Verena Wolf, Ph.D. candidate of German Studies at UC Berkeley, and Valentin Rickert, visiting scholar from the University of Konstanz, reflect on Ilija Trojanow’s book EisTau (2011), situating the novel within the political discourse of German ecocriticism and the literary discourse of romance and dystopia in the age of the Anthropocene.
UC Berkeley’s series of Zoom conversations with contemporary authors, Archives of Migration: The Power of Fiction in Times of Fake News, continued in fall 2021 with Ilija Trojanow, reading from his book Nach der Flucht (2017) and reflecting, together with moderator Chunjie Zhang (Associate Professor of German, UC Davis), on questions of language and memory, migration and integration, freedom and constraint. Trojanow also discussed his novel EisTau (Fischer Verlag, 2011), in which he addresses questions of climate change and the melting of glaciers. EisTau, which literally means “IceThaw”, is Trojanow’s first novel directly addressing global warming and its devastating consequences. The English version, The Lamentations of Zeno, was translated by Philip Boehm and published by Verso in 2016.
The novel tells the story of glaciologist Zeno Hintermeier through his notebook. His entries alternate between a descriptive logbook of his experiences and rather chaotic, confusing sections reminiscent of a diary of dreams, which entail fortune telling, erotic fantasies, and incoherent outbursts of panic and hate. The entries move between two storylines set in different times. The first is Zeno’s depiction of his love with a glacier in the Alps, beginning in his childhood, accompanying him throughout his career as a professor of glaciology until the extinction of the glacier due to climate change. The resulting depression, which leads to lethargy at work and divorce from his wife, brings Zeno to his present occupation: a lecturer on a tourist cruise ship in Antarctica. On board, Zeno struggles with his contempt for humanity, a fascination with nature, and the inability to protect it from invasive sightseers. In total despair, Zeno succumbs to dramatic fatalism, kidnaps the cruise ship, abandons the passengers in the ice, and finally commits suicide.
By addressing known facts about climate change, such as melting glaciers or the extinction of animals through his scientific and simultaneously emotional narration, Zeno shows us the dystopian aspects of our time. He draws from his rich historical and environmental knowledge – an indication of Trojanow´s extensive archival research – about the human-nature-relationship to illustrate nostalgically the history of nature’s devastation. As a result, Zeno assesses mankind as being guilty for the bleak prospects of the world:
”[I]m Schmerz fielen mir die Mädchen aus dem Zug ein, diese drei schwer am Kaugummi des Lebens kauenden Mädchen, die gemeinhin als unschuldig gelten. Was für einen Wert hat solch eine Unschuld, da wir wissen, sie werden schuldig werden, es steht ihnen und uns bevor, sie werden diese Verwüstung fortsetzen, sie werden weiterhin unsere Lebensgrundlagen zerstören.” (Trojanow 88)
In pain, Zeno remembers three girls chewing heavily on “the bubble gum of life.” This heavy chewing illustrates the lethargy of humanity in spite of the world’s precarious situation. Zeno projects a bleak future in which the supposedly innocent teenagers continue to participate in the destruction of Earth, and the laissez-faire attitude of chewing gum demonstrates the lack of action to stop the destruction of the planet.
On the cruise ship, Zeno is disgusted by the ignorance, cluelessness, and greed of the tourists using Antartica to satisfy their urge for adventurism without giving any deeper thought to the consequences of their actions. The protagonist is shattered by the behaviors of people in his immediate surroundings. This becomes especially obvious when Zeno gets into a fight with a Chilean soldier who carelessly throws a cigarette stub into a penguin colony. Zeno is outraged because the soldier does not consider his actions and the wildlife he might destroy. As a consequence, the staff and the tourists on the ship treat Zeno as an overreacting maniac. Zeno is in disbelief that other people fail to see the urgency to prevent the planet’s imminent devastation and the severity of his personal dilemma. The constant trivialization of realities drives him crazy:
“Laß doch mal gut sein. In dieser Tonart plätschert es um mich herum von früh bis spät, nimm es dir nicht zu Herzen, laß fünfe grade sein, drück ein Auge zu, wird schon nicht so schlimm sein, nichts wird so heiß gegessen, wie’s gekocht wird, alle haben dieselbe Verharmlosungssoftware heruntergeladen, bereit zu kauern, wenn es stürmt.” (Trojanow 83-4)
The word “trivialization software” emphasizes the mechanical, almost externally controlled lyre, with which people, according to Zeno, assure themselves that climate change is not a real threat. Human irrationality regarding the destruction of one’s own sources of life becomes clear in these inner monologues, which emphasize the political dimension of Trojanow’s novel. In Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change, Adam Trexler argues that
“Climate change is not just a ‘theme’ in fiction. It transforms basic narrative operations. It undermines the passivity of place, elevating it to an actor that is itself shaped by world systems. It alters the interaction between characters and introduces entirely new things to fiction.” (233)
EisTau represents Antarctica as the last place that humanity has not yet destroyed. It is depicted as a place of memory (Erinnerungsort) of what nature was before the Anthropocene: on a global scheme, it is the last place where ice still has its magical vitality. Therefore, Antarctica serves as an archive of Earth itself. It acts as a witness of human planetary exploration and exploitation: ruins of former research stations are left carelessly in the cold climate and now function as archival objects representing the history of how humans controlled, analyzed, and ultimately destroyed nature. But these environmental lessons and warnings are not taken seriously by anybody. Rather, according to Zeno, they are overlooked and misinterpreted by the cruise ship passengers, whose cursory, playfully disrespectful, and intrusive gaze functions as the stand-in for that of mankind itself. For Zeno, Antarctica is a place of refuge, since his beloved glacier in the Alps has gradually disappeared.
