"It is one long day: with a dawn; early light... the sun is coming up ... executing its circle ... dipping again slightly... rising a little higher ... during a good fifty human days, pink and orange." After that it stays for some hundred days until it slowly reverses the circles and dips into a dark period. This is Antarctica and the backdrop to Darrieussecq's extraordinary novel. Lyrical in its descriptions of the icy landscape, intriguing in its portrayal of the main characters, the author engages the reader, slowly but surely, in an exploration of human nature when placed into harsh environments.
The White Project - set sometime in the future - intends to establish a permanent European base in the centre of Antarctica, 15 kilometres from the South Pole. In preparation of the base, international teams of researchers, technicians, building crews spend summers there advancing the project. The story centres around Edmée and Peter - a radio technician and a heating engineer. Both had failed to join the first manned Mars Mission in progress and joined the White Project instead. Alternating in the description between the two characters' journey to the station - one by air and one by sea - the reader knows more about them than they seem to find out about each other.
Expectations in the reader are heightened when the two protagonists finally reach the research camp. Peter is the most aloof of the team members, usually keeping to himself, his routine only interrupted by the generator's frequent alarm calls. Edmée, as the station's link to the outside world is more in tune with everybody, but wonders about Peter's reserve; he doesn't ask for airtime to call home. The plot is relatively simple, circling around the two protagonists with other characters' interactions acting as a frame to the central narrative. While aware of their interdependence for survival in this isolated place, all residents appear to isolate themselves and ignore safety rules.
Darrieussecq's primary focus lies in the deep and changing impact the barren landscape has on the station's inhabitants. She evokes the hauntingly beautiful atmosphere brilliantly: white on white, horizon and sky merge; a whitish sun beaming down relentlessly. The line between reality and fantasy blurs; a dream-like state of mind can lead to uncontrolled and even dangerous action. The author introduces another voice, or voices, that emphasizes the surreal dimension of the landscape. The "We", the ghosts of past explorers, perished in the ice, and other spirits hover around the station and intermittently zoom in on the two protagonists; they have their own ideas about the events between them and how they should unfold...Will they hear the voices?
A short, beautifully written book by one of France's most innovative authors of today. It requires slow reading so that every sentence can be savoured, hints absorbed and pictures formed of the landscape and the people who explore it. [Friederike Knabe]