“A novel of existential dread” — an extract from The Lamentations of Zeno
Ilija Trojanow, a vocal critic of domestic surveillance and the NSA, was at the centre of a cause célèbre in 2013 when the United States refused him entry for undisclosed reasons. His new book, The Lamentations of Zeno — translated from German by Philip Boehm — is a “topical polemic about global warming and climate change”, an extraordinary evocation of the fragile and majestic wonders to be found at a far corner of the globe. Poignant and playful, the novel recalls the experimentation of high-modernist fiction without compromising a limpid sense of place or the pace of its narrative. What follows is an extract from the first chapter of the book:
“The Lamentations of Zeno is half the length and twice as good [as Ian McEwan]. Trojanow has set out on a particular expedition: to unsettle. This wise, cunning book, which does indeed possess the complex depths of an iceberg, achieves exactly that.” — Irish Times
“The Lamentations of Zeno is a novel of existential dread... in contemplating the already accomplished destruction of habitats, the consumerism that marks nearly every human activity and the digital onslaught that has colonised our minds, the reader may discover that Zeno’s soul-sickness speaks to some disquiet in his or her own battered soul.” — Financial Times
Translator’s Note by Philip Boehm
With The Lamentations of Zeno, Ilija Trojanow charts new territory in prose as well as geography. Not a native speaker of German, he has adopted that language and adapted it to his own purposes, taking full advantage of its lexical fecundity, creating words at will, and of its suspended syntax, with which he unleashes whole currents of consciousness. Alternating painterly descriptions of the natural world with cacophonic passages composed of song snippets, adspeak and “breaking news,” he contrasts the majestic stillness of the Antarctic with the clamor of human “civilization.” And all of this is framed within a confessional log that allows the reader to reconstruct the emotional course of the troubled protagonist.
The sheer range of registers is impressive—and quite a challenge for the translator. The title itself is a case in point: A literal “IceThaw” not only lacks the “aura” of the original EisTau, it also fails to convey the layers of meaning lurking in the German. “Melting Ice” seemed a bit lackluster, while “Meltdown” was more appropriate for any number of TV movies. Instead we decided to focus on the narrator who is the soul of the novel.
My primary task in translating the book has been to recreate the voice of Zeno Hintermeier—his gruff demeanor, deprecating self-irony, bone-dry wit, and great erudition. To this end I have broken up single- sentence paragraphs and recast them with somewhat shorter sentences easier on Anglophone ears. Otherwise punctuation remains light, echoing the German, although quotation marks have been added to set off some speech. Songs cited in the shorter bricolage passages have been substituted with popular English lyrics from the same period, and elsewhere I have similarly opted for equivalence over literal rendering.
Most of all I hope to have captured the deeper musicality of the prose, by paying as much attention to the rests as to the notes. Because for all his linguistic virtuosity Trojanow is equally a master of the unsaid, so that the words on the page are like the icebergs themselves—a sparkling intimation of what lies below.
The Lamentations of Zeno
54°49 ́1 ̋ S, 68°19 ́5 ̋ W
There's no worse nightmare than no longer being able to save yourself by waking up.
Whenever we set sail from Ushuaia, we gather the evening before in one of the local dives that’s a little ways uphill and off the main streets, just when the last band of light is slipping from the sky. We haven’t seen one another for half a year, so we’re in the mood to celebrate as we crowd around a long wooden table. The man waiting on us is old, and judging by his face not very adventurous, although at one parting he confessed to me that he was getting along well apart from an occasional urge to puncture his hand with a knife. His place doesn’t have much on offer, but he’ll fill your glass for very little and I’m content to sit here holding my drink, surrounded by the hardworking Filipinos that make up most of the crew, now smiling broadly at our reunion. Every payday brings them closer to settling down to a home and the sheltering shade of a large family, and so they soldier on, slogging through their working days with an astounding ease. For me they will always be an enigma. Ushuaia is incapable of dampening their mood, as is any echo of the butchery, any painful reminder of the past—their ears are simply not tuned to that frequency, that legacy belongs to Europeans, those are the scars of the white man. They drift through this place just as they do through all the other places that have been de led, all our ports of call (what a pretentious phrase from some liturgy of adverting), seeming not to touch the ground when they go ashore. That is what separates us, we have no common past: what paralyzes me seems to fill them with life. Apart from that, they’re “easy to handle,” as our onboard hotel manager never tires of repeating (by which he means: much better than the unruly