It’s getting rather cold back in Paris, so it’s time to move on and see what our Man Booker International Prize longlist reading has in store for us next. However, if you thought the gutters of the French capital were a tad chilly, I’m afraid you’re in for a bit of a rude awakening. You see, the next leg of the journey moves us onwards and upwards, and while the first chapters take us for a quick trip to the seaside, very soon we’ll be off to the mountains. Hope you’ve packed your crampons…
Der Fliegende Berg (The Flying Mountain) by Christoph Ransmayr
– Seagull Books, translated by Simon Pare
(I read the German-language edition, published by Fischer)
What’s it all about?
High in the Tibetan mountains, a man lies on the brink of death, injured and alone. As he slowly freezes, his attention wanders to the beauty surrounding him and images of a woman, only for these thoughts to be rudely interrupted by the arrival of another climber – his brother. As it turns out, the writer is fated to survive his ordeal, but cruelly, his brother will perish in his place.
The story then takes us back to where it all began, with the two brothers living together on a small island off the Irish Atlantic coast. The narrator is persuaded by his charismatic elder brother, Liam, to chase a dream, his desire to travel to Tibet and conquer a mountain previously unknown to mankind, the Phur-Ri, or ‘Flying Mountain’. After training on the cliffs of their native land, the two men set off on an epic journey, sneaking off from an official Chinese tour to make it into the Tibetan highlands, but on their arrival, it becomes clear that they are following different dreams. While his brother is hell-bent on making it to the summit of the mountain he saw on his computer screen, the writer finds his own fulfillment on the mountain plains below. Love, it seems, can be found in the most unusual places…
Apparently, the book is based on the real-life adventures of two mountaineers, but I’m not sure you really need to know that to enjoy it (I had no idea until after I’d finished, and I don’t think it mattered). However, the relationship between the brothers is certainly at the core of Ransmayr’s novel. The writer gradually feeds us details of their youth, telling us of the climbing trips with their father and of their mother’s departure from the family home, and what comes across strongly is that the writer (whose name is only mentioned once, on page 327!), three years younger than Liam, has always been overshadowed by his big brother:
Ich war empört; wütend auf meinen Bruder
und auf meine Entscheidung, ihn zu begleiten:
Reiste ich, lebte ich denn in seinem Schatten?
War ich sein Schatten? Ein Fragment aus dem Netz
war also mein Ziel? Eine Leerstelle?
Oder war es vielleicht so, daß er nichts begriff
von dem was ich sehen und ich begreifen wollte?
p.90 (Fischer Taschenbuch, 2007)
I was outraged; furious with my brother
and with my decision to accompany him:
Was I travelling, living in his shadow?
Was I his shadow? Was, then,
a smudge discovered on the internet my goal? A blank space?
Or perhaps it was that he understood nothing
of what I wanted to see and understand?
*** (my translation)
The more we learn, the clearer the difference between the two becomes. Where the writer wants to see and learn from his experiences, Liam simply wants to reach his goal – like the computers he works with his is very much a binary, yes or no, kind of world. Once the writer meets Nyema, a beautiful woman from the nomadic tribe, he begins to wonder why he feels the need to go on with the expedition instead of simply staying with the woman he loves
The Flying Mountain is also a novel of cultures and repression, both at sea level and at altitude. The brothers have grown up against a background of their father’s hatred of the English oppressors, with one scene showing his (rather ineffective) support for the IRA. From one colonist, we move swiftly to another, as the men see for themselves the results of Chinese rule over Tibet. As they travel across the vast expanses of land, they see the ruins of burnt-out temples, and there’s no need to look too far for victims of the majority rule as Nyema herself has suffered at Chinese hands.
Of course, as fascinating as the backdrop is, Ransmayr’s novel is mostly about the climb. The journey to Tibet has come about as a result of Liam’s discovery on his computer screens of an unknown mountain, an irresistible lure for a man made for adventure:
Vielleicht ist jenes Bedürfnis
das uns selbst in enzyklopädisch gesicherten Gebieten
nach dem Unbekannten, Unbetretenen,
von Spuren und Namen noch Unversehrten suchen läßt –
nach jenem makellos weißen Fleck,
in den wir dann ein Bild unserer Tagträume
einschreiben können. (p.43)
Perhaps this need
really is insatiable,
that makes us seek out the unknown, the untrodden,
the untouched by traces and names
even in encyclopaedically bounded regions –
that flawless white spot
in which we may then engrave
an image of our daydreams. ***
What follows is a superb description of the beauty and fury of the mountains. On their ascent of the first of the three peaks, the men are dazzled by clear skies and soft snow, yet all too soon their exhilaration is curtailed. A swift change in the weather brings sudden elemental fury, and the exposed climbers are reduced from the heroic conquerors of minutes before to mere figurines at risk of being swept away. As their guides would say, it’s the punishment they deserve for daring to disturb the abode of the gods…
While the story is absorbing, the standout feature of the novel is the structure and its ‘fliegende Sätze’ (‘flying sentences’). The story is written in blank verse, and I’m sure I’m not the only reader to have been initially apprehensive at the prospect of 360 pages of what the writer unconvincingly denies is poetry. However, the book is actually fairly easy to read, with the narrative flow soon helping you to forget the unconventional style. In addition, these short sections encourage you to reread certain passages and help produce the epic feel of the novel (I suspect that the writing style also helps break up what could have been overwhelming in page upon page of prose…).
It’s a wonderful read, but it could be argued that one slightly weak aspect to the novel is the inclusion of Nyema, the beautiful nomad who falls for the writer. A love interest certainly makes sense, but it all feels a little too convenient (and smacks of a Hollywood plot twist). There’s a sense here of exploiting the ‘exotic’, and Nyema comes across as a bit of fantasy figure rather than a fully-drawn character worthy of her place in the narrative.
In truth, that’s a minor quibble, though, and it’s soon forgotten as we build up to the final climb. Even though we know what this last ascent will bring, we can’t help but will the brothers on, wanting them to make it to the summit, and hoping they find what they were looking for. In a strange way, despite the tragedy, these last chapters bring redemption to the two climbers as they manage to reconnect. In the end, perhaps, The Flying Mountain is less a book about conquering a mountain than of rediscovering what’s really important in life.
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Definitely. With only one more book to read from the longlist, Ransmayr’s poetic journey is top of my list. While it’s not perfect, there’s so much to enjoy and admire in the writing, the story and the atmosphere evoked, and for me it stands out from the crowd (and makes a couple of the other books seem plodding by comparison). I’d be very disappointed if this didn’t make the shortlist…
…kiss of death, right there 😉
Will it make the shortlist?
I expect this to make the official cut, provided, of course, that Pare’s translation manages to capture the essence of Ransmayr’s work (the excerpt available here seems OK, even if there’s actually a bit missing towards the end!). It’s very different to the rest of the selections, with the possible exception of The White Book, and I suspect that the distinct nature of The Flying Mountain will see it move on to the final round.
With the threat of altitude sickness looming, it’s probably for the best that we have to return to sea level. There are a couple more stops to make before the end of our journey, but – alas – time (not to mention my failure to source the final book yet…) has beaten us. The announcement of the official shortlist is almost upon us, so very soon we’ll know which of the longlisted titles remain to fight another day, and which have been kicked to the (metaphorical) kerb. Whatever the decision, rest assured that we in the Shadow Panel will have something to say about it – and will be making our own selection in due course.
It’s all getting a bit serious 😉