First it was the tabular icebergs, which appeared floating in the local pool. Narwhals got in through a crack in the tiles at the bottom. In the chlorinated water, I squeezed a bit of white ice in my hand, making a game of sinking it and letting it resurface. A dream. Later, at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, I saw icecaps in the blue tutus of Degas’s ballerinas.
I began to study. I learned that “arctic” comes from the Greek word árktikos, “near the bear,” and “Antarctic,” from antárktikos, “the place with no bears,” but rather penguins. I learned that compasses are useless at the poles, rotational axes with shifting magnetic fields; north, the quintessential cardinal point, is actually not even an entirely stationary point of reference. At the poles even the ground moves. The early-twentieth-century polar explorers were mystics in search of the Holy Grail. Joseph Conrad said that their aims were as pure as the air at the high latitudes they surveyed. But those explorers were more like regular folks than we think—setting aside the fact that they risked their lives for a mission— because, as their journals show, they were also envious, and made mistakes, and told lies. Many explorers died trying to get to regions others erroneously claimed to have reached. The controversy over who discovered the North Pole is a fascinating chapter in polar history; more than just improbable feats taking place at a vague location, it is the story of one man’s word against another’s.
I am also searching for something in my white, unheated iceberg studio. An imaginary point that is completely unknown—and therefore absolutely magnetic. Sometimes I lose my way; I’m-cold-it’s-late-still-waiting-on-a-paycheck.
a) I return home.
b) I return to the anchorage point, the word pols (poles) and its range of literal meanings in Catalan:
pols, el, n. masc: the steadiness of hand needed to carry out certain acts, such as writing or holding a weapon.
And then, when you swap the masculine article for the feminine one, you arrive at more meanings of the word, which veer off in an unlikely direction yet could possibly link to my research:
pols, la, n. fem: fine, dry powder consisting of tiny particles of earth or waste matter lying on the ground or on surfaces or carried in the air. Also, a type of snow: powder snow.
In the first few decades of the nineteenth century, Captain John Cleves Symmes defended the theory that the Earth had two holes—one at either end—that went right through it. Like matryoshka dolls, he claimed, the Earth housed the entrance to seven worlds that were nestled inside each other. Enough sunlight came in through the holes to sustain some sort of life, something that the captain aspired to demonstrate with complicated calculations and diagrams. If man could reach the pole, he would have an entire inner universe within reach.
This theory was a very fertile one for literature; from Symzonia, a novel by Symmes that recreates an underground world, to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe. Those works inspired An Antarctic Mystery and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. Many people believed that seas of ice at the poles led to Symmes’s inner worlds, until the poles were finally conquered.
“I learned that compasses are useless at the poles, rotational axes with shifting magnetic fields; north, the quintessential cardinal point, is actually not even an entirely stationary point of reference. At the poles even the ground moves.”
It was Sir John Barrow, in the nineteenth century, who awakened interest in the Arctic when he went in search of Sir John Franklin and the members of his expedition, who had disappeared trying to find the Northwest Passage. Following his example, the more ambitious nations embarked on various expeditions to conquer the two most extreme points of the Earth, hidden behind the mystique of storms and ice.
According to polar historian Fergus Fleming, the Arctic furor reached such heights that it was the subject of jokes in Europe and the United States. Was there a pole at the Pole? Was it made of wood? Did it have stripes like a barber’s pole? The Inuit called it the “Great Nail.”
The fact that the conquest of the North Pole entailed a group of individuals confronting the elements was incomprehensible to many. The strategic, economic, and scientific justifications were vague. Great Britain was hesitant, while other world powers had already decided that reaching the poles was a question of national glory.
If only the moral advantage derived from these expeditions be considered, I believe that it would suffice to compensate for the sacrifices they demand. As men who surmount difficulties in their daily struggles feel themselves strengthened for encounters with yet greater difficulties, so should also a nation feel itself encouraged and stimulated by the success won by its sons to persevere in striving for greatness and prosperity.
These words were written by the Italian aristocrat Luigi Amedeo Giuseppe Maria Ferdinando Francesco di Savoia-Aosta, Duke of the Abruzzi, leader of the first Italian expedition to the North Pole.
Or the Hollow Narrator Theory
As in Symmes’s theory, the narrative voice of this novel takes the form of seven different figures. The first one heads toward the city center dressed in black. She is so young that her features are fuzzy:
If you actually walk on a moving walkway, you go twice as fast. Some hundred meters ahead of myself, I proceed along the walkway, turn the corner without rotating my body and arrive at the store. I leave my bag in the closet and stand behind the counter. My hologram always arrives punctually. It’s a shame the supervisor doesn’t notice.
One right turn and a hundred meters further back, my physical self rushes to make it in on time. Once there, after straightening the piles of pullovers and reorganizing the items on hangers, when there are no customers I amuse myself by watching, through the store window, seconds in the lives of people passing on the street. Inside, my gaze stops on each of the images that fill the shelves. The first photograph is a portrait, on foam board backing, of a couple in front of a horse. I imagine their real lives before and after the photograph. The man smiles with a triumphant air beside his girlfriend.
