The world that Christoph Ransmayr is traveling and describing is so different from the world of other tourists/travelers, especially those that are writing about their travels online. Not sure why I’m comparing this beautiful piece of literature with online tourist guides–maybe just to point out the fact that Ransmayr’s travel diary is NOT about the usual travel destinations.
You won’t read about the “jewels of the Mediterranean/Carribean/whatever other exotic sea” here, nor about the fancy restaurants in Paris, crazy nightlife in Berlin, or smoking pot in Amsterdam. Ransmayr is not interested in popular destinations. He’s rather searching for something much deeper – something trivially called “real life”, or perhaps something akin to a soul – that can perhaps be found by observing less traveled places, ordinary people, difficult everyday situations.
The book consists of 70 stories, each depicting one such far away, or desolate, or “extreme”, or even “mainstream” place, but seen from an unusual angle. An example of that is the Chinese Wall that everyone knows about, and could be considered a popular geographical attraction, but I’m sure not many people are aware that only a small portion of this wall is functional and presentable. Miles and miles of it are in ruins, and these ruins are exactly what attracts some adventurous joggers, who even organize competitions who’ll run the longest ramshackle portion.
I learned about a place in Russia where old submarines and battleships are left to die and pollute the waters. I learned about the Rapa Nui people who burned out building incredible stone figures that keep their backs to the sea and gaze knowingly at the people and the land. I learned about a cave so dark and so full of amazing insects that glow on the ceiling, that it feels like watching the night sky full of stars when you’re sailing in a boat beneath it.
But I also read about horrible deaths after a tsunami, poor fishermen who wonder how they’ll feed their families with fish being so scarce, animals that get killed, animals that torture other animals.
Nature is brutal and beautiful, seems to be the most concise conclusion of Ransmayr’s travel diary. The way he poetically moves along these places, how he silently observes these people as if he’s a ghost (emphasizing our inability to really help or make a difference), makes it worthwhile reading. I advanced very slowly through the book because of rich, long sentences, so wonderfully crafted descriptions of waterfalls, mountains, fences, graves, skinny and thirsty goats, tired dying lizards – for me, slowly advancing is the only way to read this Atlas.
I wondered why it’s the Atlas of an “anxious” man. Isn’t it rather an endlessly curious man? Or even an invisible man? I’m not any closer to a possible explanation after reading the book, than I was at the beginning.
I just want to say one more thing (that may be interesting only to me). It’s about the structure of the book that reminded me of another classic. Every chapter begins with the following words: “I saw…” A chapter would read something like: I saw a little girl in the storm… or: I saw a big wall… or: I saw a shadow big as a building… And for some reason, after only three or four chapters that start that way, I heard Allen Ginsberg’s “I saw the best minds of my generation…” I’m sure Ginsberg’s poem had nothing to do with inspiring Ransmayr to write this book, but for some reason, the melody of Howl and this author’s repetitive introductions merged in my mind.
The world Ransmayr has seen is the opposite of how tourist agencies are depicting our world. I think we should all see it through his eyes, and we can now, thanks to his book.