Is it an atlas of the man himself, or an atlas of the world as seen by the anxious man? Is the anxious man author Christoph Ransmayr, and why is he anxious? Atlas of an Anxious Man does not concern itself with the answers to such questions. This unusual piece of travel writing does not double as personal memoir or destination porn; we never learn what kind of trip the narrator is taking, and rarely discover why he has selected these particular destinations, what he is doing there, or who his traveling companions are.
Instead, Atlas of an Anxious Man is composed of a set of memories of a particular sort. Each describes one of those vivid moments of epiphany that seem to be more common when one is far from home. Sometimes they have obvious meaning; more often there is an undefined sense of significance. The episodes are strung together not chronologically or geographically, but thematically, the way that one story leads to another in conversation. An encounter with a mother whale and her calf in tropical waters is followed by a tale that begins with the death of a calf on a Brazilian cattle ranch.
The book is translated from German by Simon Pare, who has translated Ransmayr’s work before. It is published by Seagull Books, an invaluable resource for English speakers with an interest in German literature. Thanks to this India-based publisher, dozens of works in German are now available in English for the first time.
The vignettes that make up Atlas of an Anxious Man are almost too short to call stories. They feel more like flash fiction, or even posts on a very literary travel blog. Despite their length, all the necessary elements of a short story are present in each episode recounted, and the author implies that the stories are true. At least they could be true, as he reports in the preface that he has visited every place and met every person described – except for one. In that one case, he describes a place known to him only through his wife’s stories. He does not identify which story is not a first person account, and in none of the seventy stories does he deviate from the formulaic opening, “I saw…”
Thus he casts doubt on the veracity of all the stories, and as he asserts in the introduction, reminds the reader that “we know much of what we believe we know about our world only from other people’s accounts.” The prevarication regarding this unidentified second-hand story is also meant to confirm that his point of view is not so unique – anyone, he claims, could recount such stories.
By beginning each story “I saw,” Ransmayr distances himself from the action, even in stories as personal as the death of his own father. Contrary to more common traveler’s tales, he is not writing to share how his experiences influenced him as a person. Rather, his focus is on sharing observations, information, items of interest. Their import is sometimes implied by the supposedly extraneous details that he shares or even just in the sequencing of the stories. But for the most part, it is up to the reader to draw conclusions from the empirical evidence Ransmayr presents.
Ransmayr’s anxious man seems to have a knack for arriving in locations during times of upheaval, when governments have recently fallen or nature has recently knocked things down. He is drawn to eccentricity, with many stories recounting encounters with the insane or those monomaniacally driven to quixotic quests. His adventures on the edges of revolution and fringes of violence often lead to speculation on death and mortality, but in all cases, his interest in the fundamental nature of humanity.
Although Ransmayr reveals very little of his own attitudes in these stories, it is telling that several of these travel stories take place in his homeland, while the final story, “Arrival,” finds the author coming to rest before an open fire in a mountain cave in Nepal. Make of it what you will, dear reader.