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Christoph Ransmayr: Der fliegende Berg (The Flying Mountain)

Till recently you could read this novel in Croatian, Dutch, French, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Serbian, Slovenian and Turkish but not in English. (It has finally been published in English.) A book about extreme mountaineering, featuring two Irish brothers, by a well-respected author whose lyricism and description are of the highest order and yet no English-language published has seen fit to publish it. What a travesty! Rant over. The book looks as though it is written in blank verse, which may, I suppose, have put off some publishers but, as Ransmayr explains, it is not blank verse but prose. However, he does not think poets should have the monopoly in writing in this format. The story seems to be based, in part, on the story of Reinhold Messner, the first mountaineer to climb all mountains more than 8000 m high, and his brother, Günther, who was killed when the two brothers climbed Nanga Parbat.

Ransmayr, of course, loves exotic and remote places and he manages two in this book. The story is narrated by Padraic. Indeed, when he starts the narration he feels that he is dying but he is rescued by his brother, Liam, who, as we soon learn, does die. The two brothers were the sons of Fergus, a man from the Republic of Ireland who had fought for Irish independence and whose hero was Michael Collins. Their mother, Shona, was from Belfast and had converted to Catholicism to marry Fergus. She will eventually leave her husband and return to Belfast with Duffy, the electrician, but the couple do not divorce. The father dies three years later. Liam is a computer expert and works in the computer business. However, he returns to the lonely house on remote Horse Island, off the West Coast of Ireland, to carry on the farm business but also to continue his computer work online. Padraic is in the navy and travels the world. Liam urges him to come back and join him and, eventually, he does. As children, they had climbed mountains and backpacked with their father. Padraic does not like computers but Liam seems to spend much of his time on them and one of the areas he is interested in is cartography and mountains. Somehow, he discovers the existence of an unknown mountain – Cha-Ri (it means bird mountain) – in the Kham region. It seems that it may be taller than Everest. Liam, a much more determined man than his brother, decides that they should climb it, despite the fact that it is in a region of China forbidden to foreigners, one of the reasons why it is unknown. It is only when they get there that they find that Cha-Ri is not all that high and they manage to climb it without difficulty. They do, however, find that there are two other much taller mountains – Te-Ri (cloud mountain) and Phur-Ri (flying mountain). It is, of course, Phur-Ri that they climb where Liam dies.

Ransmayr is clearly, like Liam, enamoured of the region, as his description of the brothers’ travels, is beautifully and lovingly described. Liam somehow manages to get them permits for at least part of the way and they manage to get a ride with an itinerant merchant (illegally) for the rest of the journey. (Padraic will have trouble on the return as the Chinese authorities suspect that his brother may still be in China and be travelling in forbidden areas.) The native peoples are charming with some strange features. They will not eat anything connected with water, which means no fish, as water is sacred. They love playing snooker for money. But the two brothers are made welcome. Padraic soon becomes very much involved in the clan. He becomes close to Nyema, a young widow, whose husband Tashi was murdered, possibly by Chinese soldiers, and who has a young son, named after his father. Padraic learns about the myths and traditions of the clan. But they both also see the problems that the clan has had with the Chinese. They have seen ruined monasteries on their travels and refugees, fleeing from the Chinese. While Padraic is happy with the clan, Liam wants to push on without help but it is Padraic that convinces them that they will need the help of the clan, to carry equipment or else their bones will be added to the piles of bones they see near the tents of the clan.

Ransmayr does not tell the story in chronological order. We learn of the final assault near the beginning of the book. They had left behind their tent and much of their equipment for the final assault, as they did not wish to be weighed down. They reached the top, where Padraic writes their names in the ice. But getting down turns out to be more difficult than going up, particularly when a storm suddenly blows in. Padraic nearly dies. Liam does. But before they climb Phur-Ri, they have climbed Cha-Ri. At this point, the brothers have fallen out. Liam is driven and determined and much like his father. Shona had said of her husband when she left that he was like ice and Padraic will nickname Liam Master Cold Heart. Padraic is much more interested in staying with the clan and, in particular, with Nyema. Liam, therefore, sets off on his own to climb Te-Ri, with almost tragic results. But they do climb Phur-Ri, with the tragic results we learn of at the beginning of the book.

This really is a very fine book, as Ransmayr tells of two very different brothers, a remote Tibetan clan who want to live their lives in their own way but are ready to welcome strangers and an epic journey to climb a mountain which may be higher than Everest. Ransmayr’s love for both the wild West Coast of Ireland and the Kham highlands is evident throughout the book, as is his ability tell a wonderful story. And, thanks to Seagull, it has finally appeared in English.

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Fischer
First published in English in 2017 by Seagull Books
Translated by Simon Pare