Painting the world with words: Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr

“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.”

Layout 1Thus 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.

One miserably roughed up ghost, rising from the ashes once more

Sometimes you fool yourself. You believe that you are invincible. You know that bad things happen to good people. You know that they have even happened to you. But time and time again we are caught off guard reminded of the wisdom of Monty Python’s idiom: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Copyright JM Schreiber Storm clouds over the Reservoir, Calgary, AB

If I had had more experience traveling I might not have made the mistakes that may very nearly have cost me my life this past week. I thought that by focusing my first visit to South Africa to longer stays in two areas, I would limit my travel time. But instead I ended up with long plane flights and interminable bus trips. Next time, and I definitely hope there is a next time  – *the hematologist looks at me askance* – I hope to take longer and fly between major centres once I get to South Africa. The buses have a certain charm and I definitely got to meet and talk to people in a way I might not have otherwise, but to top off my three week excursion with a three leg flight home with very short turnarounds was a major miscalculation  on my part. It sounded great. But I had no idea exactly how tight a three hour stop over is, especially if you have to clear customs. Longer stop overs would have helped. Baby asprins, compression stockings. Everyone has recommendations now.

Yet although I was tired and swollen upon my return, it would take a few weeks before my journey caught up with me. Last Sunday night, or rather, early Monday morning, two and half weeks after I returned home, all swelling and fatigue seemingly gone, I suffered a pulmonary embolism. Well actually, it was not clear what had happened at first. I have very little memory of that day or an evening event I had been to with friends. My 25 year-old son, a creative, troubled but wonderful soul, heard me moaning. Thomas came upstairs to find me disoriented. He called Emergency and started chest compressions.

The kid saved my life. In one of those odd ironies, or twists of fate, toward the end of my time away, Thomas had suffered a couple of acute panic attacks so severe that he twice was taken to the hospital. In the second situation he was referred on to a psychiatric nurse he liked and she suggested a 4 week outpatient program he had just started. Mind you my little detour has interrupted  his plans but they will contact him as soon as there is a good point for him to join back in. Me, I will be in the hospital for at least another week, but the more “functional” I am, the more I can spend time reading.

So good with the bad. Who knows? Maybe the two truly are bound more tightly than we realize.

Looking back over my shoulder at three weeks in South Africa

It is coming up on two weeks now since I left South Africa. I was missing the country before I left; I am missing it now. When I passed though customs at the airport the official who stamped my Canadian passport sighed and shook his head. “Everyone is going to Canada these days,” he said. What could I say? Only that morning I had only read a newspaper article about young South African families eager to find a new home abroad – the US, Australia, Canada.

I suppose if I was raising young children in a city where so many single family dwellings have the appearance of bunkers with high walls, spiked gates and coiled razor wire, I too would be looking to distant shores. Over the course of my limited stay in Cape Town I regularly walked between my B&B in Sea Point and the downtown core. The occasional house perched on the slopes of Signal Hill without such enclosures was a source of fascination. What manner of brave or reckless soul lives here?

A sign on a narrow cobblestone street In the Bo Kaap district of Cape Town - Copyright JM Schreiber
A sign on a narrow cobblestone street In the Bo Kaap district of Cape Town
– Copyright JM Schreiber

I can’t say that I felt uncomfortable as I wondered the streets or rode the buses. I did quickly learn to make prudent choices, especially after a couple of unnerving encounters set me off my guard. My bad. I don’t make the same mistake twice. Aside from a night out with a friend in Green Point, my stay in the city was quiet, skirting most of the major tourist sites, sticking to bookstores, museums, galleries. Despite the cool weather tourists flocked to the Waterfront and Table Mountain but no one chanced more than a passing glance while I sat mesmerized by the full 30 minutes of William Kentridge’s installation The Refusal of Time at the South African National Gallery. I seemed to find hollow pockets in the city, safe but open empty spaces. And it felt right. I had come to South Africa, after all, to find myself.

