Cox or The Course of Time

Christoph Ransmayr

Translated from German by Simon Pare

Seagull Books

S. Fischer Verlag 2018

Cox or The Course of Time

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.

Richly imagined and recounted in vivid prose of extraordinary beauty, Cox, or The Course of Time is a stunning illustration of Christoph Ransmayr’s talent for imbuing a captivating tale with intense metaphorical, indeed metaphysical force. More than a meeting of two men, one isolated by power, the other by grief, this is an exploration of mortality and a virtuoso demonstration that storytelling alone can truly conquer time.


11 Āishi,

Balder Bradshaw, the ninth of eleven children born to the whitesmith Tyler Bradshaw and his wife Aelfthryd in the county of Lancashire, died within sight of paradise at the age of twenty-nine.
He had spent the whole day in a fresh but painful attempt to take renewed advantage of the privilege of riding and staying upright in the saddle, braving chafe marks that had barely healed during his days of travelling on a water-buffalo cart. Cox and Merlin, who rode sometimes ahead of him, sometimes behind him on his death day, had occasionally tried to correct his posture before the Manchurian gave the signal to halt because the view of distant, mist-shrouded Jehol was apparently more beautiful than anything the caravan had encountered on their march into the summer thus far. Listen! The caravan must stop and listen. The Manchurian raised his cupped hands like shells to his ears and motioned to the train to follow his example.
Later, no one could say with any certainty why Bradshaw’s horse, a muscular Tibetan gelding, suddenly reared, whinnying, onto its hind legs and bolted at a panicked gallop. Some of the litter-bearers claimed to have seen a small furry animal, a fox or maybe a wolf cub, dart between the horse’s hooves. Others were convinced that some large horseflies had alighted on a spot rubbed raw by the saddle girth and stung the gelding; it was indeed the season for horseflies and they were driving both the grazing cattle and the carthorses mad.
The only one who presumably knew the truth—a water-bearer who slaked the thirst of the most valuable animals during the journey from leather pails he carried on a shoulder pole and who had been about to water Bradshaw’s horse—remained silent. He too could have only speculated whether what he had seen had indeed caused the death of His Sublime Majesty’s English protégé, and he was afraid to talk unbidden. A man under the Lord of Ten Thousand Years’ protection could not, was not allowed to die.
It had been the wind. A gust of wind had caught the horse’s long, black-brown tail from behind, lifted it up and spread it for a second into a dark hairy fan larger than the tired rider. He felt only the draught and did not notice the ghost at his back. Only the water-bearer and the horse, whose nostrils caught a whiff of the water spilling from the leather pails and looked around at the water-bearer, saw this nameless phenomenon suddenly fly up behind Bradshaw, growing ever larger and more menacing. The gelding whinnied with terror, rose onto its hind legs and sought to escape from the danger by launching into a gallop.
In any case, Bradshaw, still captivated by the view of the city surrounded by gauzy river mist and probably delighted by this respite, a welcome break from the struggle to keep his balance, was flung from the saddle, but rather than tumbling to the mossy ground he caught his left boot in the stirrup and was dragged for at least a third of a mile as the horse dashed through the wilderness. During this panicked escape, he must have struck his left temple so unfortunately and so hard against a rock or the trunk of a tree felled by some long-forgotten storm that he was already dead by the time three mounted guardsmen caught up with the gelding and halted it.

Bradshaw was to be the last of the clock caravan’s three casualties whom the journey to Jehol had led not to the Emperor’s summer residence and its chorus of nightingales and blackbirds but to their deaths. Yet whereas the other two victims—a carter trampled by his team on a stone bridge, and a litter-bearer who expired from exhaustion—had barely halted the procession and were buried during a break not long enough to water the beasts, after a period of confused agitation and several vain attempts by the Manchurian’s two personal physicians to resuscitate the Englishman, the entire caravan drew to a halt. One of the Englishmen, His Sublime Majesty’s guest and ward, was dead.
Although Jehol, with its towers, beaked roofs, temples and hilltop pavilions, appeared to float within touching distance above the banks of mist and could certainly have been reached within two hours, the Manchurian ordered camp to be made at the scene of the accident. The laws of the court required that all movement and all work cease for a day, and no one travel, ride, march or sail any further if a man met his fate who, as the Almighty Ruler’s guest, was under his wing and in his shadow.
Teams of oxen had to be released from their yokes, litters abandoned and lined up next to one another in rows, and saddles removed from horses and beasts of burden. Even ships on the high seas had to obey this rule and cast anchor or, in stormy weather, reef all their sails save for the one canvas necessary to keep the bow pointing into the towering waves. When death claimed the life of an imperial protégé, all life was to pause for one day.
By the time the first campfires were lit in the gathering darkness and, shortly afterwards, messengers arrived from Jehol to enquire why the caravan was not entering the city, Balder Bradshaw was resting in a grey silk shroud on a bier beside a granite spur that would loom over his grave the next morning. Against the wishes of the Englishmen, who wanted to take their companion to Jehol and bury him there, the Manchurian decreed that the fallen man should be interred at the site of the accident, in the shadow of the rocky crag, to placate the demons. The fallen rider must lend company to the spirits who had contributed to his death until he had told them his story and acquainted them sufficiently with his life so that they might release him peacefully into a world devoid of time or destinations.
Lockwood tried unsuccessfully to hide his tears behind folded hands as he knelt for almost three hours beside Bradshaw’s bier, mumbling prayers and invocations that even his companions could not understand. When Cox finally persuaded him to stand up and return to camp—the Manchurian had become mistrustful of the whispered magic formulas which might bring disaster on the caravan—Lockwood said that this accursed venture in China or Mongolia or wherever else they might have ended up was of no further value, none at all, without Balder. This ill-starred trip was pure punishment now. He wanted to go home.
Merlin, who had worked with both Bradshaw and Lockwood, Cox & Co.’s most talented fine mechanics, clockmakers and goldsmiths, in the Liverpool, Manchester and London manufactories, endlessly running through technical details with them and yet repeatedly mixing up the two men’s first names, said nothing that evening. He had stood in silence before Bradshaw’s blood-stained corpse, had watched in silence as the dead man was washed by eunuchs and wrapped in grey silk, nibbling at his lower lip until it bled, and was now sitting in silence beside the bier.


Time is naturally Mr. Ransmayr’s plaything in this tale, which in Simon Pare’s whisper-quiet translation from the German calls to mind Orhan Pamuk’s charming historical contraptions. The novel explores the way that excitement can cause it to race, boredom to stretch and slow it down, grief to bring it to a halt. To control time would be to attain omnipotence, but this quicksilver fantasy shows it to be a medium as fundamentally treacherous and “chaos-driven” as the human heart. —Wall Street Journal


    Runner-up for the 2021 Schlegel-Tieck Prize for translation from the German