July 1, 2008
In the 847 days that must elapse between the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition’s departure from and return to Vienna, Johann Haller uses an exclamation mark only twice in his journal entries: both times on the day of the machinist’s death. The punctuation of mourning or horror – I do not presume to judge. I have simply preserved these marks and passed them on, so delicate and so natural, as fossils of an unrepeatable emotion.
The narrator of Christoph Ransmayr’s The Terrors of Ice and Darkness (Grove Weidenfeld, 1991) tells an absorbing three-tiered tale of Arctic exploration. The main story recounts the ill-fated Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition of 1872-74. A second, somewhat minor story follows an Arctic-obsessed young man named Josef Mazzini who disappeared into the far north in 1981. And the third layer concerns the narrator himself, who claims to have known Mazzini briefly in Vienna and whose subsequent obsession leads him not into the Arctic but into the archives.
The story of the is told
Ransmayr writes in a documentary prose style that occasionally drifts quietly into a kind of poetic hysteria. The documentary style is particularly well-suited to the story of the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition, where the narrator includes many quotations from diaries and other historical sources. Here’s Julius Payer, one of the leaders of the 1872-74 Expedition, writing in his diary as their ship becomes locked in Arctic ice:
The rumbling scaffolds of ice rise, jerk, and collapse, like a foundering city…New masses break off from the circumference of our small floe; the slabs sway vertically above the sea, an incalculable force raising them in arches and vaults, the fields literally lifting as bubbles, a grim reminder of the elasticity of ice. Crystalline hosts wage war on all sides, and between their flanks the surging water floods into the sunken basins; cliffs of ice plunge to ruin, and rivers of snow flow from their bursting slopes.
Payer’s diary is filled with the lush, beautifully obscure language of geology and the sciences:
The dolerite of Franz Josef Land is medium-grained, dark leek-green in color, and consists of plagioclase, augite, olivine, titaniterous iron, and iron chlorite.
The Expedition, which spent two terrible winters stuck in the ice, suffered horribly, all for the honor of hoping to discover something new. Nevertheless, it was the kind of historic event that enthralled Josef Mazzini, a young rebellious man from Trieste, who fell hard for the tales of heroism and adventure that comprise Arctic history. After drifting through Vienna, Mazzini set out for the same spot where the Austro-Hungarian Expedition departed – Longyearbyen, a small town located on a group of Norwegian islands far above the Arctic Circle. There, he convinced a local oceanographer to teach him the difficult tasks required to manage a dog sled team. One November day in 1981, when the oceanographer was away delivering a research paper, Mazzini stole his dog sled team and disappeared forever into the void.
Initially, the narrator is only curious about the motives that drove his acquaintance to fling himself into the Arctic. “Who would go to the Arctic just to imagine what once was…?” But as the narrator plunges into the history of Arctic exploration, he finds, instead of heroism and idealism, a “chronicle of failure”, a “dance of death.” The narrator comes to see that beneath the veneer of science and bravery the real motivating traits for Arctic exploration were egotism, vanity, willful blindness, nationalistic ambition, greed, and a powerful capacity for self-delusion. On top of that, the rapidity with which advances in technology rendered the previous generation’s “heroism” obsolete only added to the absurdity of the quest to inch closer and closer to the North Pole and the Northeast Passage. Here the narrator imagines Mazzini as he flies north toward his Arctic destination:
Nowadays every scurvy vacationer could fly over the fuckin’ pole in a Boeing – yeah, wearing a coat and tie, eating steak from a plastic bag on his knees, and holding his Kodak to the porthole.
The narrator roams through the minds of the main characters, but retains a curious reticence that occasionally forces him to pull up short.
Do they talk a lot about women? Or do they sometimes have a desire to lean against each other, to embrace? The world they come from severely punishes such love. But what laws are valid in the ice? Is it enough just to have the doctor or whoever is on nursing duty stroke their brows when they lie there with fever? I do not know.
The two harrowing tales of Arctic obsession are delivered with economy and suspense, but it is the narrator – elusive and often invisible – who is the real crux of the novel. Like the narrators in the works of W.G. Sebald, Ransmayr’s self-effacing narrator provides the moral compass and historical corrective and who turns the past into parables.
While my imagination pictures the Admiral Tegetthoff steaming past its first fields of drift ice and Josef Mazzini on his Scandinavian Airlines flight watching clouds tower up from below, I let myself sink gently back into the darkness of time, glide down through the centuries to the beginnings of a great longing.
Time is a circle. Things return that they thought had sunk from sight long ago. One morning the cadaver of Bop, the Newfoundland that had been swallowed by the winter’s ice, is lying there on the snow again…as if he had died yesterday…Everything, including every hope, must be buried here twice, three times, again and again.
This report is also an ongoing tribunal held in judgment of the past. I weigh, consider, imagine, and play with the possibilities of reality.
As the reader who brought Ransmayr to my attention noted to me, the tangents between Ransmayr and Sebald are tantalizing. The Terrors of Ice and Darkness, which was originally published in Germany (as Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis) in 1984, includes historic photographs and some of Julius Payer’s Arctic drawings, much as Sebald would do four years later when he began publishing extracts from his novel Schwindel. Gefuhle in the magazine Manuskripte in 1988. Ransmayr, like Sebald, pits mankind’s delusional quests against a chaotic, but all-powerful Nature.
There is no more melancholy scene than the whispering death of ice under the clouds of a night sky. In slow and proud ceremonial procession the white coffins are relentlessly borne to their graves beneath a southern sun. [Julius Payer]