What I found surprised me and is only beginning to take form in my thinking now that I am back home. My interest in South Africa is a curious blend of sociological, historical and literary factors but it has always been mutable and undefined. It just is. It stretches back to the early 1980s when I first encountered South African ex-pats while I was at university, continued forward, from the outside, as the world watched the steady and difficult move to independence. Being able to visit the country and, for the most part, simply talk to people and observe has marked the beginning of a process of reconciliation for myself – on a deeply personal level on the one hand, on a socio-political level on the other.

Eastern Cape morning - Copyright JM Schreiber
Eastern Cape morning
– Copyright JM Schreiber

With respect to the former I will simply say that my decision to actually visit South Africa this year was sudden and born of the intense loneliness that sweeps over me regularly. One day when that wave crashed upon me I stopped and realized that the one person in the world that I really needed and wanted to talk to, the sole person who could understand the strange mixture of illness and queerness that I have been struggling to sort out lately, lives across the globe – in South Africa, Eastern Cape province. And, with some money I had needed to access that was not worth reinvesting at today’s interest rates I had enough to get there. So I went.

Arriving at my friend’s home in a small village perched on the edge of the Indian Ocean, I was stunned by the beauty of the unfolding landscape, green flecked with the orange of aloe in bloom, the wide open blue skies, and the crystal brilliance of the waves crashing upon rocky shores. I was at peace. I felt grounded. I felt I had come home to somewhere I had never been. My friend and I settled into a comfortable routine as if we had known each other forever. Although at ease in silence, we never ran short of things to talk about. When it came time for me to prepare to head back to Cape Town, her dog worried after me as I packed my bags in the same way that my own cats had fretted over my suitcases back in Calgary. In a little over a week I had been accepted as family.

Indian Ocean, Eastern Cape - Copyright JM Schreiber
Indian Ocean, Eastern Cape
– Copyright JM Schreiber

Oddly I never felt lonely in South Africa, even though I spent much of my time alone. Strange that that feeling oppresses me in the city that I have lived in or near for most of my life, or this country where I have lived for over five decades. At one time I was immensely proud to be a Canadian but I feel increasingly discouraged and estranged from this land. Oh, of course, it has its beauty and, compared to so much of the world, its benefits are innumerable. But there are concerns, inequities, a steady erosion of freedoms, unresolved historical debts to our First Nations and now a rapidly declining economy against a growing racism and xenophobia to think about.

While I was in South Africa, whenever anyone would ask me where I was from, eyes would light up and I would be met with statements like: “Ah Canada, that’s like the perfect country, isn’t it?” Perhaps I am less than patriotic (which is in itself a rather Canadian thing to be), but I felt it was worth engaging people in honest discussions. After all in early June the final report of our very own Truth and Reconciliation Commission was released. For over 100 years First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were routinely removed from their homes and placed in Residential Schools. The cumulative impact of the abuses, trauma and cultural disintegration has been significant and devastating for Aboriginal communities. If I wanted to engage in conversations about colonial legacies it is not to compare or absolve anyone. But no country is perfect. The question for a citizen is, what am I willing to speak to? I can only speak to my experience in Canada and listen to South Africans. Which is a good start.

Sunset over the Atlantic, Cape Town - Copyright JM Schreiber
Sunset over the Atlantic, Cape Town
– Copyright JM Schreiber

But not even two weeks home and I feel shiftlessness starting to seep in again. On the positive, I returned to the promise that some healthy changes may be emerging in the life of my troubled son, opportunities that might not have arisen had I not put a continent and hemisphere between us. And on my last full day in Cape Town I sat in the Company’s Gardens and finally began to write in earnest in the notebook I had been scribbling in throughout my visit. That has continued. Yet I am aching for that indefinable other that drew me to South Africa in the first place… the landscape, the people, my friend, the oceans.

Yes, the oceans. Landlocked here in a vast country that spans 5½ time zones, it really is little wonder I feel so alone.

Might as well face it, I’m addicted to books…

Three weeks in South Africa and I have not blogged much, in large part due to the painfully useless little laptop I bought for the journey (sorry Windows I am in serious Mac withdrawal right now) combined with frequently slow or inconsistent wifi connections. Quite frankly I have not even read much save for a slim collection of Bosnian short stories I have been dragging around. But I have been observing, writing, journaling and taking photographs. There will be plenty of time for reading after I get back and a strict embargo on book buying for some time.