Chinese), as if he had personally trained them to be so diligent so patient so tame. The Filipinos’ zeal would bother me were it not for Paulina, who at this moment is probably busy giving a personal touch to our shared cabin, equipping it with artificial flowers and photographs depicting an entire menagerie of relatives—the numerous grandmothers perched in front on dilapidated rattan armchairs dragged into the garden just for the occasion, and standing behind them all the daughters and sons, loyal to a man except for the one who ran off and is rumored to be chopping vegetables in a New York restaurant. I raise my glass to Paulina’s countrymen—mechanics, cooks, pilots—and to Ricardo, our dining room manager, as unobtrusive as a shrink-wrapped suitcase, but watch out, his true power will be revealed during the course of the trip, every passenger will get to know him and a few will appreciate him (“Howzit going, Mr. Iceberger?” he says, giving me a thumbs-up, always concerned to clear potential misunderstandings out of the way before they happen). It’s a sight for the gods, the way the millionaires from the northern hemisphere line up in front of his desk, eagerly bowing as they slip him an envelope to thank him for the coveted starboard table with a box-seat view of ice floes and leopard seals. My recent years at sea have taught me that rich people are prepared to pay considerable sums for little privileges. That sets them apart from the masses, feeds Ricardo’s confidence, and finances the expansion of his guesthouse in Romblon. He’s no more interested in fur seals, leopard seals or penguins than he is in glaciers or icebergs, but he takes advantage of every scenic opportunity—“What a view, fantastic, fantastic, please take your seats,”—as he parades his teeth in a broad grin. I’m sure he’d squeeze in just as many “fantastics” in front of a garbage depot as long as there were people willing to pay for a premium seat. All he really cares about is whether something is sellable or not. Whenever we’re all together he flirts with the blonde whale lady now sitting to his left, always resorting to the same lines, which he polishes like a fingernail, “You know some day I’m going to sit in on your lecture, I mean it, I really want to learn all about these fish, now that I’ve watched them from the restaurant and seen them spouting, they really are very beautiful creatures”—but when it comes to the beautiful Beate he has a hard time understanding why she prefers whales to people, which is why he’s going to sit in the first row during one of her next lectures and write down every single word she says. He promises this before every trip, when we’re gathered at the long wooden table that’s pitted and scored with random dents and notches. “This time I mean it,” he says, “I swear to heaven”—and the whale lady pinches his arm. She speaks English with a German accent, German with a hint of Spanish, and Spanish with Chilean intonation. Despite his assurances, nothing will come of Ricardo’s “cetacean education.” But what he will do for certain at the end of the trip is pass a chef’s hat around on behalf of the men in the kitchen, while they line up in front of the curved buffet and perform a song in Tagalog that sounds like the “Hymn to the Unknown Server” and is always received with thunderous applause.
The experts aboard the MS Hansen are also at the table, the lecturers tasked with educating the vacationers, just like I was doing for three years until yesterday when the captain summoned me just after my arrival and told me the expedition leader had been taken unexpectedly to the hospital in Buenos Aires with a suspected case of swine flu, there was no way he’d be able to join us at this point, at best we might be able to pick him up along the way, further down the Beagle Channel, but until then a substitute is needed, and he believes I have the necessary competence, I know the subject, I’m engaged, and I am worldly-wise (here his glance implied I also might be inclined to overshoot my target on occasion), and apart from that I have a lot of experience on board the ship. I neither wanted to agree with his assessment nor decline the offer, so I took the folder with the instructions. From now on I’ll be spending far too much time using the radio and the PA system, keeping the passengers up to date on the weather, the route, our next destination. Each of the lecturers has a special field of expertise—oceanography biology climatology geology—and each of us knows how to talk about animals clouds cliffs both instructively and entertainingly. And each of us is a refugee in his own weird way: in the words of El Albatros, our Uruguayan ornithologist, “We’re really just a bunch of nowhere people.” He nods my way, “Mr. Iceberger”—he calls me that too, some of them have never used my real name, Zeno, and others aren’t sure how to pronounce it, whether Zen-know or Zee-no or Say-no (this from the mouth of our whiz kid Jeremy from California, who could practically be my grandson). These are minor matters to which I attach no importance, but I have the sneaking suspicion my colleagues use the nickname to disguise their belief that I’m some kind of misfit or freak. And it is more than a bit bizarre to be considered too passionate by people so passionately dedicated to their own pursuits.
