Translated from Dutch by Susan Massotty
All we need is a city on the water, the month of January, a day of sleet, a station. Grey is the best of all colours: a hidden sun saving its warmth for the other side of the world and the stories written there. Thirteen train platforms, some more crowded than others. And then the divining rod – that indispensable tool of our trade – begins to home in on a specific direction, twitching and jerking until it clearly points to a loosely assembled group of travellers: the walk-ons, the extras. We are not sure whether they have been assigned roles today. After all, we are not the only ones in this line of work, and they might be characters in someone else’s story. The chap in the brown jacket? No. The young mother with the toddler? No. Not those three soldiers either. The man in the funny-looking hat is too old – he would only complicate matters. But we had better hurry, the train should have been here by now. Ah, that chap over there, the one standing behind the man–obviously from Bavaria–who is reading the Bildzeitung, he is the one we need, he is clearly our man.
Wind-blown wisps of thinning hair, eyes watering from the cold. No, not the one behind him, he’s no use to us, you’re looking at the wrong person, I mean the other one, the man who has looked at his watch twice already. He will do. Suede shoes–an English make, a bit worn, though–cotton trousers in a drab army colour, a grey loden coat and a red scarf, which is cashmere at least. There is an inherent contrast in all those textiles, in terms of both colour and age: a touch of the artist, an off-duty army captain, a man who goes to watch his daughter play hockey in a ritzy town like Laren, with the various items of clothing cancelling each other out, as if the wearer was not sure who he really wanted to be and was using the defiant red of the scarf to try and mask his uncertainty. OK, let’s take a closer look. Some women might find this man attractive, though he probably is not at his best today. He looks around, to see if someone is coming, but he can forget it. The train has just passed Harlem, so let us get started. Mixing people’s lives together, if only for a short while, is no small matter. Some elements, just as in chemistry, attract each other, and others repel. Lives actually need long preparation. Just like food. Hmm, you are right, there does not seem to be a chef, unless you want to think of life itself as one big culinary experiment, and why not? In any case, the chemistry is far from easy. One life takes longer to cook than another, the stoves are located in different parts of the world, the result is uncertain. Our metaphor is wearing thin, so we have only this to say: life – to use this ridiculous analogy one last time – is the stupidest of culinary experiments. For the most part this leads to human suffering, but every once in a while – though not very often – literature profits by it. We shall see.
It had been summer when he arrived in Perth. He had never been cooped up in a plane for so long. The eighteen hours to Sydney had been followed by a flight across a continent with a population only slightly larger than that of the Netherlands, though it was nearly as big as the United States. Much of the land was empty: a rocky, sunburnt, sand-coloured desert, where the Aborigines had led their unwatched, autonomous lives for thousands of years. The others–the sheep ranchers and the winegrowers–lived on the periphery.
