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Poseidon Expeditions Polar Book Club - The Terrors of Ice and Darkness

8 December, 2022

The dramatic events surrounding the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition

There is probably no other novel that is as suitable for getting in the mood for an expedition to the remote Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land than The Terrors of Ice and Darkness, the debut work of the Austrian author Christoph Ransmayr, first published in 1984. Thirty-six years later, Ransmayr, who was recently awarded the Ludwig Börne Prize, one of the most important literary awards in German-speaking countries, is now one of the major contemporary German-language authors.

In this Poseidon Expeditions Book Club post, we will reveal why his work surrounding the legendary Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition is a must-have in any polar library, and is highly recommended in preparation for a Franz Josef Land expedition.

A comprehensive report about the legendary Payer-Weyprecht-Expedition

This book is complex and somewhat difficult to fit into a certain literary category. In the cover blurb as well as in many reviews, The Terrors of Ice and Darkness is described as an adventure novel, which is certainly correct, but perhaps a bit out of context. The reason for this is because at the center of the novel's most important storyline lies a detailed and dramatic historical description of the fateful, legendary Payer-Weyprecht-Expedition.

In the summer of 1872, the expedition departed into the still-unexplored Arctic Ocean, northeast of the Siberian archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, to explore this largely unknown region. After only a few weeks, however, the expedition ship Admiral Tegetthoff was trapped in the pack ice at 79° 51′ and drifted along with the ice into unknown polar regions. After a drift lasting more than a year, through the terrors of ice and darkness that gave the book its title, a crew tormented by scurvy and exhaustion discovers a small group of islands buried under glacial ice and names this newly discovered land "Kaiser-Franz-Joseph-Land" in honor of Franz Joseph I, the monarch of Austria-Hungary.

Novel or major historical essay?

In those passages that describe the North Pole expedition, Christoph Ransmayr weaves the original travel notes of the individual expedition members so artfully with his own narrative that when reading those parts, one feels sucked into the historical events in a similar way as one does when reading Sir Ernest Shackleton's notes on the heroic rescue of his Endurance expedition. So the book is more than just a fictional piece of literature, especially by its blending of fictional writing and authentic eyewitness testimonies, it provides deep insights into the emotional state of the expedition members throughout the two years they spent in the ice. Through the sections on the discovery of Franz-Josef-Land and three extracts on polar history, The Terrors of Ice and Darkness at times reads more like a major historical essay.

A fascinating look back at Svalbard's more recent history

The inclusion of two additional storylines eventually provides the book its actual novel form. Here Ransmayr artfully integrates the fictional story of Joseph Mazzini, a descendant of a seaman who served on the Payer-Weyprecht expedition and who, more than a hundred years after his ancestor, disappears without a trace in the rough polar terrain of Spitsbergen. And, on a third narrative level, we follow a first-person narrator who in turn attempts to fathom and describe Mazzini's fate. These sections around Joseph Mazzini’s disappearance are also very interesting for polar enthusiasts, as they describe Svalbard in the late ‚70s and early ‚80s of the 20th century. This is a Svalbard in which research, mining, and the search for natural resources – and not, as today, tourism – were still the dominant pursuits.

We warmly recommend The Terrors of Ice and Darkness to every polar enthusiast interested in history or literature. It‘s also ideal for preparing for your Arctic expedition cruise to Spitsbergen or Franz-Josef-Land.

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