Non-fiction: Maria Coffey: Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow (Hutchinson, 2003)
After reading so much Antarctic literature, I started to feel that they all drew their inspiration from a very limited canon of sources, the same canon I’m going through now. The same references come up all the time. To combat this, a friend suggested I branch out into sources that are useful as a source of detail and human experiences, but have nothing to do with Antarctica. Things like Arctic and mountaineering literature.
I picked up this book completely at random because of its low price. Its a drawn-out exploration of how the wives and families of mountaineers feel when their men die climbing. As research, its quite useful, because of the narrow focus on the immediate aftermath of human catasrophe. As a reading experience, it was strange to go through, because you could feel the intimacy of the mountaineering community, of which the author is part of. It felt like eavesdropping in the conversation of a close group of friends. It felt like the author didn’t really expect the book to be read by any other people than mountaineers, and certainly not by some guy in Helsinki researching a book about Antarctica.
Fiction: J.M. Coetzee: Elizabeth Costello (Secker & Warburg, 2003)
I actually started to read this book to get a break from the endless procession of books about Antarctica. I was surprised, and somewhat dismayed, when it turns out that I can’t get out so easily; Antarctica is featured in this novel too, although only as background. The protagonist of the book, an elderly novelist after whom the book is named, has an engagement lecturing on one of the Antarctic cruise ships also featured in Jenny Diski‘s book Skating to Antarctica, featured here earlier. The engagement only lasts for a chapter, but the description is very sharp.
Elizabeth Costello is a wonderful novel, one of the best I’ve read from Coetzee. Considering especially the beautiful economy of his style, I suspect I got more out of it as an example of perfect craftmanship than for what I found in the Antarctica chapter.
Non-fiction: Tom Avery: Pole Dance (Orion, 2004)
First off, Avery’s book has a great name, a name that makes it stand above the rest in the cluttered field of Antarctic memoirs. It belongs to the genre of modern-day accounts of private expenditions to the South Pole, and describes how Avery and his team walked to the Pole and how he ended up trying to do that in the first place.
The book is funny and very observant. Avery plunges into the minutiae of polar travel, no matter how embarassing, and his style is very engaging and direct. He has a great description of what it feels like to push forward when you’re almost there and your body is failing. Avery himself does the last 40 miles in one go while suffering from altitude sickness, one shoulder wrecked, with constant diarrhea and bloody haemorrhoids spurting blood out of his ass.
Unfortunately, he starts to falter when he tries to put things into a perspective. The biggest fault in this regard, of course, is the fact that Avery is pro-Scott. His attempts to mirror Scott’s Discovery Expedition and his own are artificial and annoying. More to the point, they distract from the real meat of the book, which remains Avery’s own experience. What makes it stranger is the fact that Avery’s own expedition is much closer to Norwegians like Amundsen, for whom polar travel was essentially a sport, than someone like Scott, who was there in his capacity as a leader of an Imperial scientific expedition.
I suppose this is what you get when you’re indoctrinated into the cult of the hero through the medium of adventure stories read as a child.
Then there’s this hilarious paragraph in the book’s epilogue:
Barely 600 generations ago, the British Isles would have looked very similar to Antarctica. The great ice sheets of the last Ice Age covered over 80 per cent of the land, forcing people to travel vast distances in search of food and shelter. […] We modern-day Brits are children of the Ice, and I would like to think that a deep-rooted calling to the cold remains, compelling so many of us to head to the great Antarctic ice cap.