He had been invited to Perth for a literary festival, which, for a change, was not just for writers and poets, but also for translators, publishers and critics–the whole parasitical or gritty underlayer that revolved around the lonely core of a book or a poem in a relationship of mutual dependence that was sometimes fruitful and sometimes disgusting. He loathed most writers as people, especially those whose work he admired. It was better not to meet them at all. Writers were supposed to lead a paper existence–between the covers of a book. You should not have to be distracted by body odours, awful haircuts, bizarre footwear, unsuitable spouses, needless gossip, professional jealousy, whorish behaviour, coquetry or boastfulness. The plenary sessions were held in tents; it was summertime in March, with temperatures well over a hundred degrees. He found himself on a panel with a Tasmanian poet, a literary editor at the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a novelist from Queensland and a publisher from Sydney. Their wisdoms burbled over the heads of the audience, which consisted mostly of middle-aged women. He noticed that many of his points of reference were not valid here. The importance of the difference in outlook between the two major Dutch newspapers had begun to fade by Dunkirk and Düsseldorf, and at greater distances most of the topics hotly debated among insiders in his now so faraway country were about as scintillating as an obscure tribal war in Swaziland or a theological dispute in the Middle Ages. After the panel discussion, the novelist and the poet signed books at a table set up outside the tent, but since publishers and critics do not normally have anything to sign, he and the publisher, along with the literary editor and a Danish writer who had been in the audience, sat down on a patch of grass with a bottle of wine and four glasses. Erik Zondag soon lost interest in the conversation. While the editor and the publisher rambled on about print runs, best-seller lists, advertising and the connection between them, he listened to the histrionic cries of an Indonesian poet, which could be heard coming from one of the tents, watched the evening slide with tropical torpor between the spreading trees, and wondered if he ever wanted to go home again. After his divorce, he had been on his own for a while–a time of brief affairs, bar-room friendships and attempts to write poetry, which he later rightly tore up. It was after that–too soon, he now understood–that he had met Anja. He had made quite a name for himself by taking potshots at a few literary giants, so the newspaper for which he still worked had offered him a permanent position. He was exactly what they were looking for: someone to ‘raise hell and shake things up’. The literary pond was cluttered with too many ducks and swans, and it was necessary to cull them from time to time. Literature had become a career. Every numbskull who had with gathering distaste studied Dutch literature felt the need to write a novel, which meant that masterly debuts were following on the heels of one another more rapidly than ever. He was part of the clean-up crew. It was a nasty job, but useful. The times he had been able genuinely to wax lyrical about a book had been glorious exceptions. All that mediocrity week after week seemed to cling to his hair and creep under his nails. Besides, the work itself had been a bitter disappointment. The books he really wanted to review were usually assigned to a man with a turgid style–a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic who would have been better off teaching at a school somewhere in the provinces. The man had a preference for authors such as Jünger and Bataille, but had never written an original word about one of the writers and thinkers he was forever reviewing. His reviews were echoes of things he had read elsewhere, and yet the editor-in-chief had lured him away from Anja’s paper purely on the strength of those big-name authors he reviewed, because even though no one read his dull and excruciatingly long essays, a newspaper with any pretensions at all had to have a philosopher on its staff. To make matters worse, in some bewildering way the man always seemed to miss the point–an intellectual colour-blindness or lack of instinct or intuition that no one else seemed to notice. When the first–and also the best–of the so-called Three Great Writers in Dutch literature set off on his journey towards posthumous publication, the man had immediately proclaimed another triumvirate, prompted no doubt by his Catholic instinct for hierarchy. Judging by the conversation going on around him, things were no different here, although Australian writers were separated by blissfully vast distances, which must cut down on the jealousy, inbreeding and backbiting. The best solution, he thought, would be to live in an abandoned house on a rocky northern shore, where a winged messenger came once a week to deliver a book that you could really sink your teeth into. At least you would not run across a review in which someone ridiculed a poet because she dared to use a fancy word like ‘rhetoric’ in one of her poems. ‘Baseborn products of base beds,’ Yeats had called the new Neanderthalers. But Anja had warned him not to get upset.
‘What you haven’t grasped is that there’s a new generation of writers,’ she said. ‘They’re used to a fast pace. They’re not interested in those cobwebs of yours. These days it’s all about plots, madness and humour, not grandiose speculations, philosophical drivel and intellectual posturing.’
But it was too late to learn Norwegian or emigrate to Australia. He’d have to go on writing for the literary supplement until he died, unless they fired him for not keeping up with the spirit of the times, or until the paper itself was sold, and that was also a possibility.
He was startled out of his reverie by hearing one of the men beside him say the word ‘angel’ in a thick German accent: ‘Zer are an-chels all over zis city. Zey are ev-ry-vere!’
‘Yes, I’ve seen them,’ the publisher said. ‘A fantastic idea! I did the tour yesterday.’
