|From Ice to South American Jungle
by Paul Butler
It's 1876. A piano recital with a difference is underway in a packed Connecticut concert hall. Punnie, a ten-year-old Inuit girl, plays Mendelssohn with the skill and flair of a professional musician.
Although enjoying the "tremendous novelty" of the performance, two members of the audience argue playfully about the girl's nationality, one claiming her for the U.S., another for Canada and the British Crown. Meanwhile, the young pianist struggles with a growing cough. Seated in the front row, Tukulito, Punnie's mother, is worried.
The nationalist tug of war echoes the traumatic real-life events of the 1872 Polaris Arctic expedition. Forced to abandon ship, 19 people-including Punnie, her interpreter mother Tukulito, and hunter father Ebierbing-are stranded on a shrinking ice floe for several months. Apart from Punnie, her parents and another Inuit family, the company is made up of an Englishman, two Americans, and a number of Germans.
Poet and novelist Steven Heighton has woven a fictional account of the thoughts, the fears and loves of the Polaris survivors. Thrust into the centre of the drama-both historically and in Heighton's novel-is a published memoir of the Polaris misadventure written by the American lieutenant, and official commander on the ice, George Tyson. Tyson's Arctic Experiences, at times quoted verbatim, at times "rearranged, conflated, compressed, and occasionally invented," according to an author's note, is, to modern eyes, a testimony to late 19th century jingoism. As events on the ice cause fear and hardship to gnaw at Tyson's nerves, his memoir reflects mounting xenophobia and distrust of all things un-American.
Heighton's drama opens two years after the publication of Arctic Experiences. Accepted as fact by the public, Tyson's book has plunged the other Polaris survivors into disgrace. Heighton's on-ice narrative, which takes up the bulk of Afterlands' first half, intersperses Tyson's thoughts and feelings with those of Tukulito and the Polaris' Second Mate, Roland Kruger, a German war veteran. To Kruger, Tyson is a man who needs, "constant proofs of strength". Kruger believes that if such proof doesn't materialize, "he will find ways of engineering [it]." We first come across Kruger in November, 1876. Living in New York but unemployable in the wake of Arctic Experiences, he jumps from the South Ferry crossing toward Brooklyn. When the icy water envelops him, the memory of life on the floe returns and with it the face of Tukulito. He remembers how the Inuit woman had "ruddered and renewed him . . ." during the Polaris ordeal.
Although Tyson believes him to be the prime motivator of the plotting among the Germans, Kruger is in fact a perpetual outsider. The Second Mate distrusts the "idiot willingness to choose sides" which "feeds the abattoir of history," and is just as repelled by German nationalism as he is by Tyson's brand of racial bigotry. On the ice, he is labeled a spy by Tyson and by his own countrymen.
Kruger is in love with Tukulito and is incensed by Tyson's betrayal of her in Arctic Experiences. Tyson writes, "Esquimaux are like all semi-civilized people, naturally improvident; while they have, they will eat, and let tomorrow take care of itself." Yet it is Tukulito's husband, Ebierbing, who keeps the party alive with his hunting, and Tukulito herself who helps preserve Tyson through the cold.
In manners and custom, Tukulito is half-Victorian lady, half-Inuit. Though scrupulously formal, she holds to Inuit values of communal living. When she sees Tyson shivering at night, she presses herself close up to him, an act Tyson misconstrues as an invitation. It is the resulting embarrassment and sense of shame that causes the fiercely proud Tyson to launch a tirade against Tukulito in the daily journal which will become Arctic Experiences.
Heighton's descriptions of the Arctic are exceptionally vivid and appropriately ominous when they reveal something about the crew's psychological state. The Inuit, we are told, see the aurora borealis as the "spirits of those who have died by violence, with heavy loss of blood." "Today," the narrative continues, "the shivering involutions are coral, crimson, golden . . ."
Heighton captures the deluded exhilaration of half-starved people as the ice floe shrinks and cracks. The Germans' self-appointed leader, Meyer, thinks about the "rare opportunity [their] presence here affords!" Taking control of the arms, his followers begin ignoring Tyson's orders and strut like soldiers around the ice floe. The black American cook is shackled as the suspect responsible for the mysterious diminishment of supplies, and Tyson writes deliriously about his fear of the Inuit "reverting" to promiscuity and cannibalism.
As starvation hovers, each of the main characters comes under pressure to betray his or her own moral and intellectual convictions. Tukulito has to urge her husband not to desert the others, who rely on them for survival. Kruger comes close to perpetrating the violence he so despises. And Tyson, though filling his journal with glib affirmations of a divine plan, inwardly despairs of any hope that there is a God.
While the shrinking ice floe is the battleground during the Polaris ordeal, the Inuit people themselves, especially Tukulito, become that arena in the aftermath. Punnie dies not long after her recital. At her funeral, Kruger comes close to attacking Tyson, but pulls back in disgust at the last moment, and subsequently leaves the country.
Beginning a second, impoverished life in Mexico, Kruger takes up with a Sina woman, Jacinta, who reminds him of the still-married Tukulito. Jacinta recoils from the association Kruger automatically makes between her and another indigenous woman. But the thematic core of Afterlands soon expands to include Kruger's own identification with the threatened Sina people.
While in the Arctic, Kruger found himself rebelling against "civilization" together with all the notions of patriotism and progress the term implies; Tyson was the "waving flag" he most resented. In Mexico, he slips into a similar philosophical niche but encounters a far more potent antagonist than Tyson. His path crosses that of Captain Luz, a roving military commander who "sees conquest as a moral science." Luz systematically empties the land of indigenous settlements which stand in the way of a planned railroad.
Dragooning Kruger into his genocidal enterprise, Luz rides towards the very Sina settlement that is home to Jacinta. While Luz despises the indigenous people he eradicates, he reveals to Kruger that he is a scholar and linguist, perhaps the only "civilized" man to fully understand the Sina tongue. To Kruger, Luz provides a chilling vision of a future when "men . . . want to become the curator[s] of what they destroy."
Feeling like a spy once more, Kruger knows he must work out a way to save the village from catastrophe. He confronts his aversion to violence as he did on the ice and examines the idea that to "murder Luz would be to murder his own beliefs." Intellectually and dramatically, this climactic episode reprises and magnifies the period of conflict on the ice. In neither situation does Heighton attempt to provide an easy resolution.
The landscape descriptions in Afterlands are uniformly rich and persuasive. The author captures the essence of the North, endowing it with sensuous delight through descriptions like, "the pewter moon was a sliver shy of full." Heighton clearly knows how nature affects the senses, and the reader is never in doubt that he is familiar with the Arctic and the multitude of southern terrains he describes.
Heighton also has a remarkable grasp of the workings of minds in peril and the contradictory impulses that enable the simultaneous presence of fear, compassion, and courage. Weakened by hunger and desperation, Kruger challenges Luz, ever aware of "the voluptuous temptation to yield to his conqueror."
Occasionally, the philosophical sheet of Afterlands comes close to overwhelming the dramatic structure. Not long after Kruger muses about Marcus Aurelius, his nemesis, Luz, also mentions the Roman Emperor and his struggles to "deal with the Christians." It may be just plausible for two educated minds on different sides of an argument to think of the same historical figure at the same time, but many will feel the author is showing his hand too freely.
This, however, is a small gripe. Afterlands is a major work by any standards, uniting beautiful writing, unforgettable characters, and profound ideas on the lessons offered by history.