Antarctic Navigation by Elizabeth Arthur

Antarctic navigation

First Published: 1995 (UK edition by Bloomsbury 2004)
My copy: Bought in paperback

Memorable quote: “In a place without bacteria, nothing degrades as you would expect; there are no mice to eat the crumbs of the past, no worms to crawl through them. Nothing degrades, everything remains, and the cold preserves things with such veracity that to go to the Ice is to travel through time in the only way we humans can yet accomplish that.”

This reads like a big sprawling Victorian triple-decker novel: a ripping adventure story that is also cerebral, character-driven, and stuffed full of digressions about science, history and politics. But this is a fin de siecle narrative for the late twentieth century, with all its incipient pre-millennial and environmental angst. It’s a powerful prospect, but it was so good to have a novel that really consumed me; even though I couldn’t put this down, it’s sheer size  – 800 pages of fairly small print – kept me going for almost a week, and a highly enjoyable week that was.

Arthur’s protagonist is Morgan Lamont, an ardent young American, whose hero is Robert Falcon Scott. The novel tells her story from birth (and the clichéd ‘birth memory’ is one section I could have done without) to the fulfilment of her lifelong dream, the chance to lead an expedition recreating the Terra Nova polar trek. Although it takes well over 200 pages for Morgan to make it to Antarctica even the first time (as an employee at McMurdo)  The Ice (always capitalised) is the overriding image of the book and its power can be felt even amidst the dust and sunlight of Morgan’s hometown of Quarry. Antarctica comes to stand for so much in this book: for integrity, for endurance, for timelessness – “one hundred thousand years is just a moment in Antarctica” – and for that fascinating mix of fragility and hostility which characterises human interactions in the polar environment. The ugliness of pollution and the debris of human life is so evident amidst the pristine ice-scape, but this beautiful desert can damage us too and its ultimate weapon – and perhaps its attraction too – is its sheer indifference: “the earth, to be the earth, does not need us.” There is always a sense that Morgan is on her way to the pole and although Arthur delves strongly into real world politics – eco-terrorism, the first Gulf War, population ethics – this sense of manifest destiny adds a balancing element of fairytale wonder to this story. Many of the friends that Morgan meets during her childhood and university days demonstrate special talents that will make them ideal companions on the Ice, from Gronya the “storage expert” to Wilbur, the dog-whisperer. There was something almost Wizard of Oz -like about that trope but it was such a satisfying fantasy I, for one, was happy to run with it.

One of the real pleasures of this book is the way that it brings together so many other polar novels and narratives: Scott (obviously) Cherry, Shackleton, but also Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym, Lovecraft, even The Thing. Arthur chucks it all into the mix and lets it simmer, creating a steaming hoosh that may not always be quite appetising, but is consistently full of energy and spreads a genuine sense of warmth.  Morgan’s readings of these texts are often biased and idiosyncratic (particularly her fairly unquestioning worship of Scott) but her responses are heartfelt and therefore infectious. I don’t think you need to have read widely on polar topics to enjoy this novel, but the more you have read perhaps the more you will appreciate the different levels on which this hefty tome engages with its multiple points of departure. I enjoyed speculating on the ways in which Morgan’s party relate to the Terra Nova crew. Some analogies -Wilbur for Edward Wilson – seemed pretty glaring, but others were less clear cut, and I think Arthur’s interrogation of Scott is a little more complex than her heroine’s. Morgan rarely criticises Scott’s leadership but the mistakes she makes on her own expedition do replicate many of the more unfortunate decisions he made on the polar journey.

Morgan is a wonderful character: passionate, flawed, believable. Although the scenes in the Terra Nova hut are extremely moving, if anything she seems to lose momentum when she finally reaches the Ice. This raises some interesting questions about how any of us would respond if we were to achieve our heart’s desire. Reading this book, which is told in the first person from Morgan’s perspective, felt like chatting to an old university friend, complete with all the digressions that those kinds of heartfelt, entertaining chats usually entail.  In writing this book Arthur draws heavily on her own experiences in the Antarctic: she was selected to go there in 1990 as part of the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. So, while there is always an element of the fantastic in Morgan’s particular fortune, her story is clearly informed by experience and the novel includes some dazzling descriptions of the polar landscape (although most books, written by people who have been there do, it must help to have such a canvas to work on). There are also some blackly comic episodes that any travel writer would be proud to have observed, such as the scene in which Morgan is preparing to fly to McMurdo for the first time, enduring interminable rules, counter-intuitive regulations and a ghoulish catalogue of likely in-flight catastrophes from the presiding military officer.

The political elements in this book are not exactly veiled. I agreed with many of the points Arthur makes  (especially in relation to overpopulation and the opinion she voices repeatedly that many of us must consciously choose not to bear children but leave our mark on the future in other ways) but towards the end of the novel it did feel that politics threatened to overwhelm plot at times. In a novel so bursting with big, heartfelt, important ideas it’s a precarious balance to achieve, and the deep criticisms of the first Gulf War that dominate the final section do threaten to derail the adventure narrative of the polar trek. Morgan’s party learn of Operation Desert Shield and then undertake their journey devoid of further information about its progress, all the time imagining the worst.  Although this felt a little heavy-handed at times, I did enjoy the way this experience contrasted with Shackleton’s. The Endurance expedition departed in 1914, at the beginning of World War One, fully expecting it to be over by Christmas, but the shipwrecked men return to civilisation two years later to find a world gone mad and a death toll off the scale. There is a strong environmental message in Antarctic Navigation: the notion of a world gone mad destroying itself, Arthur reminds us, is something that is no longer limited just to times of war. But for all that, this isn’t a novel without hope. We can save our future, if learn the lessons of the our past, and Antarctica – where the Terra Nova hut still stands, looking as if it were just recently abandoned and at any moment, the weary man-haulers will burst through the door, shaking the ash of their boots – is one place where the weight of history can be felt particularly vividly. Powerful, wonderful stuff.

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