Join Jo Lendle and Tess Lewis for a discussion of this novel May 22 at McNally Jackson in Williamsburg.
The External Audibility Limit
It was early morning when Georgi woke them. An unreal, magical light came down through the ceiling.
Wegener put on his passably dried clothing—the cloth trousers, the ironed vest, dogskin trousers, his thick, stuffed fur boots, the skiing shirt, the blue sleeveless cardigan.
After a breakfast of shark in bread soup, Wegener tended to Loewe’s wounds one last time. Small pieces of bone had festered out over night. As they had no more bandages, he plucked the splinters out of the gauze with tweezers and reused the material.
The woollen cardigan, over it the dogskin anorak, his woollen windbreaker, the head protector, plus the wrist warmers, his hat and the fur gloves.
Georgi looked at him. Did he feel sufficiently rested for the long journey? Wegener dismissed the question with a gesture. The sooner they got out there, the more time they’d have before it got dark for good. And apart from that, he felt stronger than ever, he felt on top of the world.
Georgi smiled. ‘You are, in a way.’
The steep stairs once again. How the weariness came welling up as Wegener stepped outside, out into the winds, snow, light and cold, into emptiness, frost and hostility to all life. All that greeted him with a desolate, unchanging exorbitance, which he was powerless to combat.
A moving farewell on both sides, the hugs perhaps a moment longer than the previous day’s. Georgi seemed to have taken no offence at their dispute over the station’s equipment. And Wegener’s anger had evaporated. What was he to be angry about? No matter how much one hoped, while preparing at one’s desk at home, to calculate everything in advance—no traveller in this territory was entitled to remain unharmed by mistakes, by mishaps, by the uncertainty in which they all lived.
Wegener sensed that their parting was harder for Georgi and Sorge than for themselves. They could at least take some action, they could save themselves. Georgi looked as though he’d need to withdraw to the privy after they left to regain his composure.
Before they set off, they slaughtered the three poorest dogs. One was fed to the remaining animals and two stayed there, as a reserve supply of meat for the winter.
Strapping on the skis. Grabbing the poles. Heading out. Eyes narrowed to slits, putting one foot in front of the other. Wegener walked behind the dogsled, stumbled over furrows ploughed by the wind. Within minutes, he had lost sight of Rasmus, although he was probably directly alongside him.
Was he merely imagining it had been his father’s fiftieth birthday when they’d made that unfortunate bet? How could he have thought during the night that he was in the middle of his life? What did the psalms have to say on the subject? The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. Wegener clenched the fingers of his left hand in a fist inside their glove. Five. Then he did the same on the right. Ten. Was it that, that strange decimal system, that made him think of the half? How was one to determine the middle of a life without knowing the end? He had solved equations with considerably more unknowns, but now he made no progress with only one missing factor.
The difficulty out here was, one rushed into the falling snowflakes with open eyes, simply because they did not differ from the background. Had he been asked twenty-five years ago where he would spend his fiftieth, he would never have thought of this remote place. And yet—had he been asked where he’d most like to spend his birthday, his ideal would have been identical with this view.
Moving on, towards the dusk that was now all around him. Driving out these thoughts, thoughts of darkness. In fact any thoughts of time, which was a disease. An infectious disease; everyone succumbed to it sooner or later.
It made no difference now whether he kept his eyes open or closed. Always, the same empty, lightless white.
His eyelashes froze to the fur on his hood. Every time he adjusted the jacket a few of them were pulled out, which was not only painful but also left his eyes without protection from the snowflakes. He had long since stopped counting the snowmen. Numbers had proved unreliable. How was he to know he hadn’t overlooked one of the white shapes? He didn’t spot a single one for a full day. Had they sunk beneath the snow? Were they hiding from him, or had he taken a wrong turn? Rasmus was not visible either; perhaps he was in it with them. As long as he wasn’t buried in the snow with them. Sometimes Wegener thought he made out a white head next to him, protruding from the firn and watching him as he walked on, but it was probably nothing but shadows on the ice.
There was a great deal to discover now, in general. He hated to admit it but the entire contourless world was becoming populated, in a rather shocking manner. Snowfinches were a daily phenomenon and the Arctic fox was apparently back too. On one occasion, Wegener thought he spotted a snow leopard in the distance, though he couldn’t be sure. But then, where would a snow leopard feel more at home than here? If ever Wegener were to turn into a snow leopard, he could wish for no habitat more suitable. For the moment, that was rather different.