Their pastel-colored polo shirts are prominent in the scene. She doesn’t need money. She’ll marry an important pharmaceutical executive, a friend of the family. Ten years later she has four children, she’s gained weight and her husband is cheating on her with a younger woman. She decides to go back to school, etc. The game requires avoiding clichés. Sometimes I’m better at it than other times. The brown-haired guy with classical features is from a Belgian suburb, he was discovered by an agent at twenty-one, working behind the bar at a nightclub; now he earns much more than he’d ever dreamed of. Sometimes he is asked to escort ladies or gentlemen to parties. He’ll be raped by a casting director. Eventually he’ll be adopted by a businessman twenty years his senior, who unexpectedly makes him happy. I continue playing the game of reverse-characters, from photo to photo, until my gaze lands on the cotton Oxford shirts in shades of blue. The customers who buy them aren’t like my father. My parents don’t come into the store. I wouldn’t either, I’d feel self-conscious. I started working for the company one year wrapping Christmas gifts in its discount store and a couple of months later I was transferred to the flagship store. The job offers more opportunity to let the mind wander than the restaurant business, where I had a boss who yelled at me when there were a lot of customers and I didn’t run my tail off bringing out the dishes. To the left of the counter is the women’s clothing, more colorful and varied in shape and texture. The more original pieces, the ones I would buy if I could afford them, rarely sell. Here people want to be cookie-cutter members of the happy club, filled with folks who go sailing or play golf; “If you want to be one of us, you must buy us,” the polo players sewn onto the shirts whisper in chorus. The owner ignores my scant enthusiasm for sales because of my skill at dressing mannequins. After the four-hour morning shift and the four-hour afternoon shift, when I get home I will wait for everyone to have their dinner so I can use the kitchen table (the one in my room is too small, in the dining room the TV’s always on). After wiping it down, I lay out my art-theory books. Zeitgeist, Weltanschauung, words with tiny footnotes. After a little while my eyelids grow heavy.
“She worked like a castaway on an iceberg island, without knowing where she was headed or how much longer she would be able to hold out.”
Opening up that first figurine by its narrow waist, the next one appears. Its features, ten years later, are now well-defined:
I am teaching behind glass walls. Through them influential parents, foreign teachers, and businessmen worried about the future of their family businesses, observe me, all of them paying close attention to the quality of service in a privileged, hothouse environment. This sort of atmosphere is prevalent uptown where, from kindergarten age, languages and future technologies are spoon-fed at breakfast. In this setting, egos—endowed with applause and medals for even the slightest achievement and from the earliest age—generally grow up with a very well developed sense of personal pride concerning themselves, even though not always toward others. Because—I thought—if we changed the rules of this game and we all were dealt the same cards, or if at least there were rules that evened out the unequal distribution, if the playing field were neutral; if affection, the most highly valued asset in expensive schools (where all the rest is paid for with money) and all the other resources were available to everyone, perhaps then those who can’t play now would play better—she taught in various schools in less privileged areas, before finding a steady position at that school. She had seen a lot of talent wasted because it hadn’t found the appropriate conditions, talent which that country seemed to only recognize early in the case of soccer players. Teaching according to new methods based on teamwork and projects, she saw how creative students were sometimes hampered by group negotiations monopolized by more dominant or extroverted students. Teamwork is misunderstood—I concluded after a time—each student should be evaluated both for their ability to collaborate and for their individual contribution, which is made possible by the living dead who comprise the Canon; prior knowledge and the individual’s contribution directed at the Contemporaries in a never-ending conversation: the reader collaborates; the group is made up of the reader, the author and author’s influences that allowed him or her to create the work. What can emerge from that dialogue is also for others, perhaps not now, but maybe in the future it could take the shape of an artwork, or the ability to communicate in writing, or the development of a critical sensibility toward your surroundings, an ability that fuels the oft-trumpeted “innovation.”
I thought about all that, kept quiet and did my job the best I could in a competitive work environment because deep down, after some twisting to release it, figurine number three was still me:
Employee X who, as the business owner had accurately sensed, wouldn’t make problems when she was let go. Because “you must have done something wrong if you’re being punished,” as Mother would say; and because “you aren’t a team player,” as Father would say in English, who being unemployed was dating the third English teacher . . . The Player, the Team, and the Punishment, the rules of this pre-established game . . . The game in which the best card she had been dealt was one she herself had drawn and cut out. It would be best for her to focus on something she could put her faith in, even if that led her to an unknown place, while holding down a part-time job. She felt safer there than she had working for the editor, who expected her to go out to dinner with him after the commercial fairs, dinners that went on long and after which they had to head back to the hotel together. All that for eight hundred euros a month. So, she kept her job and, in her downtime, she poured a good deal of her energy into that place where Beauty, Truth, Play and Inventiveness should converge . . . Feeding this Project didn’t help her pay the bills, which her family reproached her for, and later she would give in and start a full-time gig. While working full-time, the Project still called to her unceasingly; she would dedicate her nights, weekends, summers to it. Feeding it with the little time she had left meant renouncing other things in a feedback loop: in part she worked on the Project because she felt lonely, she felt lonely because she often shut herself in to work on the Project. It was the only complex way she had of expressing herself. She worked like a castaway on an iceberg island, without knowing where she was headed or how much longer she would be able to hold out. She had lost much of the determination needed to aspire to that uncomfortable word, somewhat ridiculous due to its extraordinarily wide range of meanings, from intellectual to starlet, meanings that often imply a life of partying and posturing, a life of improbable peaks and probable shipwrecks.
