Pity the poor, middle-aged curmudgeon whose life did not turn out as expected.
In this case, his name is Zeno Hintermeier and, to be fair, he has plenty of reasons to be dejected and ornery. In fact, his problems, chronicled in Bulgarian-German writer and government surveillance critic Ilija Trojanow’s new novel, The Lamentations of Zeno, would depress just about anyone. For starters, his wife of 30-some years has up and left him; his job as a glaciologist at a prestigious scientific institute is over; and he is making ends meet by delivering lectures on the ecology of Antarctica to upper-crust eco-tourists on a cruise ship headed to the southernmost continent.
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Worse, this is not Zeno’s first excursion aboard the Hansen. Indeed, this time his experience has led to his promotion from educator to Expedition Leader, and despite his natural cynicism, he is taking the role seriously. His goal is to deliver such impassioned speeches that his passengers will be inspired to save the planet. On one hand, he has moments of optimism when he is sure that he’ll find the right words to incite the voyagers to action. At the same time, he understands that virtually every one of the 220 men and women on board sees the trip as a vacation, a chance to rest, relax, schmooze and play. What’s more, they’re patting themselves on the back for choosing to spend time with a diverse crowd of socially concerned adults — people from England, Germany, the US, Holland, Switzerland, Canada, Norway, Brazil, New Zealand and Austria, among them — while simultaneously learning a little something about penguins, glaciers, and the break-up of the Antarctic ice shelf. For his part, Zeno tries to get into the spirit, tentatively picking up where he left off the year before by hooking up with a waitress employed by the shipping company.
Not surprisingly, he’s having a hard time casting off his depression and angst.
I recognized that my glacier was doomed. We were aging together, the glacier and I, but the glacier was well ahead of me when it came to dying.
It’s easy to feel compassion for Zeno, at least initially. After all, the book is written from his perspective and his sadness is palpable. In addition, since he spent most of his professional life studying and tracking one particular glacier, only to watch it melt, it’s easy to empathize with his grief and sense of anomie. His description of the glacier’s demise is particularly heartbreaking. “I recognized that my glacier was doomed before the declining values of its middle layer thickness pronounced their judgment,” he explains. “I didn’t have to wait for the results to understand the ramifications of the sustained depletion. It was no longer possible to offset the losses. We were aging together, the glacier and I, but the glacier was well ahead of me when it came to dying.”
As Zeno details his interactions with the now defunct glacier, it’s clear that he was — and remains — not only deeply devoted to the ice, but filled with reverence for its majestic presence. It’s touching to realize how deeply he’s mourning the glacier’s disappearance. “Each time I visited,” he reminisces, “I would first scan the glacier with my eyes. Then test it with my feet. Whenever I stopped to catch my breath I would touch it, laying my hands on its flanks and then stroking my face, taking in its icy breath, its invigorating cold. I was familiar with every one of its sounds, its creaking and the clanking; every glacier has its own voice… A dying glacier sounds different from a healthy one.”
But how to convey the enormity of this loss — and what it means for the world’s atmosphere — to sightseers eager to belly up to a lavish buffet and open bar?
Despite flashes of ardor, Zeno is ultimately flummoxed by the challenge and gives up, throwing his hands in the air and concluding that people “don’t give a damn,” and will continue to muck things up “until they’ve consumed polluted squandered destroyed everything.”
This dire wrap-up prompts him to do the unthinkable, and while I am not going to provide a denouement spoiler, suffice it to say that he embarks on an individual act of extreme sabotage intended to draw attention to global temperature change and the overarching climate crisis.
And these, in a nutshell, are my problems with The Lamentations of Zeno. At no point in the narrative does Trojanow make reference to the dozens of international or intrepid local organizations that are working at the grassroots level to reverse the damage caused by rampant pollution or the wanton destruction of the earth’s natural resources.
Instead, he leaves it to one man — perhaps brave or perhaps foolhardy — to fend for himself and take action.
“I’m tired of being human.” Zeno admits at the end of the text. It’s easy to sympathize. Nonetheless, by succumbing to despair, and dragging others along with him, Zeno disappoints. Yes, his lamentations are a clarion call, but had he formed a chorus, rather than opting for a solo, he would have made a mightier mark on the universe most of us want to preserve for future generations.