Friday, December 7, 2012

Land of the Snow Men

Land of the Snow MenLand of the Snow Men by George Belden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A hallucinogenic romp through the antarctic. Disturbing. This book jams itself into the crevices of your brain like ice-climbers in a glacier's chasm. This may be the perfect "little book" - thick with meaning and madness, hauntingly illustrated, short enough to be enjoyed in an evening, yet utterly immersive. This book is an "all in" work that requires your concentration and rewards an un-rushed reading, despite its short length. I wish there were many more books like this in the world. But, alas, the masses want their mega-novels, and they will have them.

Lock's faux-history is a darkly surreal account of one George Belden, quartermaster to Scott, though Belden was only present in Antarctica after Scott's tragic Terra Nova expedition. This information is given up front, in the foreword, immediately serving notice that this book is not to be easily grasped. It is, in a word, elusive. And this elusive quality adds a sort of surreal fog to the thoughts expressed by, and events experienced by Belden.

The underlying conflicts are those of madness versus sanity and of poetic man versus practical man. In a fit of rage, Scott bursts out and establishes himself as the paragon of practical reality:

Scott was angry. "I want no poetry here! I came to Antarctica to escape interpretation." He sank into his chair, his hands betraying his frustration. "A stone is only a stone until it's thrown through a glass house; then it becomes an adage and admonition. Antarctica has no ulterior meaning. There is nothing beneath the ice except more ice."

But Scott's men are of a different mind. They are as eager to explore as he is, but they are not so closed to the strange wonders of the antarctic. It becomes apparent rather quickly that they are tottering on the edge of sanity, yet they seem more mentally healthy than their leader, who insists on logic and order, despite the crew's desire to embrace the bizarre. For example, Ponting, after being assigned to collect rock samples, brings back something entirely different: Frozen shadows.

They were those of birds mostly. And one that looked as if it had been cast by an iceberg. And one that was unmistakably that of a man. The man's shadow was long, evidently made when the sun had been low in the sky. All were thin as paper. Ponting handled them like delicate glassware, afraid they might shatter in his hands.

Ponting goes on to explain to Belden his theory that they must have been formed in an area of absolute zero, where light itself freezes. But Belden is unconvinced.

He was put off by my apparent lack of enthusiasm for his earnest hypotheses. But what had seized my imagination was the man who had cast the shadow! Was he one of Amundsen's men? Or Shackleton's? Or Gerlache's? Or had he belonged to one of the much earlier expeditions - Borchgrevink's, Davis' or Weddell's? Might that shadow have been left by an outcast - a Frankenstein's monster, who had taken up a wretched exile in this most desolate of kingdoms only to be lost?

In time, Scott's crew embrace their hallucinations:

Besieged by constant necessity, each of us was making an outpost of the imagination in order to escape.

One unanswered question that the narrative continually implies (but never asks outright) is "who, in these extreme circumstances of isolation, is truly sane?". This begs the further question of whether or not it is desirable to wander the realms of insanity in order to preserve, ironically, one's sanity? By only alluding to these questions, but never asking them, Lock leaves the decision wholly up to the reader. There is no pedantic condescension that sometimes permeates dark surrealism. Lock provides a map, but doesn't tell the reader where to go.

Norman Lock deserves much more exposure and recognition for his wonderful work. I discovered Lock many years ago, and only in one instance have I been really disappointed by his work (I'll save that for a different review). Derek White's nearly abstract collages provide what I will call "symbolic tattoos" to this body of Lock's work. It is a beautiful, though disturbing, thing to behold, this Land of the Snow Men. I strongly recommend it.

I've thought that this work, along with HP Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness and Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams might make a good Winter's reading troika. Though you'll want to have plenty of hot chocolate on hand. Stoke up the fireplace, and enjoy!

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