“The same words, said over and over, lose their meaning. Reality dissolves. I can’t explain what has happened. I have gaps in my memory.”
Shipwrecks where nobody, now that I’m an adult, is waiting to toss me a life vest.
The fourth figurine travels to the capital for her master’s, falls in love with a charismatic professor and, thanks to the sophistry of the disenchanted Marxist who, feeding this all-too curious figurine’s eagerness, manages to seduce her with the full consent of the adult she has now become, in a cyclical story like the Nietzschean eternal return that he himself teaches her. She falls deeply in love with the melancholic professor—or with his role, she’ll never be entirely sure—as he teaches her first the theory and then the practice of the world; after some erectile problems, he abruptly says goodbye. He’s suddenly forgotten the feminist rhetoric, and the eloquence and tact he employed to seduce her and others.
When you take hold of a drowning person’s hand you run the risk of being pulled down beneath the waves; the survival instinct’s movement is violent. Once under the water, with the cold, the electricity that lights up and connects the big, bright city that is the brain of a twenty-three-year-old begins to dim; the ideas that flowed, multiplying and interconnecting, freeze up. The refraction of that general blackout provokes a new opacity in the eyes, which had shone brightly up until then. Facial features grow heavy. Six times a day I repeat the same speech in front of different tourists. The same words, said over and over, lose their meaning. Reality dissolves. I can’t explain what has happened. I have gaps in my memory. The water surrounding me slowly makes its way inside. I start to swell. Where did the darkness that drew me to him come from? Is it a familiar darkness? I must have done something bad, otherwise this wouldn’t be happening to me.
The end of this sad, lonely period—the early twenties can be the loneliest time of your life—was when late-blooming acne and nearsightedness bad enough for glasses unscrewed to reveal a figurine marked by thicker outlines.
The fifth figurine believes that being invisible is the greatest power, not always getting what you want. Five extra kilos and short hair ward off complications; all that will save her problems during the four years she focuses on studying the art of telling lies in order to tell the truth. The poor girl whose story is always told by others, who liked to read Bolaño, Franzen and Zweig, who admired Duras, Némirovsky and Yourcenar, learns that an inexpressible story can kill the person who lived through it. Because those who cannot tell their own stories, or those who are silenced, are victims. This new voice will speak with authority, with full knowledge of what has been coming at her from all sides. Because really she’d been stupid, it was stupid not to have taken advantage of what she had, for not realizing earlier that this world is brutal, that evil exists in people out of weakness and the thirst for power. Along with manipulation and gossip—the weapons of the weak—she could have used the few advantages of her gender, resources she had been taught to believe were shameful and superficial. She’d been raised by a strict mother as if evil could only emerge from within her. So she had painstakingly focused on the deep cleansing of her soul, she had worked hard to become as naïve and stupid as her brother, whom you could stop on the street and effortlessly relieve of the contents of his wallet; there’s nothing like being dumb to allow you to observe others more clearly. That was how she tested out their principles, principles that are easy to forget when interacting with people like us, the simple, the wet behind the ears.
And then, in that calm period without any upsets, the once again narrow waist of the sixth figurine emerged:
A continuity assistant on a national film. She carried a hidden camera. And the actors couldn’t pose at their best angle, the one they offered up to the Director: that new panoramic shot revealed the lifts in the shoes of the short hero, the monster’s zipper, and the gorgeous actress rewriting her script instead of being rescued. The only interest she might have had in filming that reverse angle wasn’t about settling scores with anyone, nor fame—these days only money can save you and art offers little of that—but because she knew that the “off-camera” perspective fascinated many people, who feared the monster, admired the hero and waited for a rescue that never came. She thought that it was precisely when things get uncomfortable or can’t be shown that something interesting comes to light. That is the point of no return, the point that must be reached, the point you reach after crossing the border of what has already been said, what has already been seen. It’s cold out there.
Persevering and forging ahead to the blind spot completely surrounded by whiteness, the point from which you can see nothing and you don’t know where to go, from that moment on, it is important to take measures, demarcate, and, even if just fumbling around in the dark, to correctly identify the origin and direction of the footprints.
It was by following that trail that I found, in the snow, much further on, the smallest figurine in the set, the one that isn’t hollow but solid, the matrix whose expansion had generated the rest of the figurines and situations.
From Brother in Ice. Used with permission of And Other Stories. Copyright © 2018 by Alicia Kopf.