In seeing the world in all its delicate beauty and overwhelming roughness, Christoph Ransmayr’s Atlas of an Anxious Man finds a language for mapping the intricacies of the human heart

We travel to discover the world; we peer at places and people through the display of a smartphone – only most of the time, we fail to see. Author Christoph Ransmayr wants to change that: In his outstanding collection of essays  titled Atlas of an Anxious Man, he helps readers regain the ability to perceive the world in all its diverse complexity, vitality and ferocity. At times as subtle as a firefly in a cave, or roaring like a comet high above, he shows us that what we should be watching is not the picture-perfect scenery but the activity and energy around us. Only then can we appreciate the navigator who is charting our course through opaque waters or the compassion of stargazers who turn away from a meteor shower to help a startled waiter pick up shards of broken glass from the ground.

Christoph Ransmayr, born in Upper Austria and by his own description “part nomad,” is a virtuoso storyteller. His language is beautiful, direct and accessible, as well as moving. A former journalist, Ransmayr studied philosophy and ethnology in Vienna, before setting out to travel the world armed with the three things he considers indispensable: naïveté, speechlessness and light baggage.

Ransmayr’s highly acclaimed first novel, The Last World, centered on a man tracing the steps of the Roman poet Ovid in his exile on the Black Sea. With time, person and place as a canvas, Ransmayr created an elaborate blend of historical fact and fiction, juxtaposing the longings of an artist’s soul with the pull of the wilderness at the end of the world, encapsulated in an imaginative and arresting story. In the Atlas of an Anxious Man, a series of 70 carefully crafted episodes eloquently translated into English by Simon Pare, Ransmayr takes the reader along on a personal journey around the globe, each encounter a delight of vivid detail and yet comprising a small universe.

Ransmayr’s prose is so rich in its modes of expression, in its expanse of imagination, it borders on the lyrical. His style is exceptional in contemporary German-language literature, and indeed worldwide, such that his books have been translated into more than 30 languages.

Yet-to-see distant places

Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr, Seagull Books (Feb 2016) 336 pp. $27.50 / €24.30
Atlas of an Anxious Man
by Christoph Ransmayr,
Seagull Books
(Feb 2016)
336 pp.
€23.30 // Cover courtesy of publisher

Each tale begins with a simple yet fecund “I saw…” as Ransmayr describes the world around him in sublime and colorful detail, never losing the thread that weaves together each story. There is always a message, a guiding insight, but while the plot unfurls on the page and in our minds, the story only -reveals its secret at the end. Often witty and uplifting, sometimes sad but hopeful, and always thoroughly human, each denouement gifts us with a small and beautiful eureka moment.

Initially, the wayfarer returning from the summer holidays is drawn to the book by the prospect of imaginary travels to the cracking ice fields of Antarctica, the precipice of a Costa Rican volcano and the long, lonely coasts and stony statues of Easter Island. Soon, the reader is mesmerized and captivated by the beauty of the language and its artful application.

Ultimately, however, it is the deeply compassionate core of each story that stays with us long after we have put the book aside. Stories do not happen, they are told, Ransmayr tells us in the beginning. They are relentlessly frank, yet inspirational and encouraging – a gentle but unswerving reminder that wherever we go, we are, first and foremost, deeply human.