If this genre doesn’t already exist, it should be invented. One possible name could be the European Waking Dream Novel. The exemplar of the genre is Italo Calvino. Other writers working in it include W.G. Sebald, Alain Robbe-Grillet in certain of his moods, and Jean Rhys in her more sober moments. On the fringes of the genre are Malcolm Lowry, Orhan Pamuk, and Günter Grass. Among younger novelists Stéphane Audeguy writes in this mode, and Roberto Bolaño lived in Spain long enough to soak up its influence. Perhaps the foremost living practitioner of the genre is the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom, whose latest novel Lost Paradise was translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty last year.
So what is the European Waking Dream Novel? It hovers between realism and fabulism, but without the febrile imagination of Latin American Magic Realism. Novels in this genre are set in real places in the current day, but descriptive details are kept to a minimum. The tone is typically inquisitive, but in a mild, at times timid way. The Waking Dream novel is a realism that patiently waits for reality to reveal its other face. A crucial ingredient of the form is an explicit literariness in one form or another. Sometimes the main characters are readers (the classics teacher in Nooteboom’s The Following Story) or they’re writers (all over the place in Bolaño). Combine the elegant, precise realism of Ian McEwan and the bookish puzzles of Jorge Luis Borges and you’ve got the basic idea.
Milton’s poetry is a prominent leitmotif in Lost Paradise. There are angels and wounded bodies, hints of the divine and very terrestrial notions of good and evil. There are even some direct quotes from Milton. The opening scene takes place on a very unmiltonian space: a small commuter airplane chugging across Europe. The narrator furtively watches a fellow passenger read a slender novel–just like the one Nooteboom’s reader holds in his hands. Casually, as if he’s Brad Pitt recognizing himself on the cover of People magazine, the narrator informs us that the woman is, in fact, reading the same book you’re reading, "a book out of which she is about to disappear, along with me."
Lost Paradise, like the divine itself, is split into two parts. The first half of the book is feminine and New World. It tells the story of two Brazilian women: Alma, a recent victim of a brutal sexual assault in São Paulo, and her less damaged friend Almut. Alma travels to Australia on a spiritual quest for an Aboriginal paradise known as the Sickness Dreaming Place. Her friend tags along, looking to have some fun and get laid. Not surprisingly, her friend’s hedonism annoys Alma, but Almut’s defense is brilliant. Almut shrugs off a one-night stand with a wind surfer by reminding everyone, "I’m Brazilian."
The second part of the novel–the masculine, Old World part–is another quest narrative that is also subdivided into body and spirit. Nooteboom likes to place in his novels at least one bookish, middle-aged man with too little to do. In this case it’s Erik Zondag, an Amsterdam short story writer who gets bored with his own work and decides to devote his time to writing about other writers. A life of rarefied contemplation has left him fat, so he travels to a spa in Austria, where he’s reacquainted with Alma, whom he met at a literary festival in Perth, Australia. Erik attends the festival on business, while Alma and Almut are there to make a quick buck by dressing up as angels. When he sees these fetching Brazilian angels Erik’s fallow imagination springs back into life. Years later in Austria he recalls his first meeting with Alma during a "crazy night" on an Australian beach, cavorting with angels who have been "expelled from paradise," as Alma points out. Sitting in his Alpine redoubt but hearkening back to a moment when he touched something larger, something threatening and redemptive, Erik reconstructs an image that exemplifies the dreamy realism of a certain strain of European fiction: "There, where the water ended and the land began, she stopped and threw her wings around him. He could not see her face, but he … felt her soft and yet surprisingly hard wings as they held him captive."
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