New animals now awaited him every day: snow hares, snow bears, all manner of beasts. Would he be transformed into a snow human in the end? Into one of the snowmen by the side of the path?
What if he were to die here? Of exhaustion, of fatigue? He too would sink gradually into the firn. His fingernails would go on growing for several days, at the speed at which continents shift. He would drift gradually westwards with the inland ice, just as Greenland’s continental shelf drifted westwards, in harmony with the results of his work. In the end he would thaw his way off inside an iceberg and drift out to sea.
He would be outside of the world. How often had he dreamed of that?
As soon as the light disappeared in the evening, the temperatures plummeted. Then he’d wait for Rasmus, or Rasmus would wait for him. Sooner or later they found one another every time, in some inexplicable way.
So as not to assault their supplies excessively, they thinned down their food. The stomach was primarily concerned with getting a full litre, so they filled it with firn before cooking. When they were too tired even for that, they nibbled at ship’s biscuits until they felt sufficiently nauseous to sleep. At night, Wegener lost the breathing hole of his sleeping bag and woke from nightmares. Then there was no other cure but to open the carefully tied tent entrance and rub his face with snow until all memory of the dreams was driven out.
Rasmus’s lead dog fell ill and Wegener killed it. He took off his dogskin anorak to do so—but so carelessly that it was instantly chewed at by the other dogs.
Wegener’s fingertips now displayed deep cracks, which were painful. They also caught on things. The frost that formed on the sleds was now unbearably severe, affecting even the tethers and the barometer case. Not that anyone read the barometer any longer.
All at once one night, he knew he had a gap in his life, like every other man. A way out not taken, which he regretted. Where, he asked himself, where do you dream yourself to when you dream yourself away? The question went unanswered.
Then he believed he was the ur-continent. He simply lay there and was an entirety. All alone, he was everything in one place. He was the whole world.
He lost sight of Rasmus for days on end, or at least it seemed that way to him, simply because there was now no way to determine when one day ended and the next began.
Wegener no longer believed in days.
What he did believe in was aeons. Whirlwinds. Snow. He believed in the instability of his thoughts, in instability in general. All the things that had proved instable in the end, faith, knowledge, the continents. The most instable of all, however, was man.
And finitude; Wegener believed in that too. In the finitude of humanity and the finite nature of weather, to state two general examples.
He no longer believed, however, that this snowfall would ever come to an end. Would the ants outlive them all? Insects had proved incredibly adaptable. Continents had come and gone but the ants remained. What made them so robust? Their exoskeleton? Hardly; it was far too easily crushed. Their indefatigability, their number? Oh, to be an ant, one among many. What did ants believe in?
All at once it occurred to him that he did know how it went on. He could calculate it; he had invented it himself. He had only ever looked backwards, into the past. He had studied the movements of the lands for the brief moment of his present. How everything had come about. Yet one could just as well continue those motions, narrate them onwards, out into a future that was suddenly less unpredictable than his closest surroundings.
He spent the following kilometres calculating that future. How good it did him to hold onto a task. He had always done so whenever something came too close to him, just as he had come too close to himself over the past days. To begin with, he was annoyed at having to make all the calculations in his head. He couldn’t even use his fingers as an aid; they were out of reach in his gloves.
How sad that he couldn’t write it all down. How sad that it remained trapped in his mind. Wasn’t there already rather a lot trapped there?
By the late afternoon he had calculated that, at constant velocity and direction, the North Pole would reach the southern tip of Greenland in twenty-three million years. He waited for a feeling of calm that did not arise. Late that evening, he finally found out that in forty million years, Europe would break apart along the Rhine. For a moment he was worried for Else and the children. Then that too was over.
He wished they would remember him as the man he might have been. It was of no matter to him what coming generations would make of his life. Everything over again from the beginning, over and over. One had to let the pasts drift by like the land. In the end they’d collide again.
A secret friend to humankind. He’d had no other wish than to leave them their possibilities. A lover of the Arctic, perhaps its greatest. Although the nature of the Arctic now seemed to be overcoming him. His skis sank ever deeper into the new snow.
