Digging for victory

THE DOG KING by Christoph Ransmayr, trs John E Woods, Chatto pounds 15. 99
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The Independent Culture
We are in a country very like Germany, in a village called Moor, beside a lake called the Stony Sea, opposite the Blind Shore. The war is over and various armies of occupation - Siberians, Moroccans, Scottish Highlanders - have been succeeded by an American force, the eccentric commander of which makes the villagers re-enact torments which they recently inflicted on slave labourers in their granite quarry. One former slave, Andras, is raised to overseer and takes over a villa previously occupied by wild dogs, which he has subdued. A semi-autistic boy, Bering, son of a blacksmith, "a child of war [who] knew only peace", repairs the Dog King's damaged Studebaker and becomes his bodyguard.

Years pass, a few things happen. A pop group called Patten's Orchestra gives a concert. The quarry makes way for a military exercise area, workers are laid off, the local population is displaced. Bering develops a crush on Lily, the renegade Viennese daughter of a former camp guard. Lily operates as a lone vigilante against marauding gangs and isn't much interested in Bering, but together they journey across mountains with Bering's father, a man crippled in the American re-education programme and still obsessed by memories of war.

In Christoph Ransmayr's absorbing previous novel, The Terrors of Ice and Darkness, the main character reflects that "an invented drama that unfolded in an empty world" would be "ultimately much more probable" than a more traditionally realist narrative. The Dog King carries the Austrian novelist's work a stage further into postmodernist mythopoeia, but what results isn't probability. Giving us postwar Germany without facts, the novel substitutes nebulous gestures for the phantasmagoric detail of its great precursor, Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum - or for the more literary specificity of Ransmayr's own earlier novels, each of which is built on a pre-existing historical narrative. The Last World is based on the life of Ovid, The Terrors of Ice and Darkness on the 19th-century Arctic explorations of Carl Weyprecht: well-researched and intrinsically interesting materials which Ransmayr reworked, adding an overlay of contemporary reference. The new novel does without such a supporting structure, and the result is correspondingly shakier, despite a thrillerish framing element and the vividness of a few episodes (one of which, the arrival of a passenger ship dragged overland, seems to pay homage to Werner Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo while serving no real function of its own).

The Dog King's vagueness may partly be an effect of translation: there are signs that in German, the prose aims at big effects which John Woods hasn't brought off in English. But the main problem is that in creating a contemporary allegorical folktale, Ransmayr has left out myth's narrative drive. Early in The Terrors of Ice and Darkness, the narrator says, "I've often thought it uncanny how the beginning of every story, as well as the end, if you follow it far enough, gets lost at some point in the expanses of time." He could have had The Dog King in mind.