After all I have spent more than R3000 on books. Shame. Well it’s not as bad as it sounds, I spend a fair amount on books at home but not all in one shot and not with the need to transport them across the globe. I fell asleep last night mentally rearranging my bookshelves to welcome my new acquisitions home.

A selection of new titles (there are more,  confess). Trencherman, the Michiel Heyns, Tales of Metric System, Rusty Bell and The Violent Gestures of Life were all on top of my list when I arrived.
A selection of new titles (there are more, confess). Trencherman, the Michiel Heyns, Tales of Metric System, Rusty Bell and The Violent Gestures of Life were all on top of my list when I arrived.

As long as I can remember, bookshops have been a highlight of any vacation for me. Sometimes it was the chance to visit a larger centre or to access books not available at home. I mean honestly who goes to San Francisco without stopping in to City Lights? I suppose those people exist but I don’t want to know them.

This is the first vacation I have had in years, the farthest I have traveled and what I hope will be the first of many visits to South Africa. I have stubbornly had a predominately anti-tourist experience and it has suited me just fine.

But books, they were always high on my agenda. From a second hand shop in East London to The Book Lounge and Clarke’s here in Cape Town I have built piles, triaged, sorted and made my selections – sometimes price, sometime size and weight were factors. Books readily obtainable in paper format outside of South Africa were eliminated, aside from some impulse purchases. Suggestions from the friend I was staying with in the Eastern Cape, books featured on the site of a South African book blogger I follow, and advice arising from conversations with booksellers were all tossed into the mix.

A few of my second hand finds: I am looking forward to the memoir by the late Chris van Wyk and the Ettiene van Heerden on top is signed (but sadly the only one of his books I was able to locate in translation).
A few of my second hand finds: I am looking forward to the memoir by the late Chris van Wyk and the Ettiene van Heerden on top is signed (but sadly the only one of his books I was able to locate in translation).

There are still, inevitably, titles I wanted but could not find. And some I had to leave behind.

Not one given to ostentatious displays of book porn, I am showing off some of my new friends. Wish me luck packing and dragging them all to the airport on city transit!

Further notes from South Africa: Wildlife and quiet times in the Eastern Cape

I have been in South Africa for just over a week now. It’s been an amazing opportunity to meet people and observe the country on its own terms. The closest I have had to a typical tourist experience has been our day trip to Addo Elephant Park. Nothing quite prepares you, on your first visit, for the sight of these huge majestic beasts looming ahead on the road, appearing out of the bushes. And there is so much more to see than elephants. We were stoked to encounter two young rooikatte along the roadside. These lynx are a rare sight at the best of times and we were able to sit and watch them for 15 minutes.

Addo Elephant Park
Elephant  – Addo Elephant Park, South Africa

The value of taking time to relax, soak in the countryside, meet fascinating individuals and spend quality time with my friend has been exactly the medicine I needed. In a few days I will make my way back to Cape Town for the much more urban, cosmopolitan side of my stay which will, in its way, be quiet and introspective. Cities can be good for being alone too.

Old sheep
Old sheep
Eastern Cape farm garden
Eastern Cape farm garden

My endeavour to gather more South African literature to bring home is going well. So far I have collected a stack of second hand books from a little shop in East London here in the Eastern Cape and have another stack waiting for me back in Cape Town. I have been digging through my friend’s bookcase for titles to look for here or back home and last night I was thrilled when my favourite author, Damon Galgut, won the Sunday Times Literary Award for South African fiction for his novel Arctic Summer. So, a fine literary excursion to date.

South African sunset - All photos copyright JM Schreiber
South African sunset – All photos copyright JM Schreiber

Otherwise it has been a relief to step back from my normally heavy engagement with news and social media. I did read with dismay about the terrorist attacks in France and Tunisia. I was relieved that my American LGBT brothers and sisters have achieved a long overdue milestone. But I came to South Africa in large part to put as much distance between myself and my life at home as possible for a few weeks and, for now, watching waves crash on the shore or sitting on the stoep and watching the sky burst with colour in the evening or listening to Breyten Breytenbach reciting poetry in Afrikaans is therapy of the best kind.