Friday, 6 November 2015

A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter - a passionate arctic novel

I should have read this book when I was a kid, at the age when I read about Byrd in Antarctica or Darwin in South America. But Christiane Ritter is adult - serious and authentic - in this report of her foolish adventurous stay in the freezing subpolar desert: it's finely written with precious and stunning descriptions, sometimes as if she is doing fascinated paintings, or poems. The book had great success when it was published and is a classic of Arctic literature.

The year is 1930, between the two wars, and then Europe was confused, depressed, unpleasant and dangerous. The crash and the long American depression put an end to the brief democratic years, and dictators went sprawling. Christiane Ritter, a 36-year-old Austrian housewife, was invited by her husband, a fur trapper in Northern Spitsbergen - the largest island of the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago - to visit him for a whole year, so she can update long overdue readings and sleep to her content.

Gråhuken (Grey Hook), by the Woodfjord, is the location of the cabin where she lived.

The invitation was tempting, yet the desolation of the long Arctic night could frighten: Christiane was to live in a tiny and rough wood hut, on the shore of the Woodfjord, at about 80° northern latitude, under -40º C up to -15º C in the Summer. Only a long journey on the rugged ice may allow contact with other hunters huts - often deserted but still cozy.

Christiane will suffer moments of deep solitude, enclosed in the small cabin during long and windy storms, or wandering the Arctic night without horizons or references; on the other hand, she will live the experience of floating in an unreal world, with fantastic luminescence through blackness, starry skies never before seen, and when fairylike boreal aurora lights up, an intense feast for all senses.

- White shadows -

"The world is in deep twilight, a perpetual twilight from which it can no longer emerge. There is no wind, and a transparent mist carries the waves of the last dying light. Everything, near and far, is unreal, without spatial dimension. The frozen mountains soar up into the dark grey sky like white shadows. Weightlessly, they seem to sway.

With a soft musical note, the dark water nestles in the round white bays and in the river estuaries, and glides in the calm obscurity over to the broad sea, which in the distance seems to melt into the grey of the sky.

The scene has nothing earthly in it. Withdrawn, it seems to lead its own contained life. It is like the dream of a world that is visible before it takes shape as a reality."

- The shining rhythm of the spheres -

"It is as though we are on another planet, somewhere else in universal space, where in nameless peace bright mountains rest and the light speaks with a mute eloquence.

We go out into he bright land. In the valley the wind howls, over the plain the snow is driven like a glistening river, but calm and unmoved the mountains soar into the star-glittering heavens.

Bright veils detach themselves from the sky. As though stirred by the gentlest breath of wind they float in ever bright and broader waves across the whole heaven. We watch the shining rhythm of the spheres until the veils disappear, and come to ourselves, small beings struggling forward mute and heavy through the storm on the earth."

- Dissolving in moonlight -

"It is full moon. No central European can have any idea of what this means on the smooth frozen surface of the earth. It as though we were dissolving in moonlight, as though the moonlight were eating us up. It makes no difference when we go back into the hut under the snow after a moonlight trip. The light seems to follow us everywhere. One's entire counsciousness is penetrated by the brightness; it is as though we were being drawn into the moon itself.

... what I would like best of all is to stand all day on the shore, where in the water the rocking ice floes catch and break the light and throw it back to the moon."

- A red desert -

"I can scarcely believe my eyes. A radiant red dawn illuminates a land that is itself red. Red is the sea, red the rocks, red the beach, and the square driftwood hut is tinged with red.

(...) meantime Karl, who does not allow himself to be bewildered either by colours or by geological images, has been in the pink hut, making some glaring red cocoa. "I had to make the cocoa so thick," he says apologetically, "so that you would not see how red and sandy the water was that I had to make it with".

[ In the Woodjefjord there is a vulcanic area covered by red sandstone mud rich in iron ]

Perhaps the psychological dimension is missing, and entering deeper into human feelings and relations - there were three sleeping in the cabin, the couple and a younger hunter, a friend of her husband. But Christiane Ritter devoted herself totally to the emptiness of the irresistible surrounding world, and as her husband, she preferred the contemplative silence - this is the testimony that she left in her book.

A Woman in the Polar night
Christiane Ritter
Greystone Books, UApress Alaska