Ransmayr’s Last World mocks Roman homeboys

The Last World

By Christopher Ransmayr

Grove Weidenfeld


Cotta, a young Roman citizen, travels to the town of Tomi on the Black Sea in search of the great poet Publius Ovidius Naso. Ovid has been banished from Rome for mysterious reasons, and in parting, has burned the manuscript of what was to be his greatest work, the Metamorphoses. It is as much in hope of discovering the work as in discovering the poet himself that Cotta sets out.

While the outline sounds like the makings of a historical novel a la Mary Renault, it is both more, and less, than that. It is more than that in being a novel which is, in many ways, a reading or work of criticism on another work — Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Cotta’s story, and the ancient world of Ransmayr’s novel, are peopled with characters who are based on the characters (largely taken from the Greek and Roman mythology) of Ovid’s poem. Not all of the characters in the Metamorphoses are represented and the selection, and mutation, of those that are form a reading of the poem and suggest a reader who may also be the writer of The Last World.

It is less than an historical novel in that Ransmayr never sets out to re-create in his work a “realistic” ancient world. The Last World is deliberately anachronistic (daily papers and bookstores in Rome, buses and electricity in Tomi) in order to conflate our world with that of the Roman poet. The issues variously explored in the novel — creativity, perception, interpretation, fascism and freedom — are perennial, and in The Last World history is conflated to point this out and to give the lie to modern-day notions of progress and improvement.

Thus the Rome of The Last World is the state, all states, and the aspirations of political power throughout history. Rome is a Kafkaesque and inscrutable bureaucracy where a nod, or a small hand gesture from the emperor, is interpreted through tier after tier of government, and is finally translated into a death sentence, or a pardon, or an expulsion. The static structure to which this state aspires is inhuman and brutal. Ovid, the poet of love and pleasure, the poet of changes, cannot be tolerated by such a state:

In the capital city of Emperor
Augustus, the very title of the book
[Metamorphoses] had been
presumptuous, a provocation to Rome,
where every edifice was a monument to
authority, invoking stability, the
permanence and immutability of power.

This is not the only reason for Ovid’s exile; there is also a theatrical adaptation of the Midas story in which the playwright clearly associates Midas with a wealthy and powerful Roman; there is also the influence of Rumour, who wields a great deal of power in a paranoid police state.

In fact, there is never just one reason or just one interpretation of events offered in Ransmayr’s book, and this is one of its strengths. Analogies between contemporary political situations and the Rome of this novel, or between its characters and those of Ovid’s work, are never direct or simple. Echo, for instance, of Ovid’s well-known “Narcissus and Echo” story, is a beautiful young woman who can, at times, speak rather than simply repeat what is said around her. She does, however, have a patch of dry, scaly and flaking skin that travels slowly over her body. This is finally revealed to Cotta to contain within it “slate sparkling with mica … gray feldspar … chalk and coarse grained sand.”

Echo, with her dry stony patch, is at once Ovid’s Echo, who turns to stone pining for the love of Narcissus, and Ovid’s audience. She recounts to Cotta all of the stories which the exiled poet told her; they are all tales of stone, ending with the apocalyptic account of Deucalion and Pyrrah. Echo, the unfortunate and abused prostitute of Tomi, who is raped by Cotta when she gives him a place to stay, dreams of a people made from stone as the descendants of Deucalion and Pyrrah — people who cannot feel pain.

Cotta discovers that to each character in Tomi Ovid has told different stories. Ransmayr suggests that stories do not exist without an audience and are re-created by them. This is where the complexity of Ransmayr’s book is most apparent. In writing a novel he is also writing a critique of Ovid’s poem and a critique of criticism. He is suggesting readings of the poem while at the same time pointing to the provisionality of all reading strategies; i.e. no one reading is “right.” Each goes to make up the one story of changes, which is never complete.

Ransmayr’s descriptions throughout the book are rich and sensual. When they are weak, as they sometimes are, the metaphors are nonetheless unique and one can’t help but wonder how much of the novel’s original beauty (Ransmayr is an Austrian writing in German) has been lost to translation.

On the whole, the book may be faulted by detractors of Ovid’s poetry (who claim his work is too frivolous and that Metamorphoses is merely a collection of good, and not so good, yarns strung together with a paltry conceit: change) who might look down on the novel for paying too much attention to too light a work. Be that as it may, The Last World remains a compelling novel about the inhumanity at the heart of reason, the slow rot of time, big government throughout the ages, and why we read and write.

Poetry and revolution in Central America

Ernesto Cardenal, Nicaraguan poet, priest and revolutionary, first emerged as a spokesperson for the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) in 1976. In July of 1979, following the victory of the Sandinista insurrection, he was named the Minister of Culture.

Cardenal was instrumental in setting up cultural programs throughout Nicaragua. Within four years, however, the strain of the war and opportunism within the Sandinista movement took their toll on the ministry.

The following excerpts are from an interview conducted by Chilean poet Elia Letelier Ruiz. In this interview, Cardenal speaks publicly for the first time of his disillusionment with the Sandinista government and the internal conflicts which undermined his position as Minister.

Elia Letelier Ruiz: Within the revolutionary process, art expresses its preoccupation for humanity; the effort to keep it alive, expand it and make it grow is fundamental. But in Nicaragua, with what became of the Ministry of Culture, every fountain of revolutionary, intellectual creativity seems to have been eliminated. Why did this happen?

Ernesto Cardenal: I wouldn’t say everything of a revolutionary nature has been eliminated. Rosario Murillo [wife of former Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega] was and continues to be antagonistic towards me and everything the Ministry of Culture represented; it was a personal matter.

