Novels with explicitly novelistic themes are often bloodless, carrying the fatal odor of the sheltered writing workshop; Austrian writer Ransmayr's first novel, however, is a stunning exception. (His second book, The Last World, was published here last year to critical acclaim.) The underlying concerns of this work are primarily literary--creator vs. creation, history vs. fiction, the nature of metaphor, etc.--but here they inform a singularly gripping tale. A nameless and largely invisible narrator recounts the 1981 disappearance of one Josef Mazzini, whose fascination with a 19th-century polar expedition has pulled him north, to the furthest arctic settlements. Accounts of the two journeys intersect and diverge, challenging the notion of history as linear, seducing the reader with startlingly detailed descriptions of polar exploration. Members of the 19th-century expedition, pursuing honor, glory and other vanities, endure two frigid winters when their ship is trapped in ice: their beards freeze, they are blinded by snow and ill with scurvy, but the Bible is read every Sunday. A century later men approach the icy expanse with snowmobiles and Walkmen, undertaking selfinterested scientific projects. This aggressively intelligent narrative transforms the polar regions into unusually fertile ground. (July)
This first novel, whose author has since been celebrated as one of the German language's most gifted young novelists, appeared in 1984. An impressive debut, it tells the gripping tale of the Austro-Hungarian polar expedition of 1872-74, describes a young Italian's ultimately fatal obsession with reconstructing this expedition in 1981, and traces the narrator's growing fascination with this man's fate. The text transcends the novelistic genre by quoting liberally from documentary records, thus becoming history and travelog as well as fiction. The highly readable, unobtrusive translation also deserves mention. Ransmayr's novel is a fine addition to any general fiction collection.-- Michael T. O'Pecko, Towson State Univ., Md.