#RivetingReviews: Caroline Wyatt reviews COX OR THE COURSE OF TIME and THE FLYING MOUNTAIN by Christoph Ransmayr

Christoph Ransmayr may be a much-garlanded author across the German-speaking world, but his profile in the UK is not nearly as high as it should be given his gifts as a storyteller and the lyricism of his writing.

In Cox or The Course of Time, he conjures up a journey to 18th-century China by a fictional English clockmaker, Alister Cox, who is based on a real-life counterpart called James Cox. Cox and the close-knit team from his workshop have been invited by the world’s most powerful man, Qiánlóng, the emperor of China, to his court in Beijing. Living a stiflingly enclosed life in the very heart of the Forbidden City, the visiting craftsmen are tasked with creating impossibly ingenious and elaborate mechanical clocks that mark the passing of time in very different ways. First, the time as it passes for a child (the challenge closest to Cox’s heart, as he meditates on the loss of his beloved daughter, and his grief at the resulting muteness of his young wife from the trauma). Then, a clock that will tell time as experienced by a man condemned to death. Cox contemplates the possibility of creating a clock that will tell time as it’s experienced by lovers, just as he begins to dwell dangerously on the beauty of An, the emperor’s favourite concubine, in the few brief glimpses he has of her. 

These are merely the start of the test of Cox’s ingenuity, as the godlike emperor – also known as the ‘Lord of Time’ – presents the men with what could be a lethal challenge: to construct a clock capable of measuring eternity, a perpetual mobile that would need no human hand to touch it once it began its eternal (and to the rest of the jealous, gossiping court, perhaps infernal) work.

The story itself is a philosophical meditation on the meaning and nature of time and memory, as well as the power of human love, and the uses and abuses of temporal power. It is immeasurably enhanced by Simon Pare’s luminous translation. If you like your novels to meander gently and metaphysically through imaginary lands, while pondering the meaning of life and death and love as we experience it (quickly or slowly) through our all-too-short span on this capricious earth, you will enjoy this vivid journey with Cox and his men.

Love, longing, death and loss are also at the heart of Ransmayr’s The Flying Mountain, originally published in 2006, which was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2018. It’s a verse epic of the fictional journey by two Irish brothers, Pádraic and Liam, to conquer the uncharted mountain in the Himalayas which the Tibetans know only as the ‘Flying Mountain’ or ‘Phur-Ri’. It begins with the narrator Pádraic describing the sensation of dying in a crevasse while he struggles desperately to find his brother in the darkness ahead as a freezing night descends on the enchanted mountain:

I died

six thousand, eight hundred and forty metres above sea level 

on the fourth of May in the Year of the Horse.

My deathplace

lay at the foot of an ice-armoured needle of rock 

in whose lee I had survived the night.

The air temperature at the time of my death 

was minus 30 degrees Celsius

and I saw the moisture

of my final breath crystallize

and disperse like smoke into the light of dawn. 

I felt no cold. I was in no pain.

The pulsing of the wound in my left hand

was strangely dulled.

Through the bottomless chasms at my feet

fists of cloud came drifting from the south-east.

The ridge leading from my shelter up and up

to the pyramidal peak

was lost in driving banners of ice, 

but the sky above the highest heights 

remained so deep a blue

that in it I thought I could make out the constellations 

of Boötes, Serpens and Scorpio.

Ransmayr describes the broken verse form he uses as a ‘floating’ line or better still, a ‘flying’ line, which he believes does not belong to poets alone. It acts to slow the reader down, to make us savour each word. Once again, Simon Pare’s achievement in the fluency and beauty of his translation makes you feel the book must have been written in English. The story takes you deeper into the history of the brothers’ relationship, one of boundless love enmeshed with lifelong rivalry for the love of their flawed and eccentric father and the absent mother who walked out on them all.

It’s at its strongest in the climbing scenes, the poetry soaring as Pádraic and Liam ascend closer to their goal. Ransmayr was inspired by the real-life climbers, brothers Günther and Reinhold Messner, and their tragedy. But their story is simply the spark for this unique meditation on two fictional brothers’ very different motivations for the climb, and their responses to the new world they discover as they scale their way up into the skies of the Himalayas.

In both works, Ransmayr is fascinated by perilous journeys into uncharted realms, and how travel can both take us out of our natural habitat and offer us the chance to delve deeper into ourselves, even as the writer dwells on the power imbalances and quirks of fate and birth that shape the lives of individuals and entire nations, be that in China and Tibet, or in the north and south of Ireland. Ultimately, Ransmayr’s poetic prose makes a powerful case for words’ ability to redeem us and offer a form of immortality that few other human endeavours can promise.

Reviewed by Caroline Wyatt


by Christoph Ransmayr

Translated by Simon Pare 

Published by Seagull Books (2022; 2019)

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Caroline Wyatt is an Australian-born English journalist. She has worked at BBC News for over thirty years, holding correspondent posts in Paris, Berlin and in religious affairs and defence. She is a presenter on BBC Radio.

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