He wished he could write a letter to Else but he feared his hands were no longer capable. He would have written this—an apology for using her as ballast on their balloon trip. The question of whether she remembered him saying when they first met that it would never be the way it had once been. The ur-continent was lost. They had been expelled, there was no way back. That view had been mistaken; he had to correct it. Only today had it occurred to him that the earth was of course spherical. Great gratification at this realization, as she could no doubt imagine. Not until today, due to the fact that he had a rather generous amount of time to think out here, had he established what ensued from that basic fact. In two hundred and fifty million years’ time, all the land would come back together, on the rear side of the world, all the continents would come together and would be reunited at last. And with the land, he hoped, all of them. Else, the children, the Köppens. His parents, including his father. All his siblings, natural and adopted, with their own children and children’s children, for whom he hoped there would be sufficient space on the huge new continent. They would all be there; he could hardly wait to see Mylius-Erichsen again, and Nansen, even Suess and the various Kaisers, this time with their bread rolls. And his friend from the back of the church would be there. What had he called her again, Squid? Something like that. He looked forward to her in particular.
How empty and unpopulated it was. Heaven knew what he was looking for here. Though he valued the many types of white found on this so spaciously laid out field of snow, he could have used a human soul by his side now, perhaps for the first time in his life.
He tried to fill the emptiness of the landscape with images from his memory but all he saw remained hidden behind a cloud of icing sugar—Jungfern Bridge, beneath it the canal with a dead butterfly floating on it. A bride disappearing in the distance. An empty snow globe, a swinging pendulum, a pipe gone cold.
He tried to summon it all up, their games by the water, the crowd of his siblings. How boisterous they were. He thought of Willi, who had fallen through the ice, and all at once he was scared to break through the ice himself. But he knew it was strong enough, far stronger than he was. He heard his mother’s voice but could not find her image, only ever her voice, scolding him in a foreign language. He saw his father but could not quite make him out because his face was hidden in his hands, in prayer or desperation. It took a moment for Wegener to recognize he was holding his own hands in front of his face, as protection from the snow. He knelt on the ground, his head lowered, and was glad of the warmth suddenly within him. Perhaps he was lying on his side with his legs drawn up and it merely felt like he was kneeling. How glad he was. The joy that no dog came to bite at his sleeves. The joy of experiencing all this consciously and one day being able to sum it up in an article. The joy that his father was no longer watching him. Unfortunately, it was still unclear which of them was triumphant in the end.
The wind came from all sides simultaneously, seemingly untroubled by him. The unrest subsided, the crawling of his thoughts. Wegener felt the leisurely drifting of the magnetic poles. When he closed his eyes he saw ancient, extinct animals, and he held out his hand to them. He walked across land bridges, he walked across the sea. He heard the glassy ring of the air layers and recognized every one of them. He thought of the frozen meadows of his youth, of the snow-laden plum tree in the garden in front of the house in Zechlinerhütte, he thought of himself sitting up there as a boy and imagining it all, the polar night and what it would be like to perish in it. He thought of the frost on the last leaf as yet unfallen, of the icy air. Of climbing down from the tree in the end, his hands chapped by the wind and the bark. Why here?
All at once, Rasmus was with him and led him back to their tent. What a marvel such a tent was. And what a marvel this Rasmus was. An angel, a devil of a fellow. Unfortunately, the tent did not manage to banish the cold spreading within him. It seemed to come from inside him, from his bones.
How cramped it was in the tent, how little air it held. And so many ants now approaching from all directions.
White ants, radiant white, snow ants perhaps, the itching everywhere, the first of them already inside his trouser legs, on his hands, on the sleeves of his jacket. How they reared up for battle; what had he done to them? The feelers, the tiny teeth. How robust they were. Their unique ability to predict earthquakes, always finding time to relocate their nests. They were the ones who would outlive mankind.
All at once he saw all their armour split open at the back, something emerging, as crumpled as old parchment, and dividing. Wings—they could fly, of course. And the next instant the first of them were in the air, fluttering for a moment around the tent like snowflakes, like a flock of snowflakes in the wind, then they flew up and away and took him along with them, out of the tent and away to a new colony.
Soon reindeer hair appeared in the snow, then a skin and Wegener’s fur. Sewed into two sleeping bag covers, he was found.
Wegener lay on a reindeer skin, three-quarters of a metre beneath the snow surface of November 1930. His eyes were open, his expression relaxed, calm, almost smiling. His pale face looked more youthful than it had before.
His nose and hands displayed small amounts of frostbite, as is usual on such journeys.
–Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
From All the Land by Jo Lendle. Used with permission of Seagull Books. Translation copyright 2018 by Katy Derbyshire.