The icecap is melting and Zeno Hintermeier is taking it personally. His worst nightmares involve melting ice slipping through his fingers. An elderly scientist who has taken a job as lecturer on an Antarctic cruise liner to get his ice fix, he is mocked for an excess of passion by his already passionate colleagues. But even in the Antarctic the glaciers are melting, soldiers throw their cigarette butts into the snow and well-meaning cruise passengers accidentally kill penguins by getting bitten and falling over. Zeno’s despair eventually leads him to a crazy act which is gradually revealed as the book progresses.
Ilija Trojanow is a Bulgarian-German author who achieved notoriety in 2013 when he was refused entry to the USA (no reasons given) shortly after having co-authored a paper in which he criticised the NSA. He has written extensively in German (both fiction and non-fiction); only a handful of his works have been translated into English. Much of his body of work is travel writing and his experience in the genre shows in the succinct but atmospheric evocation of place. But since The Lamentations of Zeno is fiction, there is also drama to liven things up, mostly involving Zeno’s personal voyage to the edge of his nerves.
Zeno’s prose is beautiful in a cold and bleak kind of a way, like the ice with which it is preoccupied (here it would be unfair not to mention translator Philip Boehm, who has done an excellent job). And there is something in the dark humour of certain passages which brought Roald Dahl to mind, as in the commentary on the dangers of overeating on a cruise ship:
“During my first weeks on board – and this was my first cruise ship experience – I tried to compensate for years of missed mealtimes and quick snacks by stuffing myself with one course after another, the bounteous table offered some weak comfort, I ate and ate, fattening myself up, and ultimately realised that the more I continued to eat, the more unrestrainedly I would continue to indulge, I foresaw a fiasco of a finale, every pot pouring forth sweet and sour porridge that I had no choice but to consume, serving after endless serving, with no recourse or release in sight until I burst.”
Or at the site of a former whaling station:
“Even here humans established themselves, and soon the volcanic bay ran red due to the rising demand for baleen, used at the time as corset boning, and for whale oil, which went into nitroglycerin so people could blow each other up in the trenches of World War I. What wondrous innovation to make explosives out of whales, what a vibrant symbol of progress: destroying the essential to create the superfluous.”
Any Cop?: The Lamentations of Zeno requires a bit of concentration and persistence of its reader; it is not one of those that pulls you in and spits you out at the end. In spite of this though, it’s a neat little book which can be polished off in a few hours, but I suspect that its ideas and imagery will remain for much longer.