the pictures too long, or they will make me feel a hundred years old. Maybe I
a hundred years old. All you have to do is multiply your real age by a magic number – a secret formula that includes every journey you have ever made and the unreal sense of déjà vu that goes with them – and you will find yourself in your dotage. I am not usually troubled by such thoughts, if only because they are hardly worth thinking about, but last night in Lindau I had three
too many, and at my age a strong schnapps like that takes its toll. The flight attendant looks outside, evidently expecting someone, and when she comes through the door, that someone turns out to be a woman – the kind of woman you hope will be seated next to you. Apparently I am not
old. But I am out of luck: she has been assigned a window seat in the row ahead of me, on the left-hand side of the plane. Actually, it is better this way, since now I can look at her as much as I want.
She has long legs in khaki trousers – a manly attribute that enhances her femininity – and her big, strong hands are trying to get at a book that has been carefully done up in crimson wrapping paper with Sellotape. Those big hands are impatient. When the tape does not immediately come off, she tears the parcel open. I am a voyeur. One of the great delights of travel is looking at people who do not know you are looking at them. She opens the book too rapidly for me to see the title.
I always want to know what people are reading, though in this case ‘people’ usually means ‘women’, since men no longer read. I have learned that women, whether they are on a train, on a park bench or at a beach, tend to hold their books in such a way that it is impossible to read the title. Look for yourself, and you will see what I mean.
I rarely summon up the nerve to ask them what they are reading, even when I am dying of curiosity. On the title page of this book, someone has written a long inscription. She scans it quickly, then puts the book on the empty seat beside her and stares out of the window. The engines are revving, which makes the small plane shake, and the sight of her breasts trembling gently in her tight-fitting T-shirt is exciting. Her left knee is slightly raised. The light falls on her chestnut hair, giving it a golden sheen. The book is upside down, so I still cannot make out the title. It is a thin volume. I like that. Calvino says that books ought to be short, and for the most part he follows his own advice. The plane starts racing down the runway. Especially in smaller aircraft, there is always a sensual moment during take-off, when the plane finds a thermal and seems to get an extra lift, a kind of caress, similar to the feeling you had on swings when you were a child.
The hills are still covered in snow, which gives the landscape a very graphic feel: leafless trees etched on white paper. Sometimes that is all you need to convey an idea. She does not look at the view for long, but she picks up her book and reads the inscription again, as impatiently as the first time. I try to imagine what might have prompted the gift – that’s my job, after all – but I don’t get very far. A man trying to make amends for something? You’ve got to be careful with books. If you give someone the wrong book or the wrong writer, you will very soon find yourself in the doghouse.
She flicks through it, occasionally pausing to take a longer look at a particular page. For so short a book, it certainly has a lot of chapters. That means a new beginning each time, for which you ought to have a good reason. Any writer who botches the beginning or the end of a book has failed to grasp the basics, and the same goes for chapters. Whoever the author of that book is, he has taken considerable risks. She has put down the book again, this time with the title right side up, but because of the glare from the overhead light, I cannot make out the words. I would have to stand to get a proper look.
‘Cruising altitude.’ I have always loved that expression. I expect to see skiers, since we are flying above clouds with glorious slopes. I never tire of looking at them. At this altitude the world has only blank pages, which you can fill in as you see fit. But she is not looking out of the window, she has picked up the in-flight magazine and has started reading it at the end. She races through São Paulo, lingers by a big green park, then stares at the Aboriginal paintings. From time to time she brings the magazine up close to her face, and once her long fingers even trace the strange figure of a serpent in one of the paintings. Then she closes the magazine and promptly falls asleep. Some people are able do that – sleep peacefully on a plane. She has one hand on her book and one behind her neck, beneath her reddish hair. The riddle that other people represent has occupied me all my life. I know there is a story here, and at the same time I know that I will never find out what it is. This book will remain closed, like the one on the seat. By the time we get ready for the landing at Tempelhof, a little over an hour later, I have written a quarter of an introduction to a book of photographs about cemetery angels. Below us are the anonymous high-rises of Berlin, along with the great historical fissure that still runs through the city. She combs her hair and picks up the wrapping paper. Before she rewraps the book, however, she smoothes the crimson paper across her thigh. I don’t know why I find that so moving. Then, for a moment, she at last holds the book up high enough for me to read the two words of the title.
book, a book out of which she is about to disappear, along with me. As I wait in the baggage-claim area, I see her walk rapidly through the exit doors, where there is a man waiting for her. She kisses him casually – as casually as she scanned the book, since the only part she actually read was the handwritten inscription that I did not read and did not write.
The bags arrive in no time. As I reach the upper level, she gets into a taxi with the man and then speeds away out of sight, leaving me, as always, behind with a few words. And with the city, which closes around me like a trap.
