Marie Darrieussecq: White (White)
Project White is the name of an Antarctic scientific research project. A group of twenty-four people live for a while in the Antarctic carrying out unspecified scientific research. Only the astrophysicist Ukla seems to have a specific role. Indeed, one of the two protagonists comments that the others do not seem to do much. Our two heroes are Edmée Blanco and Peter Tomson, radio engineer and heating engineer, respectively. Both have mixed pasts and a life where they have moved away from their roots. Edmée is a French woman who has married Samuel, an American. They have arrived in Houston, where Samuel works for NASA, via Canada. We gradually learn that she has had a tragedy in her life, which, initially, we know only as the Higgins Affair. Peter’s background is less clear. He is originally from some unspecified developing country. His parents moved to Iceland, where he was fostered by an Icelandic couple. When he was twelve, he was reunited with his parents and they took the name Tomson, as it sounded very Icelandic. He has always felt different in Iceland, not least because he was a dark-skinned boy amongst a lot of blond people. While this may be one reason for coming on the expedition, he finds, to his surprise, that he misses Iceland.
We follow the whole expedition from the point of view of Peter and Edmée and this makes us see them as people apart. The others are generally mentioned but there seems to be little interaction between Peter, Edmée and the others so that, with only one or two exceptions, they remain names and shadows. Edmée has given them nicknames, such as Queen Mum (she uses the English in the French text; indeed, the French text is riddled with anglicisms) or the Finn (who is not Finnish but Estonian). There is an exception to this lack of interaction and that is the ghosts of the past. They, in many ways, seem more real to Esmée than her colleagues. Shackleton, Amundsen and, especially, Scott all feature in her thoughts. Ghostly characters have featured before in her work, particularly Naissance des fantômes (My Phantom Husband).
Darrieussecq has obviously selected the location of the Antarctic to show bleakness and isolation. Rien ici ne les accueille. Rien ici ne veut d’eux. La glace tourbillonne, le blanc gagne [Nothing here welcomes them. Nothing here wants them. The ice swirls, the white wins.] (Note that the translations are my literal translation and not taken from the English text). This is what Peter and Edmée want. (Il faut croire qu’Edmée a réussi à faire le vide. …Qu’elle a trouvé ce qu’elle est venue chercher, peut-être : une vacuité de bout du monde. [We must believe that Edmée has managed to empty her mind…. That she has found what she was looking for, perhaps; an emptiness at the end of the world.] Peter was also looking for solitude but he is not sure if he had found it, not least, because when he wants to make the fifteen kilometre journey to the South Pole, he realises that he cannot do so alone but has to go with someone, for safely reasons. The coldness and solitude are contrasted with Mars, particularly as, while they are there, a mission to Mars ends in disaster.
It is not just the isolation of the Antarctic (and Mars) that is key but isolation from one another. I have already mentioned that their past lives seem to have an element of isolation. While Esmée is seemingly happily married to Samuel, she does mention times where she was at home, not working, and she felt lonely. As radio engineer, she gets priority in making phone calls (there is a short window every day) but conversations with her husband seem to be limited, not least because he is in a cubicle at work and tries to keep the conversation quiet. Peter does not make any phone calls at all (Esmée is well aware of this) though he does consider doing so towards the end. While they do seem somewhat distant from the others – Peter mending the boiler while the others ignore him – they do grow closer together. Ce qu’il soupçonne d’elle c’est qu’elle est comme lui : venue ici pour ne rien faire. Nourrie logée, pas de questions à se poser. La distance énorme [What he suspects is that she is like him: here to do nothing. Fed, lodged, no questions to ask. The enormous distance.] Gradually the inevitable happens and they start a relationship. Peter, perhaps, has the key job. Without the boiler they are in trouble and he has to respond to any alarm calls. There have been so many potential failures, which he has just managed to repair, that it seems inevitable that there will be a serious one.
This is another fine book from Darrieussecq – the bleakness, isolation and solitude perfectly described and illustrated, with the ideal setting for doing it. But we see enough of Peter and Esmée’s early life to know that you do not need Antarctica or Mars to feel isolated and lonely. It can be bleak anywhere.
First published in French in 2003 by P.O.L
First published in English in 2005 by Faber & Faber/New Press
Translated by an Monk