Desperate books aren’t suited to desperate times

There’s always been a place for apocalyptic tales in fiction and film … from the Book of Revelations and Paradise Lost, to Mad Max and The Hunger Games. But an apocalyptic story set in an it-ain’t-fantasy present — one that foregoes speculation, magic, and hyperbole — still gives me pause. Are readers really drawn to hopelessness fueled by authentic, looming calamity? What drives a skilled and visionary author to craft a novel in this vein?

Zeno Hintermeier, the protagonist of Ilija Trojanow’s The Lamentations of Zeno, compels questions like these. Zeno is a misanthrope’s misanthrope. Though his despair is no formula for winning friends or influencing others, he has come to gruff and despairing misanthropy honestly, by way of a loss that crushes hope of redemption. A German glaciologist, Zeno has lived to witness the death of the alpine glacier to which he devoted his scientific career. He loved “his” glacier. He lived for it, for charting its cold, its depth, its growth, its ablation. Yet the world’s rapid warming, brought on by humankind’s recklessly gluttonous appetites, has killed it.

I knelt next to one of the remnants, the ice under the sooty-black layer of dust was clean, I ran my fingers across the cold surface, then across my cheek, the way I always did, performing my ritual greeting. In the past I could plunge my arms into the fresh snow and bring up full scoops that made my hands so cold they would revitalize my face. I licked my index finger, it tasted like nothing. Only then did the first trivial thought occur to me: never again would I be able to fill plastic bottles with glacier water to sip so enjoyably at home. My host was standing next to his vehicle, I brusquely signaled for him to leave me alone. Then I lay down on the scree, all balled up, a picture of misery […]

Undone by his loss, Zeno divorces his wife, abandons his university post, and signs onto an Antarctic cruise ship, the Hansen, as an expert guide. Well into his sixties, Zeno flees south to narrate the death of a continent for wealthy seniors who seek cocooned adventure, an edge-of-the-world voyage with a righteous frisson of environmentalist penance … but no skimping on the creature comforts.

A map of the latitude-longitude coordinates that serve as chapter titles in The Lamentations of Zeno

The author and his protagonist don’t think much of the Hansen’s passengers. Set off by a section break composed of dot-and-dash Morse Code notation for the international distress signal, each chapter closes with a pile up of conversational shards, as if the reader is eavesdropping on flippant chatter Zeno hears as he passes through the cruise ship’s crowded bar, a dozen fragments of conversation at once. The effect is disorienting. To a reader who has developed even the least empathy for Trojanow’s protagonist, this oblivious refrain is grating or worse.

And there’s plenty of empathy possible. It’s not as though Zeno lacks reason to despair of humankind. It may not be heroic to throw in the towel, but it’s not so hard to understand either. Here he is, informing one of the Hansen’s passengers of the history of Grytviken, a former whaling station at the eastern edge of the cruise’s route:

“That was the blubber cookery, Mrs. Morgenthau. First they carved the whales up here right where we are standing, then they extracted oil from the blubber in giant cookers.”
“That sounds like hard work.”
“Lucrative work. With high returns. In a good year they cooked away up to forty thousand whales.”
I politely take my leave, otherwise I’d have to explain how first the fur seals were skinned, until there weren’t any fur seals left, after that the elephant seals were killed for their blubber and the try-pots were heated with penguins when the fuel ran out, and when there weren’t any elephant seals left the penguins were rendered into oil. Everything was put to use — humans are always so eager to show Nature more efficient ways to manage her resources. I tramp across a gently sloping soccer field: the crooked goalposts a comforting sight. Slaughter by morning and soccer in the afternoon. Did the goalie’s hands stink? Were the striker’s shins streaked with blood? I leave because I know what they would say, the same thing everyone is always telling me: How come you have to be so negative? Why do you always insist on ruining the mood? […]

Psychologists have been warning for years that people bombarded with dire descriptions about global warming tend to be repelled, not convinced or engaged. On the other hand, the facts about what climate change has done, is doing, and will do to the only planet we’ve got are … well, they’re dire. As an environmental activist, I identify strongly with Zeno’s despair. Yet Trojanow’s novel, honest and vivid as it is, no matter that it is leavened with richly ironic gallows humor, is not the kind of story that will wake and activate the masses.

The author seems to know this. Here is Zeno and his shipboard lover, Paulina, as the novel comes to a close:

“Hell is not a place,” I finally answer. “It’s the sum of all our lapses and failures.”
She looks at me confused, her fingers dig into the back of my hand, she presses her thumb so hard into the flesh below my thumb it hurts.
“The realization, much much too late that you didn’t do anything when you still could, when you still should have, that is hell. And there’s no escape.”
“I see,” she says, “you’re trying to reassure me.” She loosens her grip. “In your own weird way you’re trying to tell me you’re not going to hell.”

There aren’t many boundaries that art can’t cross: a tale of abject despair isn’t even close to taboo. In fact, though I’m probably an outlier, I found The Lamentations of Zeno cathartic. Despair happens, and it often happens because life is desperate. Portraying that truth — head on, vividly, without flinching, without collapsing into mawkish, trivializing sentimentality at the end of a harrowing tale — is in itself an artistic achievement. And Zeno’s story is told masterfully. Trojanow’s prose is spare, evocative, pointed, and wry.


I’m drawn to fiction that grapples with our damaged 21st century world and our deeply compromised place in it with some measure of grit. When I consider how to rally myself and others to live and act honorably in an era dominated by anthropogenic crises, it’s clear that a path forward — determination, at least, if hope would strike too false a note — has to be woven into a narrative I would want to read or write.

I’m certainly drawn to a different tack than Ilija Trojanow’s. There’s despair. And then there’s facing the music, grim as it may be. As Samuel Beckett put it, at the end of his novel The Unnamable:

you must go on, I can’t go on, you must go on, I’ll go on

I’m not prepared to abandon hope, without struggling to right what can still be righted. Not in life, and not in literature.

Thanks to Google Maps for the rendering of Trojanow’s lat-long chapter titles.