The Last World by Christoph Ransmayr

The Last World is a reworking of the banishment of Naso, Publius Ovidius, told by one of his admirers, Cotta, who leaves Rome under false papers to verify the rumour of Naso’s death. Tomi, on the Black Sea, is Naso and Cotta’s last world. We aren’t sure at the end of the novel if either man is dead, but they are lost to the gothic landscape of Tomi whose mountains and gorges are at the mercy of a cruel nature that sends storms and landslides as well as heat waves and fertile rains.

Unsurprisingly, Metamorphosis is the inspiring wind beneath the sails of The Last World. Because in the novel Naso burnt his only Metamorphosis manuscript, Cotta’s journey is as much to uncover the poetry as it is the poet and the lost manuscript allows Ransmayr to reinterpret and reinvent the tales of Metamorphosis in the town of Tomi. Despite the strange liminal time period, where Rome has microphones, a projectionist can give film performances in Tomi, and the people have cans and batteries but still need fire for heating, we are led into a world in which human transformation seems more than credible. There are nice touches that link past literature to more modern myths – Lyceon, the ropemaker that Cotta lodges with, is revealed but unnamed as a werewolf – or draw intellectual connections only hinted at in the annals of history – Pythagoras becomes Naso’s servant when he recognises a man of his experience and understanding in Naso.

There were also moments in The Last World that sprang on my imagination with a fierce and beautiful power. For example, when Cotta first finds Naso’s retreat in the mountains he stays overnight on a reeking pelt by the fire. He is then woken up by the entrance of a herdsman whose head and shoulders are covered in a teeming blanket of eyes. The herdsman comes to sit by the fire, his cow lowing beside him, and is then lulled into a half sleep by beautiful music that mysteriously echoes across the mountainside, his eyes opening and closing in tired waves. Suddenly the music stops and a shadow darts into the room killing the herdsman with an axe. As the blood bubbles up through his skull, the herdsman’s eyes fall from him, lodging fast to the planks of Naso’s floor which rise into the feathers of a peacock that then disappears off into the night leaving Cotta screaming. Here, as throughout the novel, we are allowed to doubt these transforming, monstrous visions, as either dreaming or the result of some unusual natural occurrence. The inhabitants of Tomi are particularly adept at letting miracles drift into the mundane.

Despite all of my pleasure at parts of the book, and despite its hold over me at the novel’s end, The Last World did not grip me in the way I think I had hoped it would. Whether it was the time I chose to read it or whether it was simply my lack of classical knowledge, I’m not sure. What The Last World did do, was make me want to go back to Metamorphosis. It also reminded me of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso, which was perhaps less radical in its retelling of old stories, but which I enjoyed more. Ultimately, The Last World is a brave and imaginative work that reminds us of the enduring, adapting strength of story as a means to make sense of our world.

Next week I’m reading The Mall by S L Grey and the following week I’m taking a sneak peak at Wounding by Heidi James, which comes out in April this year. Further suggestions for the reading list would be most welcome.

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