Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Sea Voyages into Time and Space: Postmodern Topographies in Umberto Eco's L'Isola del Giorno Prima and Christoph Ransmayr's Die Schrecken Des Eises Und der Finsternis

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Sea Voyages into Time and Space: Postmodern Topographies in Umberto Eco's L'Isola del Giorno Prima and Christoph Ransmayr's Die Schrecken Des Eises Und der Finsternis

Article excerpt

Contemporary fiction shows a revived interest in the theme of the sea voyage of exploration. I need only point to Sten Nadolny's Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit (1983), Christoph Ransmayr's Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (1984), John Barth's The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991), or Umberto Eco's most recent novel, L'isola del giorno prima (1994). (1) These novels are postmodern reworkings of the stereotypical seafaring tale: they offer very different aesthetic, ideological, and epistemological approaches to the literary tradition they revisit. Two patterns emerge: either the tradition of seafaring tales is negated by treating its stereotypes in a jocular, ironical, and self-reflexive fashion, thus bringing about a distancing effect, or historical instances are fictionalized in order to challenge the traditional literature on adventures at sea as well as the political and ideological issues connected with the (literary and non-literary) representation of exploration. The above novels by Barth and Eco serve as examples of the more intra-literary, playful response to the tradition, whereas Nadolny's and Ransmayr's books exemplify more serious investigations of the literary depiction of history. However, postmodern seafaring tales have one thing in common: they use their revisitings of the tradition as a platform for meta-literary reflection.

In my analysis, I concentrate on Eco's L'isola del giorno prima and on Ransmayr's Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis, showing how they use their seafaring plots for meta-literary reflections by giving a metaphorical dimension to their topographies of exploration.

In these two seafaring tales, reflections on time are central. These are bound up with the figure of the explorer who sets out to solve either spatial or temporal problems: for example, the discovery of unknown lands, or the mystery of longitude. The linked concepts of time and space (2) become both the medium and the object of psychological, philosophical, and meta-textual meditations. For in embarking on a voyage, not only does the adventurer change his coordinates on a geographical map, but his voyage can also be regarded as a journey into the 'interior', providing the means of exploring the self, wider philosophical issues, and the aesthetic construction (and structure) of the literary text. (3) The voyages themselves result in a stasis, and it is precisely this still-life character of the narrated world that symbolizes the 'exhaustion' of the traditional seafaring tale. Both Eco and Ransmayr ironically reverse direction by making literal stasis the prerequisite of an aesthetic escape: narrative 'replenishment' through stage-managed self-reflexivity. (4) But they represent different strategies employed in contemporary literature to regain originality: Eco's (stereotypically postmodern) playful irony contrasts with Ransmayr's melancholy, even sombre reflections. In both novels, the voyages into time and space serve as metaphorical illustrations of a postmodern aesthetics that attempts to overcome exhausted aesthetic conventions by rewriting the traditions concerned.

Neither the search for aesthetic renewal nor the quest motif of the sea voyage is an invention of postmodernism; Robinson Crusoe, Captain Ahab and Ishmael, as well as Marlow obviously explore more than a desert island, the oceans, and the Congo. But although Eco's and Ransmayr's seafaring tales inscribe themselves within an established literary tradition, they are different from their forerunners in many respects. For example, by contrast with the self-affirming adventurers of the genre's classics, the protagonists of their postmodern equivalents are increasingly questioning (and questioned). It is true that Captain Ahab and Kurtz are described critically by Ishmael and Marlow too, but they still come across as fascinating 'man-gods', both awful and awesome. The narrator-figures belong to the same diegetic world as those whom they depict, and this shared context effectively reduces narrative distance so that the reader, through identification with the narrator, is drawn into the adventurous worlds of the texts. …

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