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Christoph Ransmayr: Letzte Welt (The Last World)

The blurb on the back of my copy of the book quotes Salman Rushdie saying that the theme of this book is that you can destroy the artist but not his art. While he is quite right, it’s a bit like saying that Ulysses is about a walking tour around Dublin. The basic story is about the Roman poet Ovid or, rather, the search for him. Ovid was exiled to Tomis, a remote province on the Black Sea (now in Romania), where he died. According to the story, Cotta sets out to find Ovid, not only to determine if he is still alive (he seems to have disappeared into the mountains around Tomis – in real life he died there but his grave is unknown) but also to find a copy of his legendary Metamorphoses. In real life, this poetry collection survived but, in Ransmayr’s book, Ovid burned the only copy when he was exiled. Most of the book – apart from a few flashbacks – is in Tomis, which is, as the title has it, the last world.

But the book is really about much more. It is about the merging of the myths of Ovid’s time and our time. Tomis is an iron-mining town and much of the area is built of (rusting) iron. It is inhabited by people who come straight from Ovid’s Metamorphoses – people who turn to stone or into animals, who are linked to their wild and unfriendly landscape, who act out ancient rites (into which Cotta is dragged). The whore, the servant, the rope-maker who becomes a werewolf, all come from Ovid. To make our journey even more complex, Ransmayr brings in the twentieth century. Ovid’s exile by Augustus may well have been caused by his writing on the Metamorphoses but here it is as a result of a public speech – with banks of microphones – that he gives, that Augustus does not like. There is a travelling film show, telephones and other modern items.

And it is also about exile and a declining civilisation. Tomis is the end of the world, yet Cotta stays there and is drawn into its life. He gives us a clear indication that contemporary Rome is not the place to be for a thinking man, be it Ovid or Cotta himself. In short this story is a moral fable on the degeneration of modern society. The story ends in a ritual bloodbath as the end of the world must do so but Ransmayr has left us with a wonderful tale, which is truly original. Compare it with David Malouf‘s An Imaginary Life.

Publishing history

First published 1988 by F. Greno
First English translation 1990 Grove Weidenfeld
Translated by John Woods