‘Cox’ by Christoph Ransmayr: An Excerpt

The world’s most powerful man, Qiánlóng, emperor of China, invites the famous eighteenth-century clockmaker Alister Cox to his court in Beijing. There, in the heart of the Forbidden City, the Englishman and his assistants are to build machines that mark the passing of time as a child or a condemned man might experience it and that capture the many shades of happiness, suffering, love and loss that come with that passing.

Mystified by the rituals of a rigidly hierarchical society dominated by an unimaginably wealthy, god-like ruler, Cox musters all his expertise and ingenuity to satisfy the emperor’s desires. Finally, Qiánlóng, also known by the moniker Lord of Time, requests the construction of a clock capable of measuring eternity—a perpetuum mobile. Seizing this chance to realize a long-held dream and honor the memory of his late beloved daughter, yet conscious of the impossibility of his task, Cox sets to work. As the court is suspended in a never-ending summer, festering with evil gossip about the monster these foreigners are creating, the Englishmen wonder if they will ever escape from their gilded cage.

Translated by Simon Pare

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An Excerpt

Cox reached the Chinese mainland under slack sails on the morning of the October day on which Qiánlóng, the most powerful man in the world and Emperor of China, had the noses of twenty-seven tax collectors and bond dealers cut off.

On that mild autumn day, banks of mist drifted over the unruffled waters of the Qiántáng whose sandy bed, melting into multiple side channels, had been dredged by more than two hundred thousand forced labourers using shovels and baskets so that, in accordance with the Emperor’s wishes, an error of nature might be corrected and the now-navigable river link the sea and Hángzhōu Bay with the city.

Again and again, the shifting fog hid the incoming ship from the eyes of the crowd gathered at the execution site by the harbour’s edge. According to police reports, two thousand one hundred spectators, witnesses to Emperor Qiánlóng’s infallibility and righteousness, many of them in their finest clothing, were waiting for the executioner to appear, chatting or standing in solemn silence as they watched the three-masted barquentine float towards them through the river mist, repeatedly fading from view and exuding greater menace with every re-appearance. What a ship!

Even some of the condemned men chained to their stakes raised their heads to gaze at the silently drifting barquentine with its deep-blue square and fore-and-aft rig, while those assembled around the scaffold seemed to have forgotten that all the world’s attention was solely beholden to the Emperor and to the execution of his will, to none but the Son of Heaven who condescended only out of benevolence to share people’s affection and gazes with other humans and creatures.

No flood, no volcanic eruption and no earth tremor, not even an eclipse of the sun, could warrant that even a single thought should turn away without permission from the Emperor’s glory and omnipotence to the events of the everyday world.

The Emperor had demonstrated with the deepening of the Qiántáng that his will could transport an entire city to the sea, and bring the sea to the gardens and parks of Hángzhōu. Ever since, the swelling tide had borne approaching ships to the city’s quays and warehouses like offerings from the ocean, while the river, reversing its flow to the alternating rhythm of low and high tide, could float entire fleets as a mirror of imperial might.

But for what did His Imperial Majesty count, whose laws determined every twitch of life, the course of the river, the coastlines, the glances people exchanged and their innermost thoughts, now that an unfamiliar tall ship came gliding over the black waters of the Qiántáng, stinking of lime from the tanneries? The Emperor was invisible. The ship, on the other hand, was not—or was hidden from view for only a few heartbeats before the banks of mist once more released it into unambiguous reality.

Resting in their litters or under canopies among the crowd gathered at the place of execution, some mandarins had begun to mutter among themselves about recent rumours—whisperings in the court’s many shadowy corners of the arrival of an English sailing ship laden with precious automata and timepieces. But the whisperers never pointed at the barquentine, glancing around furtively after every sentence to check that none of the Emperor’s many ears were listening or that none of his many eyes were noting them, subjects clad in embroidered cloaks or fur-trimmed robes, their names easily ascertained by a policeman or a secret agent, harbouring forbidden doubts about His Holy Highness’s plans for that morning; naturally, the condemned stood where they were standing because His Radiant Highness had willed it so. Yet was it really His will that this enormous, blue-rigged ship should be holding a course towards one of the most magnificent and prosperous cities in the empire?

Qiánlóng, whether invisible or shimmering in red-gold and silk, was omnipresent; a god. Although he was ending his inspection tour of seven provinces in Hángzhou, and would return to Běijīng with his retinue of over five thousand courtiers on board a fleet of thirty-five ships via the Grand Canal—a waterway dug for his personal use—none of the city’s inhabitants, not one of its most senior officials, had so much as glimpsed him during his visit. After all, the Emperor did not need to tire his eyes with the sight of ordinary nuisances, nor his voice with conversation or speeches. Everything there was to see or to say, his subjects said or saw for him; and he—he saw everything, even through closed eyes, and heard everything, even while asleep.

Guarded by hundreds of armoured warriors, Qiánlóng, Son of Heaven and Lord of Time, was floating that morning in feverish dreams high above the towers and roofs of Hángzhōu; high above the drifting fog, somewhere among dark-green hills where the autumn air was redolent with mild aromas, and the empire’s finest tea was plucked; he lay there like a babe, in a bed suspended from the red-lacquered beams of his splendid tent by four silken tresses interwoven with purple threads and perfumed with oils of lavender and violet. Now and then, nightingale feathers stitched to its gossamer curtains fluttered sluggishly in the draught.

Spurning the luxury of the palaces of Hángzhōu, which for weeks had stood ready but empty, the court had pitched its tents and His Holy Highness’s silk marquee high above the city, because the travelling Emperor sometimes preferred the wind and the transience of a fortress of canvas, guy-lines and pennants to apartments and walls liable to conceal hidden dangers or prove to be traps set by conspirators and assassins. From the tops of the hills, though, it looked as if Qiánlóng were laying siege to one of his own cities.

Surrounded by a sea of papers, solicitations, verdicts, calligraphy and poetry, expert reports and watercolours, and countless documents still bound and sealed that he was intending to read and inspect, approve, admire or reject that day, as he did in the early hours of every other day, he lay ensnared in racing dreams from which he woke with a start when his senior valet sought to protect a valuable deed from the feverish ruler’s cramps and dry his perspiring brow with a piece of cambric sprinkled with lotus essence.

No! No! Get out! Qiánlóng, a forty-two-year-old man who looked almost delicate amid the splendour of his cushions and bedclothes, turned away like an irate child. He wanted everything, even the jumble of rustling papers among which he tossed and turned, to be left exactly where and how it was. A barely perceptible suggestion of a wagging index finger had sufficed to send the servant’s hands darting back into frozen readiness.