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Into white emptiness

APARNA KARTHIKEYAN
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True North: Travels in Arctic Europe By Gavin Francis

H ave you ever wondered what life would be like in the countries that are ‘off the top of most of our maps’ — those vague, white smudges, hugging the North Pole — where the landscape is all ‘bare mountains and the sea-ice’, home to seals, polar-bears, and the hardiest of men? Gavin Francis — in case you have — has the answers in ‘True North’, and takes you on a magical journey to places where ‘enormity and emptiness’ impressed as much as beauty, where ‘the sea boiled amongst the caves and columns of basalt’ and humpback whales as ‘big as an island’ rolled their ‘bulk through the water’. Kick-starting his voyage from Shetland islands (‘broken stacks and needles of rock stretched in a shattered mosaic’), hopping into the Faroes (where whales are still traditionally, defiantly slaughtered for their meat), onto Iceland (whose ‘interior is scarred and wounded, as if the skin of the earth has been torn’), he finally flits by Greenland, Svalbard, and, phew, the Scandinavian countries. Along the way, he meets fiercely proud islanders, who’re happy to warn him against polar bears (‘a big one will stand about 6 feet tall at the shoulders and run at forty miles an hour, it is like trying to shoot a train’) and others whose lives are, sadly, dominated by ‘guns, trucks, pornography and alcohol’ that he worries ‘if this then was the reality of Arctic life’.

It works because

Francis journeys across seas and time, tracing the history of Arctic explorations from when ‘the earth was flat and the sun was a blazing chariot in the sky’. With a narrative that cleverly seesaws between the past and the present - mythology and methane both get their due - he weaves in grisly tales from ‘the most brutal sagas in a literature that is renowned for its brutality’ and you understand why some of the world’s leading crime-writers (Larsson anyone?) hail from the region! Francis, moreover, steers clear of the heavily romanticised sledge-ride into a ghostly-white wilderness sort of a thing; instead, his book bristles with history (so much history that, sometimes, the eyes do tend to glaze a bit), even as he worries about ‘what will happen to the Ice Bear when there is no ice left?’ The countries he visits might not be on everybody’s to-do list; but if you care to journey to lands where, he says, the light is so pure and white, the sea a laminated blue and the sun bleeds crimson and lilac into the sky and the sea, well, read the book….

And this one stays with you

‘In the northern sky I thought I could make out the softest hint of the aurora borealis, washing a gentle green glow into the sky. The Inuit believe that you can hear the Aurora, and lying there in the darkness I could not hear where its sound might have ended and that of the birds began.’

APARNA KARTHIKEYAN

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