The Last World

THE LAST WORLD has a fragile basis in historical fact. In A.D. 8, the Roman poet Ovid (full name Publius Ovidius Naso; Ransmayr refers to him as Naso throughout), at the height of his fame, was exiled for unknown reasons to the port of Tomi on the Black Sea; he died there about ten years later. In Ransmayr’s novel, an admirer of Naso, a young man name Cotta, voyages to Tomi in search of the poet. Two features distinguish THE LAST WORLD from the ordinary historical or quasi-historical novel. First, the incidents that make up the action of the novel are largely taken, in altered form, from Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES (an appendix, titled “An Ovidian Repertory,” permits the reader to compare the role of the characters in Ransmayr’s novel with their originals). Second, Ransmayr deliberately eschews conventional historical re-creation, opting instead for surreal anachronisms: In the narrative, customs and objects of the ancient world intermingle with twentieth century technology. Ransmayr’s novel itself, in short, is an exercise in metamorphosis.

Umberto Eco can rest easy. One finishes THE LAST WORLD wondering if those glowing reports from Frankfurt were inspired by the same book. Turgid and pretentious, THE LAST WORLD is significant only as yet another instance of publishing hype.