Austrian writer Christoph Ransmayr is a man in search of the essence of things. In his novel memoir, Atlas of an Anxious Man, the author travels to 70 locations — and always meets another version of himself.
Austrian Ransmayr's first novel, The Terrors of Ice and Darkness (1984), based on an Austro-Hungarian expedition team's journey to the North Pole, was followed by his surreal, critically-acclaimed 1988 novel, The Last World, which drew on Ovid's Metamorphoses as it shifted between time and place. "This remarkable second novel … carries the conviction of an ominous dream," said the The New York Times.
Written much later in 2012, Atlas of an Anxious Man consists of 70 episodes in which the author remembers the places he has journeyed across several decades. These are not orthodox travel descriptions, as his poetic encounter with a whale in the Dominican Caribbean shows:
"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 deviation, and therefore recognized and acknowledged my existence, I discerned such complete indifference in her look — akin to the mountain's towards someone climbing it, or the sky's towards 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."
Eye-to-eye with a whale
Whether in the Caribbean or in Laos, the Brazilian tropical forest, the North American wilderness, in Russia, or even in his Austrian homeland — Ransmayr is most concerned with describing both nature and humanity.
The 70 chapters of Atlas of an Anxious Man deal "exclusively with people I have encountered, people who helped, protected, threatened, rescued or loved me," Ransmayr writes. And sometimes also animals.
The novel draws on diverse histories to recall the oddities of everyday life, and to describe the peculiarities of people and the places they inhabit.
Ransmayr's literary travels take him to small and large dramas in remote places across the planet. How do these characters behave in distant cultures? How does one deal with silence and the desolation of nature? How does one face the hardships of life? The author both asks questions and offers answers that yet retain an element of mystery.
Using prose that transcends the mere experience of the journey, Ransmayr addresses such quandaries in ways that won't be found in traditional travel literature.
"Often my destinations were also determined by reading, such as Stevenson and Melville," the writer said in an interview about his motivation for writing.
Tracking down Herman Melville's Moby Dick
One character stands out strongly: Captain Ahab in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, who was driven by near madness in search of the white whale. Ahab was not a distainful whaler, but a desperate man of the world who was trying to find out what was holding him together inside. Ransmayr is a late successor of Melville. He too is in search of the white whale of knowledge in distant regions.
Christoph Ransmayr: Atlas of an Anxious Man, Seagull (German title: Atlas eines ängstlichen Mannes, 2012). English translation: Simon Pare.
Born in 1954 in Wels, Upper Austria, the author made his name in the 1980s with books such as The Terrors of Ice and Darkness and Last World. The multi-award-winning writer often travels to all parts of the earth on journeys and processes these experiences in his works, which could be called literary expeditions.