The Ice Museum

by Joanna Kavenna

Viking, 293 pp., $24.95

Quests have a long, distinguished literary history, the most satisfying being the futile ones, from the Grail legends of the Middle Ages up through the Kafka and Beckett characters who surmount many obstacles while getting nowhere. Joanna Kavenna's engaging, meandering book is a quest in pursuit of the futile quest for Thule, the mist-shrouded noplace that has echoed through Western literature and explorers' diaries since ancient times as a kind of far-north anti-Arcadia, an inclement absolute, a utopia without the disadvantage of people--pure, inviolable, empty, and white, the ultimate blank slate.

Thule isn't entirely fictional. It was first mentioned by the Greek explorer Pytheus in the 4th century B.C. He sailed from Marseilles to Britain and then north, getting as far as Thule, he claimed, before turning back, and he probably got as far as somewhere. He said that Thule was a place where sea, sky, and land blurred into one, where there was no night in summer and no light in winter, where the ocean congealed into drifting ice. Shetland Islands? Norway? Iceland? Spitzbergen? Too much aquavit?

No one knows, but the northern mystery seized the Western imagination. As Kavenna recounts the story, Virgil called it Ultima Thule, ancient mapmakers put whimsical outlines of it on their maps, the Roman army that occupied northern Britain claimed to have conquered it, and the geographer Strabo thought Pytheus had made it up, since there could be nothing farther north than Britain, where the inhabitants were always miserable with cold, the only more miserable place being Ireland, where men slept with their sisters and ate their parents.

Ancient geography was fanciful anyway, but Thule continued its icy siren call in medieval and modern times as blank northern spaces were filled in on maps. The Norse sagas offered attractive Thulian real estate peopled with stern and heroic Thulites. Iceland became a particular favorite. Christopher Columbus claimed to have reached it before he discovered America, and the iconoclastic Victorian explorer Richard Burton interrupted his Indian, Arabian, and African adventures to go there and blast other Thule conjectures while offering his own. William Morris, the Viking-infatuated medievalizing socialist, was there as well, along with a lot of shivering Thule-minded tourists, who also couldn't resist the Arctic cluster of islands, northwest of Norway, known as Spitzbergen (now called Svalbard).

Greenland eventually made a nice, inhospitable Thule, too, though no one seriously thought Pytheus had gotten that far. In 1910 a Danish explorer, Knud Rasmussen, named his trading post in north Greenland Thule, and the Inuit natives who lived around it were displaced 40 years later when the U.S. Air Force chose the site, with the landlord's (Denmark's) permission, for Thule Air Base, which is still there.

Aside from conjectures about where Thule was, there were guesses about where the word might have come from (Old Norse for frozen earth? Old Irish for silent?) and how it was pronounced (Thulay or Toolay or rhymes-with-fool). The place, bounded on all sides by myth, produced an inexhaustible supply of speculation.

And the speculation could take sinister turns. During the Weimar Republic there was a Thule Society that met in Munich and imagined the place as the original Aryan homeland. Several future Nazi officials attended its meetings, though it fell out of favor once Hitler came to power, and its founder, Thule being unavailable, fled to Turkey. Kavenna goes deeply into the story, since the Nazi idealization of Nordic blondness influenced their occupation of Norway--an attempt, in effect, to stake a physical and spiritual claim to Thule, which the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen (if this book has a hero, he's it) had identified with the far northern Norwegian coast.

Kavenna grew up in rural England, loving winter and snow, immersing herself in accounts of polar expeditions. After spending years elbowing her way through the crowds of London and New York, where she worked as an editor and journalist, she started dreaming again of empty northern landscapes and, armed with the old legends and theories, set off to visit every place ever associated with Thule. Her book is a pensive mix of genres, weaving together travel diary with childhood memoir, shards of ancient and modern history, brooding personal essay, and the speculative flights of the philosophers and scientists she interviews. In the process she's willing to go well out of her way--to rural Estonia, for instance, where she talks to the retired first post-Communist president because of his theory that Pytheus sailed into the Baltic Sea, making Estonia the dark horse candidate for Thule.

The Ice Museum is densely festooned with passages of pictorial prose, some of it quite good, like this view from the boat taking her along the northern Norwegian coast:

After Thule, as Nansen defined it, the stark crags of the Lofoten Islands emerged ahead--an archipelago of barren crinkled rocks, emerging violently from the sea. . . . Before the sun set, the boat made a detour into Trollfjord--the gathering shadows playing across the blackened crags, snow glinting like mist in patches on the rocks.

But it gets to be a habit, and there are unnecessarily lush descriptions of the Four Seasons Hotel in Munich, where the Thule Society met in the 1920s, and the Estonian countryside, and enough of the Greenland coast, ice walls looming above barren rock and rubble, to convince us thoroughly that it all looks about the same.

Of course, a certain amount of woolgathering and running to catch the next tangent to nowhere suits Kavenna's subject matter, reverie and myth and futility. She might have spent some time speculating about the lure of the pure and the absolute and the utmost, all those white whales of history that take possession of people in religion and politics as well as geography. But the most serious objection to the book might be that it's too serious. You don't want Hunter S. Thompson, but a little P.J. O'Rourke would help: You keep expecting something more vividly picaresque to emerge out of her antipodal encounters with cranks and drunks.

It's a subdued, melancholy book. But maybe that goes with the territory, and especially with what's been happening to the northern lands. They've become the cluttered attic of civilization, poisoned by faraway industries, littered with oil spills and nuclear waste. The glaciers and ice sheets are melting. The polar bears may be in trouble. What's left of the traditions of the Inuit and the Laps may be doomed. Thule, empty, mysterious, unapproachable, had been a seductive fiction. It's getting a little too real.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.

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