w ^hile the launch of certain books was postponed because of lockdown, Julian Sancton and his publishers might have been tempted to go in the opposite direction: bringing forward the release of Madhouse at the End of the Earth before Covid restrictions were eased on the grounds that it was the ultimate lockdown read. Or maybe now 是 the perfect time to publish it as, venturing gingerly out again, we find ourselves succumbing to lockdown nostalgia.
For an account of a Belgian expedition to Antarctica it opens, unexpectedly, in Leavenworth, Kansas, where an un-named doctor is serving a prison sentence for fraud. 在 1926 he receives a visitor, “one of the greatest explorers the world had ever known”, and they recall events from the deep polar night, almost three decades earlier, when they had formed a life-determining friendship.
The expedition had been led by Adrien de Gerlache de Gomery with the intention either of finding the magnetic south pole or, failing that, just creeping as far south as possible. Belgium was then fully engaged in what Conrad would call the “vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration” in the tropics of the Congo. The country’s lack of any tradition of polar exploration lent an allure to De Gerlache’s undertaking, however it also made it difficult for him to raise funds or find personnel. He ended up recruiting a ramshackle, multinational team of scientists and sailors: essentially anyone who was ambitious, up for adventure or lacked more tempting offers.
So a team defined by a lack of national unity or shared purpose sets off in the doughty Belgica and it’s not long before things start going wrong. A booze-fuelled mutiny is narrowly averted and the ship runs aground before they have even put the tip of South America behind them. Displaying the calm decision-making of a leader under pressure, De Gerlache runs through his options – and bursts into tears. Not for the last time, 这 Belgica proves resilient beyond expectations and they get clear, moving on to greater, undefined dangers. A crew member is swept overboard in a storm. They head into a world of alien and constantly changing beauty in which the fantastically real is all the time shifting into the unreality of a mirage: De Gerlache is convinced that he can see “a city by the sea”, complete with lighthouse.
As the journey gets stranger the leader’s log for this period becomes “a chronicle of slow but inexorable constriction”. The days shorten and soon turn into endless night. And then they are stuck, with no choice but to wait for the sun to return and the ice to free the Belgica from its grip. Or to tighten it, and shatter their fragile refuge. They get a glimpse of this when a crevasse opens and swallows a hut used for astronomical observations. As the crew look on the crevasse begins “to clamp back together before their eyes, crushing the hut between its jaws”. Meanwhile the grim ordeal of surviving in a place utterly hostile to human life takes its toll. They have plenty of canned food and alcohol and at first everyone keeps busy, especially the pair to whom we were introduced at Leavenworth, the American doctor Frederick Cook and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Cook had spent time among the Inuit in the Arctic and realised the importance of learning from them, of adapting their skills. He noticed that, in spite of having no citrus fruit, they did not suffer from the scurvy that afflicted his team here, at the other end of the world. His solution is a diet of raw penguin and seal meat. Those who adapt to this unpalatable necessity rally; those who don’t sink towards death. At one point Cook and Amundsen, marooned and starving on the ice, are seen “sucking warm blood” from a slaughtered seal. “Delicious,” is the verdict of Amundsen, who is no less admiring of the conical wind-resistant tent conceived by Cook. Amundsen takes note of every detail, amassing the skills and knowledge that will enable him to beat Captain Robert Scott (who embodied a heroic English reluctance to learn) to the south pole in 1911.
De Gerlache, a leader of flickering competence, is prone to lyricism. The splendour of the icescape is such that even the austerely pragmatic Amundsen yields occasionally to a sense of the sublime; more typically, having managed 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 negotiates a path through what must have been a submerged mass of research documents. Except for odd moments –when the explorers pass a night in an igloo “shooting the breeze” we are suddenly wrenched into a linguistically inappropriate future – he coaxes his material into a watertight narrative. One member of the crew goes completely mad, the rest are exhausted, enervated, listless, forced to reassert themselves against their captivity when the sun reappears and the slow thaw brings hope and a new set of dangers. We’ll leave them there, two-thirds of the way through this utterly enthralling book. Some of them, we know, will survive – and we also know that by 1926 Cook will be locked up in Kansas. How on earth, we wonder, does he wind up there?