Saturday, March 19, 2005

Last Place on Earth

I usually do all my reading lying down on my bed at night. I never read sitting at my study desk. It brings back bad memories of cramming for my exams.

Bedside reading does have potential after-effects. You might end up on the fast road to cataract. You might develop an incurable variant of the slipped disc (Posture!). You might even fall asleep. Remember, you were warned.

On the plus side, it’s a great way to test a book. Is the book engrossing enough for you to stay awake? Is it as they say in publishing, a gripping read? In the waiting room, yes. But in bed, while the tempting sleep lies in wait? That’s the real litmus test for a book.

On sleepless nights you will discover ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ or ‘Ulysses’ to be highly effective cures for your insomnia. I found ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ had the potency of a tranquilizer (metaphorically speaking, of course). Three pages of Marquez and I am already snoring.

But then, you might end up with a book that perks you up like a flask of coffee. It happened to me with Roland Huntford’s “The Last place on Earth”.

This is a big book and a pretty old one at that. There are charts, tables, maps, black and white photos, and glossaries. On the cover, there are portraits of two men, one dour with intense piercing eyes, the other suave and handsome. The po-faced man is Roald Amundsen; the sensitive looking guy is Robert Falcon Scott.

On December 15, 1911, at 3 o’ clock in the afternoon, Amundsen, Hassel, Wisting, Hanssen and Bjaaland planted the Norwegian flag at the Geographic South Pole. There is a scratchy old photo of the moment. Four men with weather-beaten faces clad in thick eskimo suits stand near the fluttering flag. At the corner of the picture is a sledge dog, basking in the sun and in this moment of glory.

They had gone where no man had gone before. With the languor of a picnic trip, they would make it back to the ship and into the history books. One month later, Scott and his team would reach the same spot. Their deeply flawed expedition would then perish in the icy expanse of Antarctica.

The basic premise of this book is about the race for ‘the last place on earth’, the unexplored continent of Antarctica and the crowing jewel at its center, the South Pole. On a deeper level, it’s about leadership, teamwork, courage and the yearning to explore. It’s also about professional jealousy, ignorance, spite and thwarted ambition of men. As the blurb says “ Amundsen’s ambition was to reach the South Pole; Scott’s above all, was for fame and heroic achievement. This book shows, in the most vivid and unforgettable way, at what cost, to themselves and others, each was granted his desire.”

Amundsen was unsentimental. His team used Eskimo dogs for transport and food. The Brits were squeamish about this. They didn’t believe in dog transport and they didn’t like eating dogs. That was just for starters. From the depleted content of their rations to their obsolete navigation and strategy, from their overweening belief in motor transport to their condescension for the Eskimo lifestyle, everything went to pieces from the day one.

What’s the point of this book you may wonder? Amundsen won, so he is the hero, right?

Wrong. From the day the frozen bodies of the British polar party were found in a collapsed tent, they eased out Amundsen from the stage. The diaries written by Scott would salvage his reputation as a martyr, a heroic figure struggling against the odds of nature. Here was somebody the British people could look up to, somebody who was a part of their legends now. Amundsen was the interloper, the villain of the piece, the cunning Norwegian who had stolen the prize from the brave Englishman. He was banished to obscurity.

Huntford takes up the cudgels on behalf of Amundsen. Amundsen is revealed as a genuine leader, a man who loved his men enough to bring them back alive. He never disregarded traditional wisdom. He wasn’t out to conquer nature, he knew better than that. He was a taciturn man, a man of few words, a shoot straight guy who never buckled under pressure. He wouldn’t write to save his life, and perhaps that was the reason for his downfall. He was a man of action, not a writer who could spin a web of words to obfuscate and bedazzle.

Antartica may now be a drab piece of real estate. But when Amundsen began his journey, his every step was as pioneering as that of the first moonwalker. The places still have the resonance of mystery and adventure: Ross Ice Barrier, Mc Murdo Sound, Bay of Whales, Trans Antartic Mountains, Mount Erebus and Terror…

For Amundsen, there was no escape from Scott’s death. A sense of guilt for having won the race weighed heavily on his conscience. A few years later, on a rescue mission to the North Pole, Amundsen dissappeared. His body was never found. Like the old norse warriors of the yore, Amundsen sailed away into the oblivion, fearless and alone.

My synopsis hardly does justice to this great book. It’s a rare piece of meticulous research, reportage and storytelling.

Read it. You will never regret losing your sleep.

All Time Favourite Books

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  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (James M Cain)
  • A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway)
  • Herzog (Saul Bellow)
  • Ham on Rye (Charles Bukowski)
  • The Catcher in the Rye (JD Salinger)
  • The Secret History (Donna Tartt)