Did you ever come across a travel book that you have to read only in tiny bites, small series of pages in order to prevent you from saying “Ah, sod it” and leave the bus-train-metro-sofa where you were reading it, airport-bound?
If so, then you’ll know what’s the effect that all Sara Wheeler’s books have on me. For instance, I’ve just started Travels in a Thin Country and I, literally, have to drop it from times to times, or I’ll simply march over to Heathrow shouting “Quiero un billete para Chile!”.
This curious condition started with Terra Incognita, the chronicle of her time in Antarctica as, to use a locution much en vogue these days, an embedded journalist and writer for several nations’ Antarctic programmes.
Somebody – was it Umberto Eco? Or Italo Calvino? – said that a true masterpiece is a book that, no matter how many times you read it, will always give you a new insight, a new angle on the story; by that metric, then, Terra Incognita is a real masterpiece, a gem of a book.
Indeed, in Terra Incognita you can find almost as many aspects to visiting and living in the remotest, driest continent as you like: there you have the vivid, portrait-like descriptions of one of Earth’s most stunning places, Antarctica, true testimony of Sara’s unquestionable skill as a writer. Then you have the historic insight on that fabled pre-War period where parties from the then mighty British Empire and Norway went down on the ice, “men with beards trying to see how dead they could get” to freely quote Sarah’s delightful prose. Then you have quick incursions into poetics, literature and introspection into man’s psyche (thinking, at the end of the day, is what comes natural in big, empty spaces). Then there’s the scientific aspect and, a bit that I particularly like, how science seem to be capable of bridging cultural gaps and, sometimes, even deep political rifts between people of different nationalities. One such example is the story of an Argentinian scientist being given a hero’s welcome at a Chilean station.
Anctartica is a place that undoubtedly can exert a considerable influence on a person and, indeed, one of the first lessons that Sarah learns is how no one leaves the ice unchanged. Personally I’d go to the extreme of saying that even Terra Incognita hasn’t left me unchanged, for every time I finished I feel like having arrived at the end of an epic journey into places that few before have seen. And the best bit is that I can get back there simply by picking the book up.