Erik remembered reading about this tour and immediately dismissing it as a waste of time. Considering the publisher’s enthusiasm, however, he had apparently been mistaken. In addition to the literary festival, there was a theatre and ballet festival, and angels had something to do with that. He had seen a picture in the Australian of a life-sized angel with a sword, poised atop a department store or a multi-storey car park, and wondered if it had been an actual person or a statue, like the one on the roof of the insurance company on the Singel Canal in Amsterdam, not far from where he lived.
‘No,’ the poet said, ‘this one was real. I saw it too, because it moved. Oddly enough, I had a hard time spotting her–at any rate, I’m pretty sure it was a she, because I had my binoculars with me. Here, you can have my booklet, I won’t be needing it any more. The whole tour takes a few hours.’ He reached into his bag, rummaged through the muddle of poems he had used for his reading, then handed him a spiral-bound booklet with narrow plastic pages. When you joined them up, they charted the route of a maze-like treasure hunt through Perth, with detailed directions and photographs of buildings. It opened with a quote from Rilke: ‘Angels, it is said, are often unsure whether they pass among the living or the dead.’ The next quote had been taken from Paradise Lost:
In either hand the hast’ning Angel caught
Our ling’ring Parents . . .
Adam and Eve. He had never thought of them as parents, if only because they were generally depicted in the nude, with just a fig leaf. And angels? When was the last time he had thought about angels, he asked himself, or had he never really thought about them because they had been so much a part of his childhood? You saw them everywhere in those days, in prayer books and stained-glass windows. If you were a Catholic, you could not avoid them. Even Lucifer was a fallen angel. And if all was well, you had a guardian angel watching over you. There were various types of angels, all of which you had to learn: seraphim and cherubim, thrones and powers. For some inexplicable reason angels never seemed to grow old (a middle-aged angel was inconceivable!), they had ‘locks’ rather than hair, their feet were always bare, and of course they never wore glasses. There is a moment in which something that appears to be quite ordinary suddenly becomes mysterious. So while he wondered what an angel would look like in full flight and how much air would be displaced by the wings–mysteries in both the sacred and the aerodynamic sense–he decided to go to the festival office and sign up for the ‘angel hunt’, because, as he now realised, that was what it boiled down to. Angels had been hidden in various places throughout the city, and the idea was for you to find as many of them as possible. All you had to do was to show up at a specific time, promise to go on your own, and let yourself be taken to the starting point by someone who had been instructed not to answer any questions.
Perth is in Southwest Australia. The nearest state capital is Adelaide, about 1,200 miles to the east as the crow flies. If you do not want to take a plane, you have to drive along the coast or through a broiling desert. Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane are a continent away, which makes Perth an exception in more ways than one: it is the capital of Western Australia, though it does not quite fit in with the rest of the state; it is located on the Swan River, which curves sensuously before flowing into the Indian Ocean; it has made a half-hearted attempt to resemble a real city by erecting a few skyscrapers; and it is a mixture of England and the tropics, with many public parks and suburbs, with lots of low houses and gardens full of flowers–all very welcome in a hot climate that slows the pace. In short, thought Erik Zondag, it is the very last place you would expect to find angels in the early years of the new millennium, though that was hardly a reason not to go looking for them. Who knows, he might even get a good story out of it for the paper. According to the instructions, he was to report to the tenth level of Wilson’s Car Park on Hay Street at 2.40 p.m. High-rise car parks were not his favourite architectural structures. Although it was nearly April, it was high summer and sweltering hot as he stood on the roof, scanning Perth stretched out below him, and the Swan River disappearing with a glitter of sunlight into the infinity of the ocean. It was here that Dutch traders had first clapped eyes on this continent, only to turn up their noses when they found nothing of value. No gold, no nutmeg–just weird furry animals that leaped instead of walked and natives that were nothing like the ones they had been dreaming of.
On the tenth level he encountered a young man who seemed to be expecting him. ‘Mr Sundag?’ ‘Yes?’
