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Christoph Ransmayr: Cox oder Der Lauf der Zeit (Cox or the Course of Time)

James Cox was a famous London jeweller and goldsmith who created automata and clocks, which were much sought after. Many of his works were sold abroad, including in China. The hero of this novel – Alister Cox – was based on James Cox though, as we shall see, unlike James Cox, he travelled to China and spent some time there.

The book actually starts with his arrival in China. He arrives in Hangzhou when Emperor Qianlong is there as part of a tour of inspection. As the English ship arrives, twenty-seven officials are about to have their noses cut off for corruption. We are repeatedly told that Emperor Qianlong is the most powerful man in the world, equal to the gods, Lord of Ten Thousand years and many other titles. Where he is when Cox and his men arrive is not clear, though we learn that he has a fever. None of his courtiers or doctors can reveal this, on pain of death. Indeed, many of his courtiers, we learn, have never seen him.

Cox, we learn, is in mourning. He had married Faye, thirty years his junior, seventeen years of age and the daughter of one of his employees. After a difficult early period, the couple became closer on the birth of their daughter, Abigail. Sadly, she died aged five. Since then, Faye has not spoken and kept herself to herself. Cox himself was naturally devastated. This journey to China is his attempt at getting is life back together.

They travel back to Beijing up the Grand Canal. Of course, it is deliberately not clear which of the many ships is carrying the emperor. Cox is housed in the Forbidden City, a rare honour for a foreigner, while his three assistants are housed just outside but come to him every morning and leave every night. His interpreter, Joseph Kiang, is with him at all times.

Cox had brought numerous automata for the Emperor. He is not interested in any of them. What does he want? One day Cox and Kiang are summoned to the August Presence. They spend the time on their knees, their heads bowed, and do not see him. He explains to Kiang what he wants, though Cox claims to have anticipated his needs – a clock or, rather clocks, that tell variable time, given that we all perceive time in different ways. Lovers perceive it differently from condemned men or from children.

Inevitably, he starts with a clock that tells time in the way a child perceives it, specifically Abigail. This is a wind-powered boat, based on a perception of Abigail’s. He keeps on working on it but, unlike back home, there is no pressure from his client and, in fact, he has no idea whether the Emperor is even aware he is building it. His next project is to build a clock in the form of the Great Wall and he even manages to persuade the officials to take him to part of the Great Wall most people never see. It doesn’t go well. There is even a clock for those dying, whether by illness or condemned to death, though particularly for those who know the date of their death.

The Emperor likes to spend his summers in Jehol so the court and the English guests have to go there as well. Though they had had a visit from the Emperor in Beijing, he seems to be more relaxed in Jehol and they even get to meet him, when he is alone, by the river bank. However, it now becomes clear that the Emperor has another wish – a clock that measures eternity and, therefore, which runs forever. However, once he starts making the clock – he has various ideas of how to do it – Kiang warns him that the Emperor is Lord of Time and, if Cox were to create an eternal clock, he would be effectively challenging the Emperor and challenging the Emperor can have only one, distinctly unpleasant, consequence.

While this is certainly a pleasant and interesting story, well told by Ransmayr, I did not find it of the same calibre of his other work. Like many of his other works, it is set in an exotic (for Westerners) part of the world but the challenges faced by Cox and his companions almost seemed mundane. Despite the warnings of King, there were no real threats to their safety. Despite a rebellion in Gansu, which was mentioned, there was never any danger. Yes, the challenges they faced to produce the clocks demanded by the Emperor, did seem to pose a major problem for Cox and his colleagues but these were seemingly easily overcome. Even the ultimate challenge – the eternal clock – and its associated risks – challenging the authority of the Emperor – seemed to be almost routine. Similarly, his personal problems – would Faye talk again? – were distant and not too threatening.

Publishing history

First published 2016 by Fischer
First English translation in 2020 by Seagull Books
Translated by Simon Pare