The Flying Mountain

Christoph Ransmayr’s The Flying Mountain (translated by Simon Pare) is a novel in verse – or, at least, the prose is shaped differently. It’s not Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, composed of 590 sonnets, or Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, apparently Seth’s inspiration. It reads more like an English translation of ancient epic – though whether this is because it is an English translation, or simply because it echoes the form without the poetic techniques of the original (metre, for example) I cannot say. Like an epic, it is concerned with the daring deeds of men and, though a love story lies at its heart, it is the relationship between two brothers which concerns most of its pages.

The two brothers, Liam and Padraic (who is also the narrator) are Irish (you may have guessed this) and therefore subject to a harsh upbringing, particularly after their mother runs off with the electrician who installed their television. Their father, Captain Daddy, is a diehard (but also a blowhard) Republican who is determined to make men of his sons. He is so successful that, years later, Liam is living alone on “a near-uninhabited island / that was inaccessible on stormy days” with only “twelve Highland cattle, more than a hundred Targhee sheep, five sheepdogs / and two powerful computers” for company while Padraic is a merchant seaman. Liam convinces his brother to travel with him to Tibet to climb a mountain he has discovered via a photograph online. (This is not as unlikely as it seems as Liam’s specialty is simulating “the movements of the Earth’s mantle / for digital atlases and globes” – though, as the novel is apparently based on the story of Reinhold Messner (who was born in 1944) it raises the question of why Ransmayr felt the need to set his novel in the present day). While there, they learn there are in fact three mountains, and it is on the final ascent (of Flying Mountain) that Liam dies (this is revealed in the opening pages).

The novel begins, however, with Padraic fearing for his own life only to be rescued by Liam and, to be fair to Ransmayr, we are treated to some dramatic description:

“I had lost my brother’s tracks
in a blizzard
when the moon vanished,
as if doused by a wave of black water.”

The focus then retires to Liam and Padraic’s past and their father’s attempts to toughen them up:

“our father acted on these hikes
as if he had to train
his sons in the mountains
for future battles
over Irish unity”

Liam, the elder brother, adapts more readily to this life, and we see in their childhood the beginnings of both their relationship and their differing personalities:

“Manoeuvres were my father’s name
for these summer nuisances,
which Liam hungered for
whereas I had to be coaxed”

These childhood memories are by far the most interesting sections of the novel, partly because the domestic content and the blank verse form create a dynamic contrast. Also, Captain Daddy, with all his cruel eccentricities, is the novel’s most charismatic character, and provides tonal changes which do not exist in the rest of the narrative (his participation in a Republican parade is the one scene which I think I will remember for a long time). The rest of the novel, particularly Padraic’s relationship with Nyema (which reads like something out of John Buchan) pales in comparison. The style saps the tension from its more dramatic moments and, like the mountain landscape, the novel’s scenes become indistinct and indistinguishable, the verse blanker and blanker. Reconstituted into slabs of prose, the novel would be very dull indeed, and it’s difficult not to suspect that the form is an illusion just like the flying mountain. Happiness may write white, but snow, it seems, writes whiter.

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4 Responses to “The Flying Mountain”

  1. Cathy746books Says:

    This sounds really fascinating, a really good melding of style and subject matter. It almost sounds like something from Greek myth in the way you describe it.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    So, style over content, maybe? 🙂

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