‘Here’s a copy of the booklet, showing you the route you need to follow. This gentleman here will drive you to Barrack’s Arch, which is the actual starting point. The whole thing will take about three hours, and at the end the route will lead you back here.’ He sat in silence beside the stranger, who drove him to a brick building, where another silent man opened the door for him and then left him on his own. A dusty stairwell, a heap of rubbish on the landing, dry eucalyptus leaves blown in by the wind, old newspapers, steps painted a reddish brown. Silence. An empty room, an open sleeping bag, a couple of snapshots on a windowsill. Was this supposed to mean something?
Was he following a trail? An indistinct map–not of any place he recognised, aerial photographs, spider webs. The roar of the nearby highway. There were six lanes here. Where did all those cars come from? Perth was not that big. He could hear the sound of his own footsteps. There was not an angel anywhere to be seen. He had obviously missed whatever it was he was supposed to see. Maybe it was all a stupid joke. He felt somewhat uncomfortable, and also tired, as if that endless flight was still playing havoc with his body. Why had he agreed to this nonsense? According to the booklet, when he emerged from Barrack’s Arch he was to turn left and walk down the hill to 240 St George’s Terrace. He walked as he normally would–a mere pedestrian among other pedestrians. They cannot see what I am up to, he thought. I am looking for angels, but they do not know that, and if I were to tell them, they would think I was crazy. That last part appealed to him. He found himself noticing things he would not usually have noticed. After all, anything might be a clue, a key, an allusion. Then he found himself in a bare room with just a few scribbled messages: Anne, which corner are you on? Etiam ne nescis? After that another heap of dusty leaves, spokes without a wheel, an entryway, a closed steel door, and then, suddenly, hanging on a railing, a few lines of Paradise Lost–the ones in which Adam and Eve, evicted from Paradise by a heavenly bouncer with wings, turn back for one last look:
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.
And it was true. Before him lay a sorry patch of no-man’s-land: a rusty refrigerator, dead twigs, sand, weeds, a bare concrete wall. Behind him things were not much better: an empty lift shaft, disconnected electrical wires leading nowhere since the power had long since been shut off, and not an angel in sight. Here Paradise had been lost for good. If they were hoping to evoke a feeling of despair, it had worked. Erik caught himself thinking of original sin, confessionals and the musty smell that goes with them. Stale cigar smoke coming out of shadowy mouths which you could barely see in the semi-darkness, speaking of sin and penance.
No, these are not agreeable thoughts. Feeling as if he is being watched, he checks the walls for a hidden camera, but does not see one. The choice is clear: he can either give up right now or go on to the next clue. Go to the Paragon foyer, take the lift to level 5 and walk up the stairs to level 6. An empty office suite, dust on the floor, a long row of metal filing cabinets. According to his count, there are twenty-nine of them. The rest of the space is empty, apart from two birdcages, each with two birds. A torn label attached to one of the cages turns out to be blank. Erik and the birds stare at each other, the way people and animals do–a meaningless gaze across an unbridgeable distance. He goes out again, passing through what was once a kitchen, climbs up a flight of metal stairs, listens to his ringing footsteps, and finds himself in another vacant office. Instead of filing cabinets, this one has a huge metal bin filled with books. The titles all have something to do with God or saints–Anglican life in an earlier era. A bit further away is another bin, this one filled with white feathers (angels have to start somewhere, after all), as if someone had given a good shake to a pillow full of cherubs. As he flees the building, a man thrusts a note into his hand:
On your way to Bank West, please stop at the Hay Street Shop, between the Croissant Express and the Educina Café. He follows the directions. His hotel cannot be far off, he thinks, though everything looks different now. He does not want to become an ordinary pedestrian, but he catches sight of himself on a surveillance monitor and is unpleasantly surprised. The fruit has apparently already been plucked from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, because there is a box of apples on the pavement. Take an apple.
