Thursday, April 05, 2007

Chilling Writing

You probably know that I'm on a Polar kick right now, and I have a passage from the current book (Ninety Degrees North) that I wanted to share with you for a variety of reasons.

Here's the set-up: It's 1899 and an Italian Duke decides his country needs to throw its proverbial 'hat' into the Arctic ring, so he outfitts a massive expedition. Establishing a base in the Franz Josef achipelago, the Duke then sends a crew North, led by his second-in-command, Umberto Cagni.

On the way back from their new, record farthest-North of 86 34' (about 250 miles from the Pole) Cagni's health begins to fail, including frostbite in one finger, which is swollen to nearly the thickness of his wrist and black with gangrene. Trapped in their tent for two days because of a bad storm, Cagni decides it's time to attend to the finger. He wrote:

"I clear away all the black part with a lancet, which I hold in my left hand. As soon as I introduce the point of the blade into the flesh, an incredible quanitity of [liquid] matter issues forth, which gives me great relief. I strip away the covering of dead flesh, and there remains sticking out of the wound a piece of bone which has all the appearance of being dead. When I press the end, I feel a great pain in my whole arm. I realize that if I leave this useless projection, the smallest blow will cause me intense suffering and I therefore set about cutting it off. But I have only scissors and the little bone is very hard, so I suffer a great deal while taking the piece off. Over this little operation, which a doctor would have performed in three minutes, I spend fully two hours..."

Cagni allowed himself no time for recuperation and when the storm broke the next day they travelled another 18 miles on foot, his whole arm aching teribly. He did not, however, mention his discomfort to anyone because, as he wrote, 'it seems that yesterday's operation rather upset my comrades.'

Now, my first reaction to that was mixed. The first and obvious reaction was uugh, he cut off his own finger. That thought was immediately followed by a period of wondering if there were people left in this world who could even contemplate doing such a thing, much less travel so far afterwards.

At that point I remembered a story that was in the news not too long ago about a rock climber who cut off his entire hand with a pocket knife after a boulder fell on it, trapping him. So the answer was a resounding Yes, there are still people today who do these things and thank God I haven't had to find out whether or not I'm one of them.

After a little while though, I came to another realization. This section from the journal of a long-dead Italian is a perfect example of the kind of writing that I think is most powerful. It's not full of flowery or lengthy descriptions; it's not stylized to any degree; and it doesn't try too hard. If anything, its understatement is where much of its power comes from. It is a simple and direct presentation that is about the content, not the 'style'. And good Lord, is it powerful! I don't know about you, but I felt that passage in my gut.

If you want to know the kind of writing that gets me, look no further than Umberto Cagni, Italian Polar explorer...


LMD said...

Good point about the power of writing, although I believe powerful writing can be the product of many styles. A lyrical style can remind one of the rhythm and beauty of life; a concise style, the line of what is essential; and allusion -- ah,yes, that most wonderful of all styles -- allusion that allows readers to engage, to supply their own worst fears and anxieties and phobias, or their own best feelings of elation and triumph. Yes, when writers can allude, rather than state directly, then readers step in and supply what is emotionally unique in each of their minds.

Excellent point, Ed. Thanks!

Dena said...

Passages like this enthrall me. One--because I can't imagine having to go through anything like that and two--because as you mention, it's written with such understandment. All the polar books seem that way. Their ship sinks, crew and scientists are living on an ice flow for months at a time, dangerously low on rations, uncomfortable every minute of the day, and it's laid out in such a "and then this and then this" with no complaining fashion.

This is why I will always prefer non-fiction, diaries, and memoirs. There simply is no better read than a catalog of truth as seen from one person's perspective.

Dena said...

BTW, "understandment" should be "understatment." I would have spelled it correctly, but I just cut off my left index finger and the Tylenol hasn't kicked in it...not that I'm complaining.

Dena said...

Crap... foiled again.

Jaye Lawrence said...

Have you read Dan Simmons' The Terror yet? It's a fictional account of the Franklin expedition, with a seemingly supernatural monster stalking the crews of the ice-locked ships.

I just finished it, and I'm still absorbing and thinking about it. The historical detail is fabulous; I could see those ships and men, and almost feel the deadly cold as I read. As historical fiction it's superbly written and gripping, and I'd recommend it to anyone who, like you, has been fascinated by nonfiction about Arctic exploration.

I'm not convinced the supernatural element entirely worked, though, or was even necessary. The aura of claustrophobia, with men already trapped by the elements and near-starvation being brutally stalked, did heighten the terror to a delicious degree. But it's a very long book, more than 700 pages, and there are only so many ways a mostly-unseen creature can take its victims before that plot element starts to feel repetitive. And the resolution of the supernatural part of the story, when it comes, feels belated and not adequately foreshadowed earlier in the book.

Still, I couldn't put it down and read it late into the night, which is my personal test of a gripping read!

Edmund R. Schubert said...


Haven't read Simmons book, but the more I hear aboiut it the more tempted I become. Maybe I'll look for in the dealer's room at RavenCon (Richmond, VA 4/20 -4/22). I haven't been to a con yet where I didn't end up spending too much time and money in the dealer's room.

Jeff said...

You know, if you're on a polar kick, you ought to check out

Rick Novy said...

This guy is a good writer and keeps detailed blog entries with photos of his experience in Antarctica. I've been following it for almost a year.

Edmund R. Schubert said...

Cool. My thanks to both of you for the heads up.

Rick, is that what inspired you to set "Adjoa's Gambit" at the South Pole? (IGMS issue three, for those of you who aren't familiar with my man Rick's work.)

Rick Novy said...

Sorry, saw your question only today. Adjoa Gambit was written at least a year before I discovered Alex's blog.