Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis
|Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins by Gavin Francis|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A brilliant combination of Antarctic essay, travelogue and autobiography. For a man that wanted to be alone, he writes so well you're there with him.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 272||Date: November 2013|
2013 Costa Biography Award shortlist
I know two books don't make a genre, but twice in recent years I have read autobiographical travelogues of men who felt too much was going on in their lives and their surroundings, and took themselves off to remote, isolated, extremely cold and inhospitable places. One went to the shores of Lake Baikal, and shared his days hunting, fishing, drinking and reading with only a few very distant neighbours. Gavin Francis took himself south, to the edge of the Antarctic ice, to spend a year as a scientific doctor. He wasn't able to be completely as alone as some have been in the past – even if he hid himself away in isolation before the week-long annual changeover of staff was through. Francis ends up with a baker's dozen of companions, in a place where – apart from the ice, sealing things up – only two lockable doors exist. You might think this was a large group of people for someone wanting to be alone, but the very tenuous and isolated feel of the place in the huge emptiness of the landscape is the main point of this book – that, and communing with emperor penguins…
As with all the best travelogues, a lot of this author's 'journey' is internal. It is of course eminently richer than the empty use that word gets from reality TV that forces my punctuation. There's hardly anything more isolating than the distances involved in Antarctic travel, added to the conditions, that mean the base would be cut-off and self-determining for ten months, including the rarefied cage-less prison of the season-long winter. Francis had to have the steel to get himself and all his companions through, aided by drink, fancy dress nights (just how much luggage do these people take with them, you wonder), skiing round the base perimeter, and countless books.
Yes, it seems the maxim that you are never alone with a book is proven again. The ones Francis dips into, of prior excursions into the cold both famous and unknown, add further, essayistic edges to the writing here, but it's when he takes us on his own flights and through his own descriptions that these pages shine. His evocation of lowering into crevasses in the glaciers, of the weather and the aurorae, the sounds of motion and the apparent stillness of the strange southern stars, all bring the experiences to the fore. Forget the fact this took place some years ago and we have no idea how many notes he made then and how much is written fresh for the book, the honesty of the author's mind that is heightened by the distance it gains from any other vestiges of humanity is brilliant. Thirteen others barely get mentions, beyond polite bullet points, and this really is an autobiography of one man and one man alone.
There are also the penguins, and Francis shows how erudite he is, finding the papers that prove just how far our knowledge of emperors has come over the last seventy years, and how much is still unknown. It seems a little odd that the author returns to them so often – in the literary scheme of things, not the literal. But the playfulness of witnessing these bizarre characters, and their unswerving nature of living in these conditions, is again just one layer of the book, added to the rest like a seasonal snowfall compacting previous snow into a beautifully crafted, stunning and unique piece of reportage. There's an irony in this, and the other book I mentioned, discussing being alone so openly with an audience of readers – and there must be people who isolated themselves who haven't demolished that alone-ness by sharing – but this book will only follow the rest of those the future versions of Francis would choose to travel with.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
The Ice-Cold Heaven by Mirko Bonne sends us south, as a novel, and is equally evocative.
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