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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Christoph Ransmayr

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To purchase Cox, oder Der Lauf der Zeit

Title: Cox
Author: Christoph Ransmayr
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 303 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Cox - US
Cox - UK
Cox - Canada
Cox, oder Der Lauf der Zeit - Deutschland
Cox ou la course du temps - France
Cox o il corso del tempo - Italia
  • or the Course of Time
  • Translated by Simon Pare

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Our Assessment:

B+ : picturesque, if ultimately almost too neat and simple

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Wall St. Journal . 15/5/2020 Sam Sacks
Die Welt . 29/10/2016 Richard Kämmerlings
Die Zeit . 10/11/2016 Ijoma Mangold

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ransmayr braucht seiner ausufernden Beschreibungslust keine Grenzen zu setzen: In dieser exotischen Kulisse muss sich kein Superlativ rechtfertigen. Der Leser kommt aus dem Staunen kaum heraus. (...) Was er leider vergisst, ist eine Geschichte." - Richard Kämmerlingsm Die Welt

  • "Cox oder Der Lauf der Zeit ist kein realistisch historischer Roman, sondern eher ein allegorisches Märchen, in dem sich das Figurenpersonal so choreografisch bewegt wie im japanischen No-Theater: Hier ist alles Künstlichkeit und Bedeutung. (...) Cox’ Uhrwerke mögen über staunenswert viele Komplikationen verfügen, ein höheres Geheimnis verbirgt sich in ihnen nicht. So weckt Ransmayr mit dem Sujet seines Romans eine spirituelle Erkenntnissehnsucht, die er mit den dann gewählten Mitteln nicht befriedigen kann." - Ijoma Mangold , Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: this review is based on the German original; all translations are my own.]

       The Cox of the title is named Alister but, as Christoph Ransmayr also acknowledges in an afterword, is closely based on real-life clockmaker and entrepreneur James Cox (ca. 1723–1800), who was responsible for designing and constructing elaborate clocks and automata appealing to collectors, and ran a business similar to the Cox & Co. of the novel. While the Qing dynasty Qianlong Emperor (Quiánlóng here; 1711-1799) collected several of his pieces, James Cox never travelled to China himself, but Cox invents such a foreign sojourn for its protagonist, as the entire novel is set near and in China as Alister Cox travels there with several of his associates, having accepted a commission to work at the court of the emperor.
       When he travels to China, Alister Cox is still haunted by the tragedy of losing his five-year-old daughter, Abigail -- a devastating loss that also rendered his wife, Faye, mute and even more distant from him in their difficult marriage; the two remain much on his mind when he is halfway around the world, and influence his thinking on the timepieces he works on there.
       The world he enters is entirely different from any he knows: on the one hand, everything he could wish for as far as materials for his work is available; on the other hand, he and his associates live and work in almost complete isolation, translator Kiang their only real connection to the outside world, of which they long see very little, and the emperor himself a presence they do not encounter until well into their stay. Cox is permitted to stay in the Forbidden City -- but nearly everything remains forbidden to him, beyond his work.
       The untouchable, largely unseen emperor is a god-like figure in the country he rules, as is clear from the very first impressions Cox and his associates get. Quiánlóng is no mere mortal, every wish is his command -- and to even look at him or touch one of his (many, many) concubines is practically unthinkable.
       The emperor eventually makes his wishes known, a succession of different timepieces he'd like Cox to construct -- but the first are essentially only practice pieces: for example, one that is meant to recreate the changing tempo of time, then one that is to count down time for those -- and isn't everyone ? -- doomed to death (the emperor sending Cox to speak with two condemned prisoners to get a feel for those last days and hours -- a rare (if in this case unwelcome) opportunity to interact with others for Cox). Only two-thirds of the way into the novel, however, and long into their stay, does the emperor reveal his true wish: a clock that conquers time: "A clock for eternity. The clock of all clocks. Pepetuum mobile".
       Translator Kiang recognizes the dangers of the audacious request: the emperor towers over all, but such a device would be even greater than him -- and nothing can be greater than him ..... It is also to be designed so that it requires no care or upkeep -- truly eternal and beyond any human interference. As Cox tells his associates:

We are building it in a way that it won't need humans any longer. Not a one. Not even us.
       It is meant to be truly transcendent -- yet this world they're in can only allow the emperor himself to be transcendent .....
       Ransmayr ingeniously suggests how the perpetuum mobile -- an impossibility -- might work, taking advantage of changes in air pressure to power it. (In fact, James Cox did conceive something similar; see, for example here.) He requires a great deal of mercury for it, which causes further problems for the foreigners, viewed with increasing suspicion by the locals, and they find their situation increasingly precarious.
       Ransmayr also comes up with an ingenious solution to what Cox leaves the emperor with -- a clock that fulfils the emperor's demands, yet presented in such a way that it does not directly challenge his omnipotence and status. It's a charming and clever conclusion -- but also part of the weakness of the novel: with its focus on its perfect conclusion it makes for a lovely story, or even anecdote -- but not a full-fledged novel. Evocative though so much of Cox is, both lovely and fascinating in its details, it largely feels just like (well-executed) padding for what is ultimately a very short anecdote and simple point.
       Ransmayr does present the imperial court, and Cox's life there, nicely. There are small adventures -- a trip to the Great Wall; the move of the court to the summer residence at Jehol (now: Chengde) and then the over-staying there -- and a nice growing sense of menace as jealousies arise around the favored foreigner. There's a love-interest of sorts for Cox -- or at least a female figure reminding him of home and of what he's lost there. And there's the emperor, treated like a god and as all-powerful as any human might be -- given everything that he has at his disposal.
       It all makes for a colorful read of an exotic world and fascinating invention -- there's lovely description of Cox's machines and their construction -- and allows for much musing on the passing and nature of time. Indeed, Cox is, in a way, picture-perfect -- but also feels too much like that, a beautiful but too obviously constructed piece, almost static, despite all its moving pieces, with its final, perfect summing-up.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 September 2017

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Cox: Reviews: James Cox: Christoph Ransmayr: Other books by Christoph Ransmayr under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Christoph Ransmayr was born in 1954

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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