Earlier that day Beate escorted a group of passengers to the national park, where paths wind along the coves and the sun’s rays angle down and settle on individual leaves like butterflies. We’ve all taken this easy walk through the virgin Patagonian forest at one time or another, but this year they’ve opened a new path and the ever- conscientious Beate has no intention of letting some tourist embarrass her by knowing more than she does, even if it’s just about a few new dots on a map and a path to a further cove. For that reason, as she explains at length, she took a bus past the southernmost golf course in the world, past the end of Pan-American Highway, to a wide, leveled parking lot where people land in the middle of nature like so many aliens, and where a small stairway of freshly treated wood leads up to the path.
“How many whales did you spot?” Ricardo asks jokingly. “One,” says Beate.
“Just one whale, how is that possible? A loner? A juvenile?”
“A beached whale very much on land and made of stone with moss on top. A whale that children are allowed to ride on.” Beate pauses. “It’s sitting out there like a memento mori.” She pauses even longer. “The thing looks massive enough that it might actually stand the test of time, too. The new path has trashcans every two hundred meters and benches every two hundred meters: trashcan bench trashcan bench as you go stalking through the forest. Our guide was a creep in tall boots, a Buenos Aires porteño who likes the notion of spending his summer in the fresh air of the south, he spoke in a high falsetto voice as if to balance out his very low level of knowledge, he talked about the original inhabitants as though they were wild animals, didn’t even mention their name, ‘grass- chewers’ is what he called them, and he made stupid jokes like ‘we don’t know much about them, they were so shy, the minute they caught sight of a person they turned tail and scrammed and if you tried to approach them they hid deep in the bush like hedgehogs or burrowed underground like skunks.’ I couldn’t help myself, I had to teach him a lesson in front of the passengers: the people who once lived in this forest were called Yah-gan. He repeated the word as if he had to crack it open, ‘Yah-gan— well that fits a primitive natural tribe just about as well as a fist fits an eye, it sounds foreign, like some strange species of spider.’ Did I mention his boots? They left deep prints, and some name or other, probably that of the manufacturer, got stamped into the earth with every step he took. Primitive natural tribe, can one of you tell me where a phrase like that comes from?” Beate stops speaking, and a hush falls over the table as though by some prearranged signal. Not everyone heard the question, but the answer will spread across the entire table.
“Because we wiped them out,” I say in a loud voice. “Because we destroy everything aligned with nature. We honor the people who are extinct, we put their masks on display and print their portraits in sepia, we show enormous care and devotion to those we have exterminated.”
The lecturers all start to sigh—here he goes again, they’re all expecting one of my diatribes, I’ve subjected them to an avalanche of rage on more than one occasion. They know from experience that whenever Mr. Iceberger waxes apodictic things will end apocalyptic. But it’s our first shared evening, so I bite my tongue and say nothing more as other conversations begin to rustle around the table.
All the others leave but me, I stay behind with the old man who spent the whole evening waiting on us in silence. That’s become a custom with the two of us, since the first time I sought him out. I had left my camera on one of the wooden benches in his bar and walked back through the cold. It was very windy and I was nearly frozen when I went inside, the old man was cleaning up, all by himself, he had to fix something to get me warm and on top of that grant me a conversation, which at first made us feel even more like strangers, but then sentence by sentence, shot by shot, we let down our armor to the point of showing our wounds. Since then we’ve never been far from each other in our thoughts. He quietly wipes down the table with circular motions, the veins on his hand look like glacial striations, his skin shows a number of liver-brown patches. With implacable anger he curses his fate to be born, grow up and grow old here in Ushuaia, which has always been a makeshift place, where every shop is called Finisterre and every apron is plastered with penguins, to live in this spot that shows no pity for anyone, not for those who once roamed barefoot over thorns until they were killed by adventurers seeking their fortune or by civil servants fallen into disfavor, not for those banned to the penal colony in heavy chains, whose yearning to escape cut deeper and deeper into their flesh and not for their descendants who grovel before the tourists as if they wanted to pick the dried bits of mud off their boots, as if the earth of Tierra del Fuego still contained gold dust. Does a place change for the better when people move away of their own accord? Does peat that has been drenched in blood still spread warmth when it burns on a homey hearth? The old man disappears for a moment and returns with two bulbous snifters of a drink that smells like vanilla and leaves a nice burn in the throat. The old man doesn’t stop moving, from the counter to the tables, from one table to the next, as if something needed to be tied down in every spot. I follow him to the window, the sparsely set streetlamps blur in the drizzle into muted trickles of light. We stand for a moment listening to the distant sounds. Suddenly he resumes speaking.
