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"It's never too late to become the man you might have been.",
This review is from: Afterlands (Paperback)Three memorable historical figures are at the centre of this admirable historical adventure story, set in the last decades of the nineteenth century: Roland Kruger, German second mate hired for the 1871-72 Polaris expedition, his superior and increasingly his nemesis, Lt. George Tyson, and Hannah (Tukulito) Ebierbing, the first professional translator of the Inuit (then called Esquimau) language. During a heavy winter storm part of the Polaris crew is adrift in the passage between Greenland and Baffin Island. Canadian novelist Steven Heighton takes the historical accounts, Tyson's published book on the astounding six-months survival in the Arctic as the starting point for this extraordinary novel.
Superbly framed by an insightful introduction to the primary characters, and an extensive concluding section consisting of the three "after-stories", Heighton re-imagines the endurance and survival of a motley crew of different nationalities and two Inuit families, nineteen in total, caught with few supplies on an ice floe of constantly decreasing size, and shifting directions. Not surprisingly, the desperate conditions of the group, confined to a small space and struggling under extreme circumstances deteriorate to infighting, violence and unreasonable and even dangerous behaviour. The situation is exacerbated by the growing personality clashes between Tyson and the German crew on the one hand and between Tyson and Kruger on the other. By stark contrast, Tukulito, who plays a special role in the hearts of both, Tyson and Kruger, and her husband Ebierbing exude calm, patience and diligence. With previous experience as guide, hunter, cook they are the overall survival experts without whom the crew would perish.
With his outstanding aptitude for character development and for creating believable scenarios, the author juxtaposes selected excerpts from Tyson's book account (tweaked to suit the story line) with his own version of what might have happened during the six months on the ice. Inserting in addition several of Tyson's original field notes, thereby illustrating discrepancies in fact and tone to the book version, Heighton leads the reader to question Tyson's honesty and even his sanity. In fact, he presents the reader with two alternative realities, one increasingly diverging from the other. By contrasting Tyson's notes and book excerpts with his own version, the author gives a voice to different players, in particular Kruger, the only German with a inquiring mind and without strong allegiances. His behaviour, though, is seen with growing suspicion by the other crewmembers, including his and Tukulito's subtly courteous interactions.
The central section - the survival in the Arctic - may appear somewhat drawn out and long. However, careful reading opens the reader's eyes not only to the extraordinary dangers of the venture and shifting behaviour patterns among the crew, but also to subtle personality changes in the central characters. Tyson's admission that "it is never too late to become the man you might have been" does not only apply to him. Kruger's search for the other person in him is an ongoing struggle.
In fact, Kruger emerges as the most interesting and appealing character. He can be seen as a kind of moral compass for human behaviour in extreme crisis situations. His inner conflicts - between obeying authority and becoming a "patriot only to the truth", between duty and emotion - weave like a leitmotiv through his life and through the novel. Kruger has no longer country to believe in; he is "his own country". Still, the need to belong to a group cannot be easily suppressed. Committed to be understood as "a pacifist objector", his resolve is nevertheless fundamentally challenged by circumstances.
In the novel's major "Afterlands" section that compellingly closes the frame around the Arctic events, Heighton follows each of his three central characters as they continue their lives. Each has to live through more periods of external or internal tests before inner peace can even be seen as a possibility. Where historical records existed the author weaves them into his novel, as he does for Tyson and Tukulito. In the case of Kruger, where nothing much was known about his life, except that he left for the south, Heighton creates a most captivating and believable "after-story". Kruger, deeply disillusioned, ends up in the Sierra Madre region of Mexico, hoping for peace and a quiet life. Nobody, however, can easily jump out of his skin. Neither can Kruger escape more conflict, misunderstanding and abuse. At this stage, Heighton introduces new characters into the novel to complement Kruger's portrait. Among these, he introduces Kruger's new nemesis: the mysterious, highly intelligent and multilingual "Padre". Despite his high ideals, fed by French philosophers and admiring the German example, the Padre is, in effect, not a church representative, but a colonel and "an army onto himself". His function is to suppress the indigenous peoples in the region, to "pacify" the region and eliminate all who resist. Kruger's encounters with the Padre are memorable. He is forced to engage with his counterpart's game of power, control and his interpretation of progress. It forces Kruger to question his long-held belief of himself as a person, committed "to do no harm". How will he respond?
Heighton's exquisitely written novel is so very rich in narrative, characters and philosophical and moral questions raised that a review can only touch on selected essential points. In his most recent novel, Every Lost Country, the author further expands on some of these fundamental issues, yet set in a contemporary context. While at one level a captivating adventure story, Heighton's novel is also an invitation to the reader to reflect on the deeper questions that are so well woven into the story. [Friederike Knabe]