In this reading of Trojanow, the cruise functions as a microcosm of humanity as a whole. The passengers are taken on a journey of human-nature-encounters through space and time. On board the ship, a diverse group of people gather together: “the Filipinos” work as servants; rich, older people from the Global North enjoy a luxurious trip; free-spirited artists and multilingual scientists interact each day; and finally, a pianist who does not care about tourist attractions flirts with women from “far away countries” because for him, they are “the last wilderness on earth” (“die letzte Wildnis auf Erden,” Trojanow 58). The eroticization of non-European women and nature is a practice as old as colonization itself. The characters in EisTau do not attempt to hide their flaws and secret pleasures. The cruise acts both as a mode of transportation and as a microcosm of humanity in regard to the violence and injustice the Global North has committed against both formerly colonized peoples and nature itself.
But why does the author choose the form of a love story with the glacier, Antarctica and the Alps to write about climate change? Corinna Saunders, editor of A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary, provides some key characteristics which explain the genre’s special utopian potential and impact on readers. As she points out, romance is not for mere entertainment, but functions as a negotiation between the real and the imaginary. The genre’s power stems from its anthropological origin – romance seems “in a sense natural, preceding the term itself” (Saunders 539). The topics it addresses – namely, feelings of love – are universally human, and therefore recognizable and accessible to everyone. Romance is capable of transcending its mere literary form by commenting on its social context. It may create social and political awareness by addressing “the human impulse away from realism, the desire to look into the depths of the psyche” (Saunders 540). If well written, romance inspires and stimulates the imagination, desire, and ideals by encouraging us to reconfigure the familiar. Romance likes to build “castles in the air” (Saunders 541) – it is romantic.
On the other hand, the genre is not static. Every epoch re-creates its own type of romance, as the stories always relate to reality, to their social and political conditions. The romance of the twenty-first century therefore will probably focus on transforming environmental conditions. As Trojanow asserted during the online workshop, we are in desperate need of utopian perspectives: “One of the greatest weaknesses of our contemporary civilization is the lack of utopian visions, both on the personal as well as on the global level.” During the conversation, he emphasized the poetic notion of writing about the melting of glaciers and his consequent choice of the love story as the only possible form of narration. Literature in the form of romance may inspire readers to adopt utopian visions and “castles in the air” as ways to cope with contemporary environmental devastation.
The topics the author deals with in EisTau are some of the most pressing questions of our time. The current pandemic, as well as other disasters caused by heat waves, floods, or droughts have demonstrated that changing climate realities are already affecting everyday life around the globe. It is obvious that they will continue to impact political, scientific, and societal discourses, as well as literary imaginations. Climate Fiction, or cli-fi, is a nascent but fast-growing genre. As climate change gains greater recognition on the cultural stage, literary festivals also begin to include novels of climate change. The 2021 book fair in Frankfurt hosted a discussion on the Anthropocene and possible ways of responding to man-made destruction of nature.1 In November 2021, Berlin will host a “Climate Cultures Festival” with the title “Planet writes back!”. The event seeks to explore “how the climate crisis is represented in the perspectives of literature and debate, film, and art photography.” Trojanow’s book EisTau can be seen as an invitation to find answers to the most pivotal problems of our century or, to use Zeno’s words: “Etwas muss geschehen. Es ist höchste Zeit” (18).
- This year’s Frankfurt book fair is highly controversial due to the participation of right-wing publishers. See: “Controversy over Right-wing Publishers at Frankfurt Book Affair.”
- Trexler, Adam. Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change. University of Virginia Press, 2015.
- Trojanow, Ilija. EisTau. Fischer Taschenbuch, 2019.
- Saunders, Corinne J. A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary. Blackwell, 2004.