It is cool inside the Bank West building, with the sudden chill of air conditioning in the tropics. A girl in blue stands up and all but takes him by the hand. In the lift she presses 46. The white-shirted office-workers who get in as the lift makes its way up have nothing to do with the angel hunt, but when he reaches the forty-sixth floor, another whiteshirted man gets up from his desk, opens a door for him, then closes it behind him, so that he finds himself alone in an executive suite, listening to a fax machine regurgitate reams of white paper. He picks up one of the sheets and sees two dozen lines from Paradise Lost. On the desk are file folders about various projects. The text on the computer screen changes to read: ‘…if you will come I will put out fresh pillows for you. This room and this springtime contain only you,’ then switches over to the hierarchy in the kingdom of angels: Archangels, Powers, Virtues. ‘Come soon, Death is demanding: we have much to atone for, before little by little we begin to taste of Eternity. In a bed of roses the Seraphim slumber…’ Still not craving eternity, he stands by the window and stares down at the streams and streams of cars on the highway. As he leaves the room, he bumps into the Danish writer. Surely that cannot be part of the plan? They exchange guilty looks, then simultaneously raise their fingers to their lips. Later on, he sees a girl in a tight grey skirt. Is she an angel? She avoids his glance, struts around as if she owns the place, looks out towards the hills and the faraway ocean, and plays with the plastic water bottle in her hands. Once again, he is struck by the absurdity of the whole thing. Why is he here? What is he doing in a vacant office suite that has in it only a couple of flowerpots filled with primroses? Is he inspecting the available property? But now that he has begun, he does not want to stop. Then at last his perseverance pays off: in the small, nondescript church that he has passed each day, he sees his first real angels–two men, sitting a couple of feet apart in the choir stalls. They are clearly flesh and blood, but they do have wings. He sits in the muted light poring in through the stained-glass windows and stares at the angels. They stare back at him. No one says a word. The angels rearrange their wings, the way swans and sparrows do. After a while he leaves the church and turns into a narrow side street that leads to a courtyard, which is piled high with rubbish bins. And then he spots his third angel: a man with close-cropped hair sitting behind a chain-link fence, a heavenly prisoner in a cage filled with cardboard boxes. He starts to go over to him, but then catches sight of the Tasmanian poet–taking the tour for the second time, apparently–standing on the other side of the cage and gazing lustfully at the angel, as if to elicit a promise. The moment the poet leaves, the angel relaxes his stare. He is sitting on his heels, and as Erik approaches, there is another silent vis-à-vis, even worse than with the birds. After that, there is a rapid succession of angels. He follows the invisible threads that have been laid for him, goes in and out of buildings, sees a paralysed angel in a wheelchair with his wings draped over the armrests, almost trips over a man lying on the floor, his bare feet crossed disarmingly at the ankles and his white wings stretched out on a dirty grey carpet, then two black women in a window seat who smile at him, but do not speak. Clues and messages are being thrust at him all the time: I am deeply sorry for any pain you may be feeling. Please call. Call who? At what number? The message is about as meaningful as the other objects in the room: an open drawer full of feathers, a yellowed copy of the West Australian, the score of Ethelbert Nevin’s ‘Rosary’, white grains of salt scattered across a roof. Later he would come to believe that this series of increasingly outlandish absurdities had inevitably led to that one small room, where the woman who was massaging him now had then been lying in a cupboard with her face turned to the wall. Even at the time he knew it was a moment he would never forget. A flight of unpainted stairs that kept going up and up until eventually he reached an empty floor, and then a room with dirty windows, through which he could just make out the grey outlines of the skyscrapers, and at last, curled up in the cupboard, that small body, half hidden by a pair of grey wings. For a moment he thought it was a boy or a young child. He stared at the wings. They had been made out of real feathers and put together so cleverly that it was almost creepy. Who knows, maybe this woman could indeed fly. He caught a glimpse of black hair and light brown skin. He could hear her breathing. She had not moved a muscle, and yet she knew that someone was in the room.
Nooteboom has received a German Order of Merit and the Aristeon European Literary Prize.