WWhile the release of certain books was postponed due to the closure, Julian Sancton and his publishers might have been tempted to go in the opposite direction: to advance the release of Madhouse at the end of land before Covid restrictions were relaxed on the grounds that it was the last lock reading. Or maybe now it is the perfect moment to publish it since, venturing cautiously again, we find ourselves succumbing to the nostalgia of the confinement.
For an account of a Belgian expedition to Antarctica, it opens, unexpectedly, in Leavenworth, Kansas, where an unidentified doctor is serving a prison sentence for fraud. In 1926 he received a visitor, “one of the greatest explorers the world has ever known,” and they recall events from the deep polar night, almost three decades earlier, when they had formed a friendship that was decisive for their lives.
The expedition had been led by Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery with the intention of finding the magnetic south pole or, failing that, advancing as far south as possible. Belgium was then fully involved in what Conrad would call the “vilest fight for loot that has ever disfigured the history of human consciousness and geographical exploration” in the tropics of the Congo. The country’s lack of polar exploration tradition made De Gerlache’s company attractive, but it also made it difficult for him to raise funds or find staff. He ended up recruiting a ramshackle multinational team of scientists and sailors: essentially anyone who is ambitious, in the mood for adventure, or without more tempting offers.
Then a team defined by a lack of national unity or a shared purpose is set in motion in the brave Belgium And it’s not long before things start to go wrong. A riot fueled by alcohol is narrowly avoided and the ship runs aground before they have left the tip of South America behind. Showing the calm decision-making of a leader under pressure, De Gerlache reviews his options and breaks down in tears. Not for the last time, Belgium proves to be resilient beyond expectations and clears up, moving toward greater and undefined dangers. A crew member is swept overboard in a storm. They enter a world of alien and ever-changing beauty in which the fantastically real always becomes the unreality of a mirage: De Gerlache is convinced that he can see “a city by the sea”, complete with a lighthouse .
As the journey grows stranger, the leader’s record for this period becomes “a chronicle of slow but inexorable constriction.” The days grow shorter and soon turn into an endless night. And then they get stuck, with no choice but to wait for the sun and ice to return to release the Belgium of his grip. Or to squeeze it and shatter its fragile shelter. They can get a glimpse of this when a rift opens and a hut used for astronomical observations is swallowed. As the crew gazes into the crevasse, it begins to “clench again before their eyes, crushing the hut between their jaws.” Meanwhile, the ordeal of surviving in a place absolutely hostile to human life takes its toll. They have a lot of canned food and alcohol and everyone keeps busy at first, especially the couple we were introduced to in Leavenworth, American doctor Frederick Cook and Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Cook had spent time among the Inuit in the Arctic and realized the importance of learning from them, of adapting their skills. He noted that, despite not having citrus, they did not suffer from the scurvy that plagued his team here, on the other side of the world. His solution is a diet of raw penguin and seal meat. Those who adapt to this unpleasant need join in; those who do not sink into death. At one point, Cook and Amundsen are seen, stranded and starving on the ice, “sucking warm blood” from a euthanized seal. “Delicious” is the verdict of Amundsen, who cannot stop admiring the conical wind-resistant tent conceived by Cook. Amundsen takes note of every detail, accumulating the skills and knowledge that will allow him to defeat Captain Robert Scott (who embodied a heroic reluctance to learn English) at the South Pole in 1911.
De Gerlache, a hesitant competition leader, is prone to lyricism. The splendor of the frozen landscape is such that even the austerely pragmatic Amundsen occasionally yields to a sense of the sublime; more typically, having achieved a near-death escape, he writes, “I will not allow my plan to spend the winter on an iceberg to be influenced by this.”
Sancton’s own prose serves the reader well as he makes his way through what must have been a submerged mass of research papers. Except for odd moments – when explorers spend the night in an igloo “shooting the breeze,” we are suddenly drawn into a linguistically inappropriate future – he convinces his material to become a hermetic narrative. One member of the crew goes completely mad, the rest are exhausted, enervated, listless, forced to reaffirm themselves to their captivity when the sun reappears and the slow thaw brings hope and a new series of dangers. We’ll leave you there, two-thirds of the way through this absolutely fascinating book. Some of them, we know, will survive, and we also know that by 1926 Cook will be locked up in Kansas. How the heck, we wonder, does it end there?
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism