Beyond Sleep by WF Hermans
As plant cover diminishes and forests peter out the further north you go, buildings become lower and settlements more scattered. Is this a general rule? Perhaps. Perhaps not. What business is it of mine?
I must wait until tomorrow to continue my journey, and have nothing better to do than swell on such truths.
Here in Tromso you hardly notice when it’s evening. At this time of year the light never fades completely. This is the empire on which the sun never sets. Hold on, I think to myself, that’s a sentence I can use when I write my mother a postcard.
I walk down a street with pale blue wooden houses. It’s broad daylight, it’s not a public holiday, yet no-one’s at work because it’s half past ten in the evening.
People are out and about, roaming the streets, no-one seems ready for bed. Youths just like the youths in a Dutch backwater grope the same sort of girls, who comb their hair as they walk. What is different here is that their ice creams come in big cones, much bigger than the ones at home. There are very few cars, if any. A tranquil dream-town, where the sound of footsteps prevails!
There is a souvenir shop with reindeer hides, traditional Lapp costumes, reindeer antlers, doilies, boat-shaper sleds, postcards of Technicolor Lapp families, bear-skins. A stuffed polar bear stands guard by the door.
Everyone strokes its fur in passing, me too.
A father hoists his young son onto the bear and aims his camera.
The ironmonger is shut. Mustn’t forget where it is. I’ll come back in the morning for that measuring tape. It’s easy to locate – the shop is on a square that slopes down to the water.
In the middle of the square is a bronze statue on a rectangular base, a bluish figure in arctic clothing.
I’m looking at the statue from behind. Who is it? I walk up to it and read the name on the plinth:
Facing the fjord, the conqueror of the South Pole looks over the water to the black mountains beyond, their peaks laced with white snow even at this time of year.
He stands with his feet wide apart, as though permanently braced against the storm. Bare-headed, though. His hood rests in ample folds around his neck. His anorak is as long as a nightshirt and the thick tubular trouser legs overlap the tops of his boots.
His forehead is high, the hair on his bony scalp cropped short. His moustache is bushy and dignified, and it is hard to visualise it encrusted with icicles, which would make the explorer look far less serene. Maybe not so hard, after all.
The stories about explorers I read as a boy come floating back to me in gory details. Amundsen surviving by eating his own dogs. The dogs in turn, eating each other. Shackleton eating ponies. He used ponies instead of dogs, which caused insurmountable food problems; the more ponies he took with him, the more insurmountable.
And then there was Scott.
Scott. Battling to reach the South Pole in his frozen thermal underwear, his toes frostbitten, but his heart pounding in his throat at the idea of treading on ground that had never been trodden by man . . Ground? Snow then. And treading on snow heretofore untrodden by man is something anyone with a back garden can do in winter.
What else was new?
A gaze cast skywards to a zenith never before observed by man? What sight would meet those eyes? Not stars, because in January it never gets dark in Antarctica.
So what did Scott get to see at the South Pole? The Norwegian flag flying from a ski pole planted in the snow. Note attached: Greetings from Amundsen and good luck to you, sir.
So he turned back. His companions died one by one. Scott himself slowly froze to death in his tent, in his thermal underwear which hadn’t been dry for months. Unlike Amundsen, he didn’t have jerkins made of turned animal skins. Until the very end he continued to write up his diary. It was found afterwards and published in a special issue of The Earth and Its Peoples, which I read when I was fourteen.
‘For God’s sake look after our people.’
Scott’s words, written at death’s door. I wonder if it ever entered his mind that they might one day be published in a magazine. I expect it did. Maybe not, though, maybe he always wrote in that vein. Most people don’t write down what they’re really thinking. Not: my half-frozen thermal long johns stink to high heaven. Or: at fifty degrees below zero urine freezes into reeds of yellow glass in the snow.
That is not the way they write. They keep the flag flying, even if they’re not the first to plant it at the South Pole.
Although well received in Germany, Scandinavia and his native Netherlands the work of WF Hermans has taken a long time to gain any recognition at all in the English-speaking world. This is strange when you consider his wry humour and easy though elegant way with words.
Beyond Sleep is a deadpan comedy set in the north of Norway in the 1960s. It details the adventure of a young man, Albert Issendorf, who joins a geological expedition to the far north in search of meteorite craters. Unfortunately, Albert is twinned with Arne, a masochist equipped with threadbare equipment, including a leaky tent, and a seemingly endless hoard of blood-crazy mosquitoes. As if hunger, dampness, paranoia, insomnia and delirium weren’t enough.
People are born to annoy other people, seems to be a view steadfastly held by this writer, though his pessimism is always tempered by humour. This is reminiscent of authors like Kurt Vonnegut, and were this book the only evidence, that comparison would stand. Herman’s other works, however, allow him a place closer to the very pinnacle of twentieth century literature.
I have the feeling that this tragicomedy will stay with me for a long time, especially the quixotic Albert, who is characterized magnificently.