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Christoph Ransmayr: Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (The Terrors of Ice and Darkness)

The title tells us what this book is about – Arctic exploration. The book is narrated by an unnamed narrator who had known Josef Mazzini. Mazzini, born in 1948, was born in Trieste of an Austrian father and Italian mother. It was his father who chose his first name, hence Josef. Had his mother chosen the name, he would have been called Giuseppe Mazzini like the Italian patriot. This is presumably Ransmayr’s little joke and quite irrelevant to the story.

We know from the very beginning that Mazzini has died in the Arctic. This book tells two stories: Mazzini’s but also the story of other real explorations, primarily though not exclusively Arctic and, of the Arctic explorations, primarily the Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition, led by Carl Weyprecht and Julius von Payer.

The story of the Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition is, as the title tells us, fairly gruesome. As the expedition was successful and most of the members returned home safely, it was well documented and Ransmayr quotes from these documents, primarily the accounts of Carl Weyprecht, Julius von Payer and other members of the expedition, though he also elaborates, particularly in describing the terrors of the title. These include, of course, the extreme cold (the expedition overwinters and temperatures are very low indeed), disease, frostbite, polar bear attacks, fear and boredom. Their ship is trapped in ice and they cannot get out but drift along with the ice floe.

Mazzini had left Trieste and gone to Vienna where he met a rare book seller, Anna Koreth. With her help, he publishes stories but it is also in her bookshop that he learns about the Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition and becomes obsessed with it. He decides that he wants to follow in its footsteps and, though ill-prepared, sets out to do so. He has some advantages over his predecessors, not least of which is modern technology, which enables him to fly some of the way and take an icebreaker to Franz Josef Land. Again, through the influence of Anna Koreth, he manages to get a place on a Norwegian Arctic exploration vessel.

Meanwhile we follow, in considerably more detail than the story of Mazzini, the story of the Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition. Von Payer is determined to map the newly discovered land – Franz Josef Land – and his men suffer considerable hardship to do so. Ransmayr piles on the agony that they suffer.

Other Arctic expeditions are mentioned, with one in particular getting special treatment. This is the story of Umberto Nobile, an Italian aviator who was (most probably) the first to fly over the North Pole, with Amundsen. A second attempt, however, ended in disaster and while Nobile and most of his crew were eventually rescued, many of the rescuers, including Amundsen, died. As a result the Norwegian Arctic community are not well disposed towards Italians, which affects Mazzini.

While the story of Josef Mazzini is certainly interesting, not least because Mazzini tries, to a certain degree, to match the Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition, I must admit that I found the various stories of the historical expeditions more interesting. Once you read this book, any dreams you may have of going on an Arctic expedition will be well and truly shattered. It is very cold, very dangerous and very unpleasant.

Publishing history

First published 1984 by Brandstätter
First English translation 1991 Weidenfeld and Nicolson