Books to ex­plore the Antarc­tic

The Guardian - Review - - Further Reading - Jean McNeil

Antarc­tica is the fifth largest con­ti­nent, but it is home to al­most noth­ing. Only em­peror pen­guins can with­stand its lack of an­i­mal and plant life and shriv­el­ling tem­per­a­tures full time. Ev­ery­thing else, in­clud­ing hu­mans, must mi­grate or die. In its va­cant ex­trem­ity, the Antarc­tic presents a chal­lenge to writ­ing, the aes­thetic equiv­a­lent of scal­ing Ever­est. Ac­cord­ing to the en­vi­ron­men­tal his­to­rian Stephen J Pyne, writ­ers tack­ling it must “de­velop a vo­cab­u­lary equal to their en­vi­ron­ment”.

Ernest Shack­le­ton set the bar high with South, the rivet­ing story of his failed 1914-17 ex­pe­di­tion on the En­durance. It may be 100 years old, but it re­counts the se­rial dis­as­ters that be­fell the ex­pe­di­tion in prose that is star­tlingly mod­ern. Mirac­u­lously, not one of the men lost his life (al­though many dogs and pen­guins were not so for­tu­nate).

For a long time, Antarc­tica had only men to kill. Women were barred from the con­ti­nent, sup­pos­edly due to the med­i­cal threats of preg­nancy and the dif­fi­culty of repa­tri­a­tion. Not un­til the mid1990s were they al­lowed to over­win­ter on Bri­tish bases. Un­like Sara Wheeler or Gabrielle Walker, who of­fer per­cep­tive ac­counts in Terra Incog­nita and Antarc­tica, Jenny Diski met a wall of re­jec­tion when she tried to travel there as an of­fi­cial ob­server, and took a cruise ship in­stead. Her mor­bid, acidic trav­el­ogue, Skat­ing to Antarc­tica, is a haunt­ing ex­plo­ration of her in­ner Antarc­tic, which re­flects this out­sider sta­tus – all most of us will ever be on this re­mote con­ti­nent.

“It ap­pears out of the fog and low clouds, like a white comet in the twi­light.” Pyne opens his thrilling sur­vey

on this loom­ing note. His nar­ra­tive is steeped in sci­ence and history and is so com­mand­ingly writ­ten it is best read a few para­graphs at a time, to savour the cold volt­age of his prose. Struc­tured by the stratig­ra­phy of the con­ti­nent, with sec­tions ti­tled The Berg, The Sheet, The Glacier, The Ice voices the Antarc­tic’s Wag­ne­r­ian grandeur and un­packs its true char­ac­ter: a metaphor, an enigma.

New Zealan­der Bill Man­hire is the un­de­clared poet lau­re­ate of the Antarc­tic. In Antarc­tic Field Notes, writ­ten after three weeks there, he sets the ex­ploits of the heroic age against his own more mod­est en­ter­prise of shad­ow­ing sci­en­tists. The he­roes are rewrit­ten in sly anec­dotes – “Scott stares at the Christ­mas tree”; they write mor­dant di­ary en­tries – “the drudgery of courage”; or “dream of whortle­berry jam”. Un­der­writ­ing Man­hire’s spare, alert po­ems is a ten­der­ness, even a pity that these men should have been so un­pro­tected.

Within a lit­er­a­ture that is al­most en­tirely of one colour, an ex­cep­tion is Mo­jisola Ade­bayo. In­spired by the true story of Ellen Craft, an African Amer­i­can woman who dressed as a white man to es­cape slav­ery, Ade­bayo’s play Moj of the Antarc­tic imag­ines Craft trav­el­ling there to be­come the first black woman to set foot on the con­ti­nent.

In her pro­logue, Ade­bayo ob­serves that only a space di­vides “jus­tice” and “just ice”. If the east Antarc­tic ice sheet melts, it will pro­voke a 60m rise in global sea lev­els. As Man­hire says, “only ac­tion is tol­er­a­ble”. Oth­er­wise mere ice may yet im­pose a form of plan­e­tary jus­tice on us all.

Ice Di­aries by Jean McNeil is pub­lished by ECW.

The Ice

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