For anyone who is interested in German literature but unable to read it unless it has been translated into English, Seagull Books provides an essential resource: the German List, a series of beautifully designed books by some of the German language’s most talented authors, past and present (including Peter Handke, Max Frisch, Christa Wolf, Theodor Adorno, and Wolfgang Hilbig). The latest title to appear on the list is Christoph Ransmayr’s Atlas of an Anxious Man, a collection of seventy short “episodes” in which the acclaimed Austrian writer travels all over the world, from Chile to China, Iceland to India, Nepal to New Mexico, and many other places in between. It is a book of dreamlike scenes and strange experiences; a book of history, myth, and adventure; a book of unforgettable people and the stories they are willing to share when someone takes the time to listen.
The narrative begins on a ship sailing to Easter Island. Ransmayr meets a stranger on board and strikes up a conversation about the Rapa Nui people and the colossal stone figures that once dominated their island. The stranger—described by Ransmayr as “a scarily thin man” who speaks a confusing mixture of languages—weaves his personal story into their discussion, telling Ransmayr about his mother, who was Rapa Nui, and her fatal aversion to food. After her death, the thin man adopted her lack of appetite: “he had lost all desire to eat, perhaps for ever.”
This anecdote is worth mentioning because it marks the beginning of a pattern that reappears throughout the book. While traveling around the world and encountering various cultures, Ransmayr meets eccentric, isolated people (usually men) with peculiar stories to tell. Though the stories may involve considerable hardship or momentous historical events, they are not portrayed quite as memorably as the individuals who tell them. Atlas of an Anxious Man is a book of places, as the title suggests, but even more so it is a book of people: a Welsh birdwatcher on the Great Wall of China, a blind man singing a Rolling Stones song during a thunderstorm in Sumatra, a woman whispering a poem by Goethe at her father’s funeral in the mountains of Brazil, an old man watching over the graves of a Jewish cemetery in the Czech Republic, a screaming preacher trying to chase people from a decaying stadium in Warsaw, a woman in Bolivia shaking her fist at a fighter pilot and shouting “No pasarán! No pasarán!”
Perhaps it is the trick of all great travel writers: they appear to be writing about places when in fact they are writing about people. For a place, however exotic it might seem, is only as interesting as the people who inhabit it. Even extraordinary events have little significance compared to people, as Ransmayr eloquently illustrates in “Star-Pickers.” In this episode, he is stargazing outside of a café in San Diego, California, where a crowd has gathered to witness a lunar eclipse and the simultaneous appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet streaking across the night sky. While everyone is gazing upwards in anticipation of this spectacular event, a waiter from the café trips and falls to the ground, dropping his tray of dishes and drawing the attention of the crowd:
For although it would be a long time, a very long time until the next eclipse of comparable beauty, and although the fleeing comet, after gradually fading and disappearing, would only return in over 2,500 years’ time…[many of the spectators] turned away from this unique happening, this unrepeatable cosmic event, and towards the fallen waiter, turned their backs on the sky, bent down to the speechless, embarrassed man, offered him their outstretched arms and, when he made no attempt to stand but simply sought to collect together the broken glass on all fours, sank to their knees beside him and helped him pick up the shards that continued to twinkle from the black asphalt despite the dimmed moonlight, as though they were picking stars.
Not all of the episodes deal with this type of drama, however. Some are much graver and involve stories of profound human suffering; others are mundane and uneventful. Atlas of an Anxious Man is a vibrantly diverse book, and upon starting each of its seventy pieces, the reader never knows what to expect: a sloth crashing through a ceiling in Costa Rica, a fighter plane firing bullets at Ransmayr while he is hiking in Bolivia, a Cambodian fisherman reflecting on the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, and so on in this unpredictable way.
But despite these variations, each piece begins with the exact same words: “I saw…” It is a fitting phrase, for Ransmayr is present in this book primarily as a witness. He is there to observe, describe, record—but not to judge or intervene. Throughout the book he maintains a remarkable detachment from the events he describes. (Even when recounting his father’s death he keeps his distance, referring to his father as “the dead man” until the very last sentence.) We hardly learn any personal details about Ransmayr, and he is rarely introspective. As a writer, he seems far more interested in other people than he is in himself.
By telling his stories in this detached way, Ransmayr gives them a mythic quality. (A survey of the table of contents hints at this: “The Ice God,” “The Master of Heroes,” “Queen of the Wild,” etc.) People appear as symbols, and their actions, even when commonplace, carry the weight of ritual. There is almost no humor in the book—and almost no need for it. Ransmayr is drawn to places of past destruction. The world he depicts is a world in the wake of great suffering, a world damaged by natural disasters and human cruelty, a world of indifference. And yet, as the people he meets along the way repeatedly prove, it is still a world worth living in.
Atlas of an Anxious Man is a difficult book to categorize, for it blends genres and raises the question as to whether or not it is actually a work of nonfiction. There is a dreamlike quality to some of the scenes (as when Ransmayr finds himself wandering among dead livestock on a deserted farm, or when he stumbles upon a reenactment of the crucifixion in the desert of New Mexico), and at times it seems improbable that so many fascinating things could have happened to a single person. But perhaps the question regarding the book’s veracity is of little importance—at least to Ransmayr. “Stories do not occur,” he writes in a note at the beginning of the book; “they are told.” He then claims that almost every episode in the book “could have been recounted by someone else who had ventured out, to distant lands or even just into their immediate neighborhood, and into close quarters with the unknown.” It is an admirably modest statement, but not one I agree with. Atlas of an Anxious Man is truly an idiosyncratic work of literature, and I doubt that anyone but Ransmayr could have written anything quite like it.
Readers seeking a single, continuous narrative might be frustrated by the book’s structure. The pieces are not arranged in chronological order, and the perpetual shifting of scenery can be unsettling. On one page Ransmayr is in Austria watching a girl buy shoes for her First Communion, and on the next he is in Nepal watching a girl drag a fishing line through a river filled with the remains of cremated corpses. He is always on the move, never lingering in one place for too long, never growing comfortable or content. But at the end of the book, among a group of monks in a cave in the Himalayas, he finds a worthy place to rest:
The fire had burnt down. The monks were mere shadows, the embers white ash. I felt as secure now as I had in the long-lost evenings of my childhood when I was put to bed with a strip of light shining through the gap in the door as comfort against the dark, and heard the whispering voices of the people who watched over me. As a spark leapt up from the snow-white ashes into the cave’s cold darkness and died in mid-flight, I fell asleep. Now I had arrived.
Atlas of an Anxious Man is a record of the extraordinary things that can happen to a person if he steps out into the world with his eyes and mind open. It is an evocative and haunting book, a masterpiece of multiple genres by a writer unlike any other. Ransmayr is one of Austria’s most accomplished novelists, but his work is relatively unknown outside of Europe. With this excellent translation by Simon Pare, there is hope that Ransmayr will start to receive the attention he deserves.
A. M. Kaempf is the founding editor of The Northwest Review of Books. His work has also appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and Full Stop.