. . . and from the other Hill
To thir fixt Station, all in bright array
The Cherubim descended; on the ground
Gliding metéorous, as Ev’ning Mist
Ris’n from a River o’re the marish glides,
And gathers ground fast at the Labourer’s heel
Homeward returning. High in Front advanc’t,
The brandisht Sword of God before them blaz’d
Fierce as a Comet; which with torrid heat,
And vapour as the
Began to parch that temperate Clime; whereat
In either hand the hast’ning Angel caught
Our ling’ring Parents, and to th’ Eastern Gate
Led them direct, and down the Cliff as fast
To the subjected Plaine; then disappeer’d.
, Book XII
SOMEONE LEFT HER HOUSE IN JARDINS ONE HOT summer evening while the smell of jacarandas and magnolias filled the heavy, humid air. The Jardins district is where the rich live, the people whose staff – cooks and gardeners – have a long way to travel, two hours or more, twice a day, to get to and from work. São Paulo is a big city. When it rains, the buses are even slower than usual.
Someone left her house, borrowed her mother’s second car and went out for a drive with the music of Björk – Nibelungen laments that seem out of place in the tropics – turned up full blast. She sang along with the music, but in a shrill, hysterical voice, working off a rage aimed at no one in particular and a sadness that can be traced to no particular source.
Someone drove down the Marginal, along the Tietê, past the nouveau riche houses in Morumbi, and then, without giving a thought to where she was going or what she was doing, entered forbidden territory – not Ebú-Ecú, but Paraisópolis, the very worst
of all, a hell rather than a paradise, and fraught with danger, making it, at that moment, irresistible. Someone was not doing the driving, the car was – the car and the music. Then all of a sudden the engine died, leaving only fear and Björk‘s high-pitched wails calling out to the wooden shacks, to the smells, to the moonlight on the corrugated-iron roofs, and to the noises coming from the cheap TVs, shouting in reply and mingling with the sounds of excited laughter, of voices coming closer and closer until they formed a circle around her and would not let her go. After that everything happened fast, too fast for her to panic or shout or run away. She no longer remembers how many of them there were, but she will always blame herself, even more than for driving into the
, for the disgustingly poetic falsification she came up with afterwards out of sheer self-preservation: that it had been like a black cloud. She had been enveloped by a black cloud. And then she had screamed, of course, it had hurt, of course, but as her clothes were being ripped off, there had been laughter, unforgettable laughter, strident and ecstatic, a sound next to the sound welling up out of a world that had never existed for her before, a hate and a rage so deep that they could swallow you up forever, and yet just as that hysterical shriek rang out, panting voices had urged each other on – something she would remember as long as she lived. They had not bothered to kill her, but had simply left her behind as if she were rubbish. Perhaps that had been the worst thing, the way the voices had disappeared again, back into their own lives, in which she had been a mere incident. Later the police asked her what she had been doing in that area, and obviously she knew that what they were really saying was that it had all been her fault, when in fact the thing she did actually blame herself for was that humiliating lie about the cloud, because clouds don’t rip your clothes off, men do. It is men who force their way into your body and into your life, leaving behind a puzzle that you will never be able to solve. Or rather that
will never be able to solve, since that someone was me, the same me who is now on the other side of the world, lying beside a man who is as dark as they were, a man who has taken nothing of mine, who is a mystery to me and will soon go away again. I am not sure whether my being here is a good thing, though why wouldn’t it be? Because he doesn’t know why I’m here. Not the
reason anyway. And he is never going to find out. In that sense I am deceiving him.
I am here to exorcise a demon; he is here to have sex with me. Or so I assume. In any case that is what we have done. A week, he said, not longer. Then he has to go back to his mob. His mob, his clan – that is how they refer to it here. But he hasn’t told me where his mob is. Somewhere in the outback, somewhere in this country’s endless space. I have no idea what is going through his mind. Maybe he is also deceiving me. Can someone lie who scarcely says a word?
He is asleep, and when he’s asleep, he is time itself. These are the oldest people on earth, and they have lived in this country for at least forty thousand years. You can’t get any closer to eternity than that. I went for a drive one night in São Paulo and ended up here. Not exactly, but that is how I think of it. I shouldn’t be thinking such things, but no one can forbid me to think them. I stare at the man asleep beside me. As young as he is, he looks as though he has lived a thousand years. He is lying on the ground, curled up like an animal. When he opens his eyes, he is as old as the rocks, as old as the lizards you see in the desert, although he wears his age lightly because he moves lightly, as if he cannot feel the weight of his body. I tell myself that this is as big a lie as the other one, but that’s not true. I have become involved in something I have no control over, because my time here does not count. Every once in a while, when he and I are out in the desert – in a country that consists almost entirely of desert – when he points out things that I have failed to see, when he all but becomes the land itself and knows where to find water in places I would never be able to find it, when I feel humbled in the face of his immeasurable age, which allows him to see food where I see sand, then I think – against my better judgement – that I left my house that night in order to arrive at this place. I left the heaviness of the tropics, where all is motion and noise, to arrive at this stillness.