Absorbed by the whiteness

by Marie Darrieussecq
translated from French by Ian Monk

I added this to my wishlist when it was first published in English, on the back of a blog review (probably Savidge Reads, but I now forget). It was always going to appeal to me: scientists and engineers in Antarctica, international collaboration, humour and romance. But somehow it stayed sat on my wishlist for years.

Earlier this year Tim and I finally made it to Shakespeare & Co in Paris (we’d been to Paris before but hadn’t squeezed in the bookshop). I wanted to buy something translated from French and this title immediately came to mind. Amazingly, it was right there in their surprisingly small translated-from-French section. Of course, this means it has the awesome Shakespeare & Co stamp on the title page so I was never going to get rid of the book no matter how it turned out. But thankfully I do really like it.

The story (written in 2003) is set in a near future where people communicate via 3D holograms, the first manned mission is on its way to Mars, and the first permanent European base in Antarctica is under construction. (This last, arguably the entire basis for the story, does betray some lack of knowledge of Antarctic history – unless the translator has omitted the key modifier “pan-European”, which would be a first. Several European countries have their own permanent Antarctic bases.)

The book opens with the alternating journeys of Edmée (a Frenchwoman who has settled in the US) and Peter (raised in Iceland but of unknown origin), on their way to Antarctica. Edmée is taking the sea route, Peter the air, and a significant section of the novella is devoted to bringing alive these deeply uncomfortable journeys with strangers.

“The stomach, crushed beneath the lungs, is about to spill upwards, a moment of weightlessness – crash: the ship’s belly slaps against the wave. All the body’s organs in the toes. A kind of silence. A glazed white light. Under the wave. Then the sea – a black wall shattering against the smallest, as yet unprotected porthole – then the sky at last.”

On arrival, this group of scientists and engineers must inhabit temporary structures near the South Pole while the permanent base is being constructed. Edmée and Peter have arguably the two most important roles of all. She is in charge of communications, while Peter is the heating engineer.

Through their daily struggles with the elements, we learn some of Edmée and Peter’s histories, from which we can extrapolate why they might want to spend a year at the end of the world. Sometimes the vast emptiness is poetic and beautiful, sometimes it is disorienting, alienating, even frightening. Both lead characters are reading the diary of Scott’s final expedition, musing on his tragic end somewhere near them.

“It vanishes like a puddle evaporating, edges shrinking, absorbed by the whiteness. Then it comes back, a line that thickens, rising above the horizon and apparently labouring under the effort – one moment near, the next moment far – beneath it, the transparent sky quivers, Edmée’s eyes weep. Here, eyes can see nothing, and the creaking sound in her ears is coming from the bottom of the sea. Silence brings forth ghosts and mirages give them form.”

The one element of the book that I’m not sure I liked – and I wish that I did – is its narration. It is written in the plural first person, like a Greek chorus, but in this case the narrators identify themselves as ghosts. It is of course simply an embodiment of what Edmée and Peter find themselves thinking about in their free time, but I couldn’t help finding it a little bit weirdly spiritual (considering the characters involved) or even twee at times. The ghosts say that they can’t make the humans do what they want, but they can influence their thoughts. And they make it clear that what they want is to get Edmée and Peter together, despite the fact that she is married.

There is some great humour from the start (though never laugh-out-loud), especially in the descriptions of people. Several characters are only ever known by a nickname from when Edmée or Peter first met them. The descriptions of Edmée sitting quietly in a corner of the communications booth while each member of the team has their turn calling their loved ones, having deeply intimate conversations while she tries to be invisible, are by turn funny and sweet.

In some ways, the book I was most reminded of while reading this was Cold Comfort Farm – the hostile setting, the uneasy sense of humour, but most of all the occasional moments of futuristic sci-fi. The majority of the story is realistic and currently possible, including the scientific experiments being conducted at the base (to the best of my knowledge); but then there would be a brief description of a 3D holographic phonecall or a mention of the astronauts on their way to Mars, and I would be momentarily pulled out of the story by the incongruity of that detail.

This is undeniably an odd book. But it is so beautifully, atmospherically, gorgeously written, that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

First published in French in 2003 by P.O.L.
This translation published 2005 by Faber and Faber.

Source: Shakespeare & Co, Paris.