“I saw a jet-black darkness tattooed with countless dots of light above me, an apparently boundless firmament stretching out to the deepest universe, while I lay on the bottom of a rowing boat that a Maori ferryman pushed through the night with the strokes of his oar.”
Thus begins “In Space” one of the 70 episodes collected by Austrian writer Christoph Ransmayr in his unconventional and utterly captivating Atlas of an Anxious Man, newly released from Seagull Books in a translation by Simon Pare. Seemingly caught in a dreamscape somewhere between travelogue and memoir, he leads the reader on an unforgettable journey that stretches across the globe in a series of evocative vignettes. Such as the one quoted above which, we soon learn, is an account of a tour into a system of caves deep within mountains on New Zealand’s South Island. The night sky Ransmayr is lying beneath is an illusion created by the luminous larvae of a gnat species clinging to the cave ceiling. Insects that mistakenly fly up toward the false heavens are soon snared in a web of sticky silken threads and become nourishment for the growing larvae. Nestled securely within the bottom of the boat, the author goes on to recount a frightening experience from earlier that same day as he made his way through a high mountain pass to reach this site:
“After snow had begun to fall in large flakes just before the top of the pass, my rental car, not equipped for wintry conditions, began to slide backwards – backwards! – with churning wheels down an already snow swept rise towards the edge of the road and a rocky slope. The slope was so steep that my car seemed destined to somersault over and over down to a mountain stream far below, running black and silent towards the valley bottom.”
He is about to jump and let the car go on without him when it comes to a stop perilously close to the edge where passing trekkers find him and tow him to safety with their jeep. In four pages we are treated to both the wonders and the terrors of nature, narrated with the skill and confidence of a gifted storyteller.
Each episode begins with an observation: “I saw an open grave in the shade of a huge araucaria pine” or “I saw a fisherman cursing as he steered for Baltimore harbour in the south-west of Ireland” or “I saw a three-toed sloth on the veranda of blue wooden house on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast” or “I saw a naked man through binoculars from my cover behind dusty firethorn bushes.” Even a tale that seems to begin with a most ordinary descriptive passage becomes, before you know it, an engaging portrait of a place, an experience, a character. Ransmayr has an uncanny ability to focus his lens on the small details to bring a location, a time, an event to life.
The 70 entries follow neither chronological nor geographical order, and occasionally he even slips back in time to capture experiences from his own life in Austria, reaching as far as the age of three with the account of a storm that lifted the roof off his house when he was watching his mother hang wet laundry across the attic room. Whether he is observing a bird on a remote rock face, watching a man tee off at the North Pole, describing a bullfight in Spain, or trekking through the Himalayas; he is never a disinterested observer. His engagement with the people, creatures, and landscapes he encounters is always curious but respectful. In the waters of the Dominican Caribbean for example, he floats among the waves watching a humpback whale cow and her young sleeping far below. When the calf suddenly breaks free from its mother’s protective shadow and heads up for the surface, Ransmayr panics as the parent rushes up towards him in pursuit. She comes close enough that he can see the iris of her eye:
“The giant looked at me. No, she brushed me with her gaze and altered her course by a hair’s breadth, just enough that we didn’t touch each other. Yet although she avoided me with this hint of a deviation, and therefore recognized and acknowledged my existence, I discerned a complete indifference in her look – akin to the mountain’s toward someone climbing it, or the sky’s toward someone flying through it – that I was overcome by a feeling that I would dissolve into nothing before these eyes, disappear before them as though I had never lived. Maybe this Atlantic giant in black had actually swept up from its realm in the deep to convey to an Atlantic swimmer how rich and varied, unchanged and natural the world was without him.”
His travels typically take him to the far reaches, off the beaten track, to locations accessed on foot, or by bicycle, assorted boats, tour buses, rental vehicles and more. He explores history, lifts his telescope to the heavens, and encounters politically tense environments. No two entries are the same, few extend beyond 6 to 8 pages, some are only 2 or 3 pages long. I found it best to take my time with this book, reading a few entries a day and allowing the awe to linger. This is not an ordinary travelogue by any means, but it is a shimmering example of what makes the best travel writing sparkle. The theme, if there is one, that unites and drives the narrative from beginning to end is possibly simply wonder. Not that Ransmayr is blind to the poverty, suffering and threats he encounters. His immediate reactions are sometimes frustration, even fear, but he manages, remarkably to find a glimmer, an image, a thought that affirms life, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
However, what really makes this book such a joy to read is the sheer beauty of the language and the author’s ability to weave his experiences and observations into stories that are moving and original, time and again. I’ll leave you with end one of my favourites in which he tells of emerging from mangrove swamps in Sumatra to encounter, in a clearing, a building on stilts. On the patio a man is singing with a karaoke machine, but his only audience is composed of the geckos clinging to the roof. Ransmayr takes a seat and as he listens to the singer perform the Rolling Stones’ “Love in Vain” he is transported back to a snowy night in Austria, a wedding and corduroy suits. Suddenly a lightening strike from an approaching storm knocks the power out. Oddly, the singer fiddles with the controls, seemingly determined to try to turn the machine back on until a thin man in a sarong appears and calls to him:
“The singer laughed. And then the thin man was beside him, took him by the hand and led him carefully down the stage steps and between the empty chairs and tables to one of the walkways, and I realized that the singer, who was groping for obstacles with his free hand, could not have seen the lightening and could not have seen how the neon tubes and control lamps had gone out, nor how night had fallen so suddenly over the mangroves, swallowing up swarms of insects and a tin sky with hundreds of geckos stuck to it. Karaoke. A blind man had sung to me out of the mangroves of Sumatra back to the village of my birth.”
Thank you to Seagull Books for kindly sending me on this journey.