“As a child I used to spend the afternoons hanging around in front of our house—this place used to be our shack—and I’d gaze down at the town. Sometimes, when the sky was so overcast the clouds seemed to touch the ground I had the feeling the street might vanish with the fog. I’d race down the street full of expectation but every time I just landed in the filth of the harbor.”
Finally we sit down, and he refills our glasses as if there were plenty in stock. Long sentences of silence are punctuated by his pronouncements:
‘‘Whoever tries to live an honest life in this place is punished with a shot in the back of the neck.’’
‘‘We paid homage to my murdered grandfather in fearful silence.’’
‘‘My mother warned me about men in uniform the way other mothers warn their children about mean alley cats.’’ Suddenly he turns to me, looks me in the eye and says, “You’re setting off again and once again you’re letting everything happen. You’re de ling your own temple.” He rubs his hand across his face, his beard. “I’ve been watching you. You’re nothing but talk. Your indignation is a fart. You let off steam, you shoot your mouth, but otherwise you’re just like all the others, no, you’re worse, because you understand, and you sell your knowledge for a few pieces of silver.”
I don’t contradict him, and that makes him even more furious.
“Anyone who just accepts what can be avoided is a scoundrel.” He’s practically screaming. And then he shows me the heavy door.
As if I were half made of moraine, that’s the nightmare I have every night.
Tomorrow the passengers come on board. Day one: embarkation. A day like any other. We have yet to set sail. The impending departure makes me uneasy, I wasn’t born a sailor, on the contrary, my home was the mountains, before I was chased away. The first time I saw the ocean was at the mouth of a glacier, the glacial tongue was practically licking the beach, the glacial stream was running ahead of me, I was in my early twenties and confident, so confident I purposely got lost in the rainforest between the beach and the glacier. Today that glacier has melted away and its phantom tongue visits me in my sleep to mock me and I am powerless against my night- mare’s minions. Paulina is already slumbering away, she falls asleep quickly, more quickly if we’ve made love. Tomorrow we set out. One more tour. My fourth year.
It is written.
We let ourselves be comforted by demeaning sentences such as this. Nothing is written: it is being written. By every single one of us. Just like everyone contributes his little bit to all the poisoned ruins on this earth. Hence this notebook, hence my decision to describe what has happened, what will happen. I shall be the word-keeper of my own conscience. Something has to happen. There’s no time to waste.
••• ——— •••
Measurements to die for check her out I tell you, nobody gives a hoot, you can kiss it goodbye, grab yours now while supplies last. Sir, we’re picking up a distress signal on 406 MHz. Screw up your courage, measurements to die for, you’ll be licking your lips afterward, thirteen months of sunshine, welcome to paradise, and it rained every single day. Distress beacon? Yes sir. Which ship? It isn’t clear, sir. The chapel’s been closed for a week now, the frescoes are being renovated, no it won’t open again until the fall, I’m sorry you’ve come all this way in vain, we can’t allow ourselves to be pressured, a question for your guest, all you have to do is switch a few letters and contribution becomes retribution, something’s stuck, something always gets stuck. I have a fix, sir at 43°22’ S and 64°33’ W. All ravens are black, I’ve had it up to here, the apparent temperature was higher, measurements to die for, she’ll make better speed on the lee side, cut to the chase, it’s a done deal. Something isn’t right, sir, we’ve lost radio contact with the Hansen. What about their radio of officer? He’s not responding, sir. Hey hey hey get your fingers off it’s my turn, the bra’s all mine, ok Charlie hold your breath, ready one two and come on damn hooks got snagged, there’ll be better days to come. Radar? Moving north-northwest. You’ve tried all channels? Yes, sir. Keep trying, I’m calling the Argentine coast guard. I’d like to ask your guest a question, if I under- stand correctly we’re all either going to heaven or else to hell, but one way or other we’re all going somewhere, so does that mean we’re essentially immortal? Prefectura Naval Argentina? Sí . . . sí . . . Her last position given was 54°49’ S 68°19’ W, no we haven’t had any contact with the Hansen since then. No doubt about it, they’re going to shoot that bird down, don’t take it so to heart, go ahead and catch your breath, take a deep breath, measurements to die for, we’re doing what we can, and there is something we can do BREAKING NEWS ACCIDENT IN THE ANTARCTIC? BREAKING NEWS ACCIDENT IN THE ANTARCTIC? and nevertheless.
- Illustration by David McConochie for the Financial Times.
- The Lamentations of Zeno by Ilija Trojanow is out now.