White – a novel
Marie Darrieussecq’s White opens as Pete Tomson, a heating engineer, in a plane and Edmée Blanco, a telecommunications engineer, in an old converted tug, arrive at the South Pole to help construct a permanent European base at the heart of Antarctica. The time is the near future.
Edmée’s journey, especially, reads like the description of a birth, or perhaps a death, and reminds us of the close relationship between these two events:
The floor shoots away from Edmée’s feet, she gallops – the boards are trying to grab her – then she struggles up the stairs. Bang, bang, seize the handle, the metal cage of the corridor and the stink! The floor criss-crossed with puke. Brown paper bags hooked on to a railing, a Moldovan explains by putting his open mouth above one of them, BAARRF. Got you. A ghastly sludge as far as the toilet door, potatoes and chicken, don’t look. Floor up, floor down. In the bowl, muddy water and lumps swell and recede . . . The syphon compresses it all, pumps air from the starboard side, and the sea from the port side, gurgling and spray – Jesus!
The year at the pole consists of one day and one night and temperatures range between minus 40 and minus 80 degrees centigrade. It is a place which attracts people and ghosts who are drawn to nothingness. The story of The White Project and in particular the meeting and destiny of Peter and Edmée is narrated by the ghosts.
All the members of the project wrestle with the continuing traces of social situations they have tried to leave behind. They are beset with the phantoms of explorers who preceded them in time. Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton are ever near. As are the astronauts connected with the Moon landing and the scenes of destruction and desolation around the twin towers.
The novel explores shifting identities and personal transformations. Identity travels with us wherever we go; when we are exiled that exile is our identity. White is about isolation and love. The love scenes are written lyrically, inspired, according to the author, by the voice of Callas.
When asked why she wrote the novel, Marie Darrieussecq replied:
Is the Pole the center of the world? Or, on the contrary, its farthest point? Everything is geography in my books. Psychology and history are geographies. And writing is close to a zen exercise for me, a sense of “doing nothing” where the psychological me is evacuated. To write is to be absent from myself, to echo, to be porous to the world, posed there.
The book is inventive, poetic, sensuous and compelling and is translated from the French by Ian Monk and published in the UK by Faber.