Review by Paula Grenside

Land of the Snow Men
by George Belden (Manuscript recovered and edited by Norman Lock), Calamari Press.

"Little is known about George Belden. One thing is certain, however; he was not in Antartica at the time of Scott's 1910-12 expedition to the Pole, but the year after the disaster. His name does not appear on the list of passengers and crew aboard Terra Nova, nor is it mentioned by Scott in his journal or in any other known to have been kept by a member of the tragic enterprise."

The first lines of the Editor's Forward prepare the readers to the entrance of a literary canard, but when you start reading Belden's hallucinated and poetic entries, you forget the fictional creation and share the visions, the humanity of Belden and company as well as Scott's lucid madness.

It's through Belden that we relive the last months of 1912 In Antarctica with Scott, Wilson, Oats, Bowers, members of Scott's crew, and other characters created by Belden's fervid imagination, till the tragic death on the Barrier. Historically, they were found, frozen, in their sleeping bags; Belden gives his personal version of Scott's funeral in the trolley-car hearse with the bell tolling for the last Snow Man.

Norman Lock shows undeniable talent at recreating a world of ice, light and darkness where impossible visions are made credible and resist like ice statues till the melting breath of reality dissolves them. Belden's visionary madness is far more involving and credible than Scott's cold, objective approach:

"I want no poetry here! I came to Antarctica to escape interpretation"...

" A stone is only a stone until it's thrown through a glass house; then it becomes and adage and admonition. Antarctica has no ulterior meaning: There is nothing beneath the ice except more ice."

Scott objects to connotations that cling to reality; Belden and the others need to see and actually see things beyond reality though aware of the cruelty of poetry. There's an episode in the chapter "Defying Analysis" when Pointing and Belden find frozen shadows. The relevance of the episode is the urge, the crave to find a presence, signs testifying they are not alone in the ice desert, that someone else made his way through it. The shadows excite their imagination; the ice is no longer a biting machine but a "gigantic photographic plate".

"Shadows?"
He nodded. " Frozen Shadows!"
They were those of birds mostly. And one that looked as if it had been cast by an iceberg. And one that was unmistakably that of a man. The man's shadow was long, evidently made when the sun had been low in the sky....

Pointing handled them like delicate glassware, afraid they might shatter in his hands."

They even photograph those shadows, place them back in the rubber sack. As weird as it may seem, readers see them and witness their unfortunate melting when Oates opens the sack looking for food, displays the shadows on the table and the shadows of the birds flap their wings and disappear in the dark. Scott promptly dismisses the shadows:

"...We are studying reality in its purest form. I must insist that you do nothing to adulterate it."

Scott disapproves of everything that diverts from the study of first principles, he has an intellectual rigor that is beyond the other explorers' power, is beyond "desire". He disapproves of similes, too, and more of metaphors because disguised as truth. He always considers the heart of the matter as when he defines Antarctica:

"Antarctica is a laboratory," he says. " Here where it is all but extinguished, life is easiest to isolate and observe."

and, later, his concept of beauty:

"As a man I enjoy a woman's beauty. As a scientist I should prefer the beauty of her bones for in them I can see the truth articulated."

Here is when Belden concludes that Scott is the crazy one.

Lock is really good at alternating and contrasting the visionary escape of the men with the stubbornness and mad determination of Scott who refuses to admit and face the incumbent catastrophe. Imagination can only lead to disaster, he keeps repeating, but it's imagination that gives the men the strength to go on as when Bower sees his wife in a red silk dress, and Belden feels Elizabeth's warm lips on his.

The whole story appeals to the senses, sight and touch especially. White and cold are everywhere and become an obsession broken only by glimpses of colors and warmth brought by hallucinations or nightmares. White and cold and ice that becomes a symbol of Scott's emotional coldness.

In the end, neither the escape into dreams or the facing of reality will save them, but readers can but side with Belden and Lock who created him.

The "credibility" of the recounting is strengthened by the illustrations created by Derek White, the publisher. The creative reconstruction of diary pages, of maps gives the drawings their aspect of time-worn documents, of authentic material. Lock's book offers an original view on Scott's expedition to the Pole and casts a peculiar light on the hero.


 

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