Over a cave where the sea comes in, stands an unusual temple
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For a while now, it has been seen fit to gravely consider the question: Is travel writing dead? No place left unexplored, the Internet will take you anywhere, etc., etc. All it takes to answer the question convincingly is a truly great travel book, and here’s one by Austrian writer Christoph Ransmayr, translated from German by Simon Pare.
Seventy pieces of writing, most only four or five pages long, their setting shifting around the world—Chile, Tibet, Yemen, Ireland, the Arctic to mention only a few—each (except one) being a place the author has been in at some point in his life. It’s just people being people, animals being animals. But looked at through Ransmayr’s eyes and processed through his imagination, it’s a parade of quiet glories. His is a cartography of wonder—a sober celebration that this world should exist, that it should be coloured so variously by place, that we should find it possible to care for all this and each other.
Every episode begins with the words “I saw” and Ransmayr sees some wonderful things. A man with a painful past swings at golf balls at the North Pole. A woman laughs at a sloth bear that’s fallen through her roof. A waiter crashes to the ground with his tray at the viewing of an exceptionally rare celestial event, and the people gathered there find it in themselves to turn away from the sky and help him up. A boy is distraught when the snowman’s head he has preserved in a freezer is reconstituted after a power failure.
He also sees vividly and deeply (and not only because he is often looking through binoculars). His writing is rigorous: Ransmayr seems to know the name of every tree, plant, insect, bird and star, as well as the histories of the places he’s been to. His descriptions are precise and beautiful, his sentences often long and perhaps textured by some of the original German. Much credit to the translator that the writing works as well as it does in English.
A sentence that seems to take the form of the great wall of China even as it describes it:
“The wall, complete with battlements, watchtowers and beacons, wound its way through uninhabited highlands like a ribbon that had been whisked away on the wind, had snagged on peaks and ridges and dropped down over rugged mountain ranges into deserted valleys from which it once more climbed up just as steeply, changing course along a ridge before once more swinging back after an umpteenth bend onto the ideal line imagined by long-forgotten architects and generals.” And here, Ransmayr meets an old man trying to record the call of every songbird found along the wall, the territorial singing of those for whom the wall was no barrier at all. Imagine, says the old man, all the recordings played together—a great wall of birdsong. It might make an intruder run away in fright, or it might “enchant him so that he forgot his hatred or his desire to fight, rendered powerless to do anything but listen in rapture.”
Atlas of an Anxious Man is a catalogue of such raptures. Its narratives are concentrated and crafted with the skill of a fine short-story writer, and Ransmayr isn’t reluctant to work the resonances he spots into soaring epiphanies. This sort of all-cylinders-firing writing means the book is probably best taken slow while it holds a cherished place on the book-shelf—not unlike an atlas.
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