Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis

[This page by Dora Osborne]

Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis ; The Terrors of Ice and Darkness (1984)

Ransmayr’s first novel describes the failed attempt of a young man from Vienna, Josef Mazzini, to retrace a nineteenth-century polar expedition. Between 1872 and 1874, Julius Payer, Carl Weyprecht and the crew of the Tegetthoff sailed the Arctic region in search of the North-East Passage. However, despite the discovery of some minor islands (which they named Franz-Josef-Land), the expedition was unsuccessful; the harsh conditions locked their vessel in the frozen seas and the crew were forced to abandon ship, making their way back to Russian territory on foot. The men sustained harsh losses: their dogs had to be shot; some lost fingers and toes; and one man, Otto Krisch, lost his life in the extreme cold. Nevertheless, the survivors returned to a hero’s welcome in Vienna and the Payer-Weyprecht expedition remains an important part of Austria’s imperial history and identity. Ransmayr has his dubious anti-hero, Mazzini, return to these glory days in order to question the validity of such myths of national identity at the end of the twentieth century. Crucially, Mazzini’s failure is more catastrophic than that of his ancestors’ since, alone and inexperienced, he is lost in the Arctic wilderness without trace. The interrelation between past and present, history and fiction is reflected in the text’s distinctive form: it weaves together diary extracts (archive material) with fictional descriptions and intersperses these textual elements with visual ones, namely historical engravings and photographs, as well as contemporary images in the first edition.

Like a detective story, the novel seems to follow the logic of Spurensuche and Spurensicherung (recovering and securing traces). This operates in terms of both Mazzini’s endeavour (Ransmayr has him begin his investigation into the Payer-Weyprecht expedition in Vienna’s military archives) and the narrator’s attempt to find Mazzini in the text. Ransmayr often likens the white expanses of snow to the blank page, exposing how, in fictional terms, a figure only exists if the author inscribes him in the text and, by extension, an author equally can take leave of his fictional creation by having him disappear in the text. Snow is an important ‘medium’ for the narrative, because it has the potential to overwhelm the subject, but also to preserve the traces of human movement through the landscape. Through the links between the nineteenth-century expedition and its contemporary re-enactment, between history and fiction, Ransmayr then questions whether writing Mazzini out of his text might, on some level, obliterate the traces of Payer and Weyprecht which Mazzini himself had began to retrace. Since Ransmayr is concerned here with history and the return of the past in the present, it is perhaps curious that, by using Payer, Weyprecht and Mazzini as his coordinates, he effectively brackets the historical events which have had greatest impact on contemporary Austrian identity, namely, the Second World War and the Holocaust. Indeed, National Socialism is conspicuous by its absence and Franz-Josef-Land a long way away from Central Europe. As Ransmayr notes, the arctic wasteland is quite indifferent to the course of history, but perhaps, for this reason, it is an important space for the author’s investigation into the representation of the postmodern subject.

Christoph Ransmayr, Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis: Roman mit 8 Farbfotografien von Rudi Palla und 11 Schwarzweiß-Abbildungen (Vienna: Brandstätter, 1984)