In effect, what she did was dismantle everything which we had created in the Ministry of Culture: the magazine Nicaragua disappeared; the magazine Poesia Librea disappearaed; the poetry workshops disappered.

She finished off the poetry marathons: a poetry reading in Dario city, for the anniversary of Ruben Dario, every year for six, seven, eight hours in a row. All of the town listening to poetry, poets one after another, from every social class. Young poets and old ones, novices and professionals. Poets from the military, the police, peasants, girls, boys. This was completely terminated. She eliminated it.

You can’t prohibit everything political, especially not in revolution! This is the worst aberration! It is an aberration to suggest that all art be political; but a worse, far worse aberration in a revolution is for it not to be political at all.

The opposition in this country has not had a real poetry, or culture, or music. The revolution had a culture, but she has manipulated it to serve her personal ambitions, and naturally, she has taken advantage of the fact that she is the wife of the president.

Elia Letelier Ruiz: How can we speak of humanity and its development if at the same time we don’t want to give the tools to this humanity so it can understand the expressions growing in it; how is it possible to understand what has been happening, when nobody has spoken for ten years? Can we say here too that there has been fear of speaking of revolution? Could it be that people are willing to bury their disagreement, only for the sake of maintaining unanimity within Nicaragua, or in other words, within the revolution?

Ernesto Cardenal: Discontent and opposition to government posturing has not manifested itself much, but we shouldn’t have manifested it externally for political reasons. This was happening within us and I believe it is up to others, those who are outside the frontlines, to reveal certain things or make certain criticisms, which we, because of our militancy, our discipline, could not.

Now we can speak more frankly. Speaking of these things hurts the front, but if we don’t say them ourselves, others will; they’ve already started.

Elia Letelier Ruiz: We have spoken a great deal of art in revolution. Is the implication that before the revolution there was no art in Nicaragua?

Ernesto Cardenal: There wasn’t Sandinista art, Sandinista painting, Sandinista poetry, or any of the other artistic manifestations. But before, there was good art in Nicaragua, almost revolutionary, in opposition to Somoza. A good portion of the artists were in favour of revolution and the distinct stages it went through from the beginning. Until the triumph there was good art, good painting, good poetry — more than anything else there was good poetry and literature.

But what we had was an art of the elite, reduced not necessarily to the elite of the aristocracy, many were born from the people, but elite in the sense of autonomy. If they hadn’t been to university, they were educated by artists, musicians. We were a tiny group before the triumph of the revolution.

It was the revolution that magnified and disseminated poetry, music, theatre which before hardly existed beyond a few schools of bourgeois theatre. Theatre became popular, massive, and the same for painting, which grew throughout the country creating popular painting — so-called popular painting. Crafts and other folkloric expression also grew. It was the same for everything; everything had come to belong to the people as a whole.

Elia Letelier Ruiz: If the objectives are so clear, then what is the cause of the resentment that has sprouted between intellectuals?

Ernesto Cardenal: It is difficult to determine the causes, because they are very difficult, small and subjective. It’s not about political ideology, nor is it about one person wanting one kind of revolution over another, or the idea that some are revolutionaries and some aren’t.

If these were the problems it would be very clear, very simple. We would speak of revolutionaries and bourgeois, or revolutionaries of such a type, revolutionaries of such a tendency; but there isn’t an absolute devotion to politics. This is not what is dividing us. There are personal matters, jealousies, envy, and at times also mediocrity.

Some are mediocre and are jealous of those who have been celebrated. Generally they are ignored precisely because of their mediocrity; and they are mediocre because they want to be, they don’t work.

This creates division. Just like there was division because of the presence of Rosario Murillo. It is a very important factor that some are with her and some are against her and they’re continually changing positions and affiliations.

Elia Letelier Ruiz: Ernesto Cardenal has many identities. The poet, with his simple poetry; the revolutionary priest who stood up against John Paul II; the Minister of Culture, who defended a Marxist culture; the revolutionary who organized armed groups before the revolution; and also, the sculptor. Where is the sculptor?

Ernesto Cardenal: I explicitly downplayed my work as a sculptor so it would not opaque my poetry. Generally, the artist is classified by something, and by a single definition. It is possible that for the same reason, President Ortega never wanted to advance himself as a poet. Lately, my friends have been pressuring me; I think it was time that this other aspect of my life be known. My sculpture and my poetry are stylistically equivalent.

My poetry is almost always without adjectives, for want of a good one. Not having any talent for this, I’ve written naked poems, and this has been the success of my poetry. Cortazar says he does not put landscape in his narrative works, because he cannot describe a landscape. He doesn’t know how to describe a forest in autumn, he doesn’t find the words to describe a river, a harbour, or a beautiful sea. He sees the beauty in all of these, but can’t describe them.

This is the reason for the scarcity of my images, in the sense of metaphor, comparison and adjectives. My sculpture is simple because I can’t make it complicated. Almost all my figures tend towards roundness. I can’t make things with detail, so my sculptures are without detail; this is their characteristic style, and it’s the same with my poetry.

Elia Letelier Ruiz: I would like you to tell me: What should poetry be, political or apolitical: How should poets undertake the problems of humankind today?

Ernesto Cardenal: My opinion is that the poet is free to create, and poetry with a political theme is as valid as that which has no politics. I believe that poetry must be in accordance with the inspirations of the poet. Now, if the poet is a revolutionary, interested in the social problems and politics of their times, then inspiration, much of the time, must be social and political.