Eco-Writers

Lamentations of Zeno

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The global novel exists, not as a genre separated from and opposed to other kinds of fiction, but as a perspective that governs the interpretation of experience. In this way, it is faithful to the way the global is actually lived–not through the abolition of place, but as a theme by which place is mediated. Life lived here is experienced in its profound and often unsettling connections with life lived elsewhere, and everywhere. The local gains dignity, and significance, insofar as it can be seen as a part of a worldwide phenomenon.

-Adam Kirsch, The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century


Part 8 of the series explores the Antarctic via the novel Lamentations of Zeno (Verso Books, 2016) by Ilija Trojanow. I had not reached out to Ilija before, though I read his book a couple years ago and featured it at the Free Word Centre as one of my favorite novels that includes the topic of climate change. For this series, we began a conversation through email. He sent me a photo from his current location–Samarkand, Uzbekistan–of a beautiful courtyard, with sunlight and shadow at sharply contrasted angles to each other. In turn, I sent him a photo of a cedar in the rain covered in moss and lichen, indicative of the temperate rainforest where I live. With these introductions, we began discussing Lamentations.

In the novel, Zeno Hintermeier, the main character, works on an Antarctic cruise ship as a tour guide to rather well-off people whose lifestyles of high consumption exemplify how we came about the consequence of climate change. This is in juxtaposition to Zeno’s sadness at the death of glaciers he has studied his whole life and at his marriage falling apart.

As the polar ice-caps melt, one man’s existential lamentations mirror our own personal and global crises. Zeno is not even a character we might like very well, but in a way, his collapse is like our planet’s, which reminds us that these dirges are natural. And the style of the novel is brilliant, seeping into us like cold meltwater. We are living in desperate times, and to gloss over the reality of it hints at a different sort of denial. Ilija faces it head on. What’s that old saying: when you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Verso Books describes the novel:

The Lamentations of Zeno is an extraordinary evocation of the fragile and majestic wonders to be found at a far corner of the globe, written by a novelist who is a renowned travel writer. Poignant and playful, the novel recalls the experimentation of high-modernist fiction without compromising a limpid sense of place or the pace of its narrative. It is a portrait of a man in extremis, a haunting and at times irreverent tale that approaches the greatest challenge of our age—perhaps of our entire history as a species—from an impassioned human angle.

My conversation with Ilija follows:

Mary: Have you been to this area of Antarctica where your story takes place, and what is it like there now?

Ilija: Yes, twice, once before I started the novel and once after I had finished my first draft, both times on a cruise ship similar to the one in the novel. The Antarctic peninsula is melting faster than previously expected, but otherwise it is a humbling experience of facing nature in its pristine form, a very extreme and heart-wrenchingly beautiful landscape that appears untouched by human intervention, so it was a fitting location for the inner turmoil of Zeno, my hero.

Mary: The word “lamentations” reminded me that while we have to learn to adapt to climate change, we also have a lot of regrets due to diminishing landscapes, species, and biodiversity. What are Zeno’s lamentations?

Ilija: He is a scientist, who used to believe that his work on glaciers and climate change would supply society and policy makers with a rational basis for their decisions. This, however, is not the case, so he starts questioning our system of decision-making, our priorities as a civilization (by the way, many of the leading climate scientists are becoming more radical and challenging capitalism itself because it seems incapable of rationality). As someone who has dedicated his life to glaciers, he is also a wounded lover, someone who can not bear the destruction of these beautiful entities, each one of them unique with a soundscape of their own, constantly moving and changing, a symbol of life. Thirdly, he laments the fact that we destroy nature, the mother of all existence, in order to produce things that are often superfluous, in order to satisfy greed and stupidity, so he becomes increasingly misanthropic (recently an anthology of misanthropical writing came out in Spanish and Zeno was the last excerpt, the last nail in the coffin).

Mary: How important do you feel it is for authors to tackle climate change in fiction?

Ilija: Good literature has always tackled the major issues of its time, be it war and peace or crime and punishment or pride and prejudice. So how could be not deal with the major issue of our epoch, the ongoing exploitation and destruction of our habitats. I am amazed how many journalists in Germany, a country that is supposedly on the forefront of ecological awareness, asked me why I had to write a novel about this subject, as if it were a weird choice. Not to write about it would be weird, would mean succumbing to the blindness of an age that is pillaging the present and burdening the future.

Mary: I agree wholeheartedly. Are you working on anything else right now?

Ilija: Always, can’t stop. I am working on a utopian novel. We have had an enormous amount of dystopian narratives in recent years, not only in literature but also in the movies, on the TV screen. We lean back, munch popcorn and delight in the apocalypse. That’s pathological. To form a vibrant and dignified and truly humane future we need to imagine it first, we need utopian (or eutopian) ideas, concepts, narratives. We could do so much better, why not imagine it within a novel?

Mary: Thanks, Ilija. I am looking forward to the next novel!

Later Ilija sent me a link to a Guardian article titled “We’ve never seen this: massive Canadian glaciers shrinking rapidly.”

The article states:

Scientists in Canada have warned that massive glaciers in the Yukon territory are shrinking even faster than would be expected from a warming climate – and bringing dramatic changes to the region.

After a string of recent reports chronicling the demise of the ice fields, researchers hope that greater awareness will help the public better understand the rapid pace of climate change.

These massive forever structures are shrinking away before our eyes and ears. Maybe we cannot see or hear them every day, but they are there. And it is a livelihood that should be respected and a vanishment that should be grieved. It is true in both poles. Going back to the Antarctic, according to NASA, there is a ramp-up in ice loss and sea level rise:

Ice losses from Antarctica have tripled since 2012, increasing global sea levels by 0.12 inch (3 millimeters) in that timeframe alone, according to a major new international climate assessment funded by NASA and ESA (European Space Agency).

According to the study, ice losses from Antarctica are causing sea levels to rise faster today than at any time in the past 25 years. Results of the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE) were published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

It is here that I will quote M. Jackson, whose book While Glaciers Slept moved me incredibly:

It is in these quiet moments that the glacier reveals herself in entirely novel and original ways. There is so much in life that can be missed if we don’t settle down for a bit. My life is full of distractions—deadlines, flights to catch, a smartphone that beeps away, life life life. Listening brings things to focus, and often times it is quite surprising what draws the attention of that quiet ear.

-M Jackson, Arctic expedition leader for National Geographic, in an interview with eco-fiction.com.

I would like to thank Ilija Trojanow for joining Dragonfly.eco on this journey throughout the world to explore, in fiction, how local stories of climate change are happening.


Ilija Trojanow is a German novelist and travel writer, the author of many books of fiction and non-fiction, including The Collector of Worlds, Along the Ganges, Mumbai to Mecca, and Lamentations of Zeno. His autobiographical debut novel was adapted into the award-winning film The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Just Around the Corner. A vocal critic of domestic surveillance and the NSA, Trojanow was at the center of a cause célèbre in 2013 when the United States refused him entry.

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