It’s one of those books that seems to have been on my Open Orders list for a very long time, anxiously awaited. Then suddenly it arrives, stonking cover.
The Arctic is a source of intrigue, and many fine words have been written. The close quarters of a research hut, in the company of strangers, isolated from the world, is fascinating. And in polar regions there’s the light factor, be it permanent darkness, or perpetual daylight.
So I wanted to read what Agnieszka Latocha had to say about Svalbard. Her account, My Arctic Summer, was pulled together from three visits to the area, as a geographer with the University of Wroclaw. Now I had never considered Poland as being a player in polar exploration, but they do indeed have a research base on Spitsbergen, as indeed to many other countries you may not associate with the subject.
We are treated to some terrific photography, some trips on field work do indeed leave a lasting impression – ducking under the dripping edge of a glacier to wander in a cave beneath the ice, and being thrown onto the back by a gale, unable to rise, pinned down by the weight of a rucksack, come to mind.
But Latocha’s visits, for a few months each, are too short to examine the type of relationship and depth of introspection that our old friend Gavin Francis found in his Z-Doc days through an Antarctic year. And again I found Francis coming to mind, for his True North is real gem of fine polar writing, including Svalbard.
And it’s the writing, or perhaps the translation, that leaves just a touch of frustration. In recent months I’ve read several fine works in translation. Immediately coming to mind are Schwarzenbach, Kauffmann, and Tesson, and more recently Vassily Grossman’s fine An Armenian Sketchbook. And it got me wondering; pondering, how much was down to fine flowing prose in the native tongue, and how much to the skill of the translator, in bringing to The Bedside Table a book of rhythm and beauty, and of joy.
Sadly it didn’t come through in My Arctic Summer, but I’m glad I waited on it. Whittles of Caithness are a fine publishing house, with Mike Tomkies and Jim Crumley in their nature stable, and polar works in the catalogue. Latocha also a book on Irish travels to her name, in Polish only so far. Normally I’m a sucker for trips on the Emerald Isle and interaction with her people. Would I read Latocha’s tales from Ireland, if translated? Yes I probably would, but more in hope than expectation.