Team Fox is off on a winter wayzgoose this weekend. In celebration of our 10th birthday
, eight vixens, seven honorary dog foxes and three spaniels are heading to a Tudor house in West Devon tomorrow. We’re anticipating almighty downpours, whipping winds, slippery mud and powercuts so we’re stuffing the cars with wellies and waterproofs, candles and Cluedo, along with a cargo of wine and hearty grub. Aimi from our bookshop will be holding the fort at SF HQ from Friday to Monday and we’ll do our best to send all orders out swiftly when we’re back in the office on Tuesday.
We must admit the thought of a long weekend of wild weather and no power made us urban foxes slightly anxious at first, but a quick hunt through the archives for tales of intrepid explorers soon made us brace up. We found just the reality check needed in this month’s article, which takes us to the ice caps with Polar explorer Sara Wheeler who writes, ‘Going to bed in the far north or south is not only like retiring to a deep freeze. It is also like taking a nap in a cutlery drawer, as one is obliged to cuddle all one’s battery-charged devices to prevent the cold sucking the cells dry.’ West Devon will be positively balmy in comparison - if we manage to get there, that is . . .
Read on for An African in Greenland,
news of forthcoming publications, a new series of podcasts from The Talking Fox and a special offer from our friends at The Folio Society.
I first encountered Tété-Michel Kpomassie in a tent on top of the Greenland ice cap. The temperature was minus 30, and I had burrowed into my sleeping bag to read in the small pool of light cast by a miner’s lamp strapped to my forehead. Every so often, like a soft-shelled crab, I poked my head from the bag to take a gulp of air. The tent was brightly lit by the midnight sun, the shimmering sky outside the plastic pane the fabled Arctic blue. But it was impossible to read without being sealed into the bag. One’s fingers froze, otherwise, while turning the pages.
Night-time in the polar latitudes provides a robust test of a book’s capacity to take one’s mind off the horror of the moment (surely one of the functions of literature). Going to bed in the far north or south is not only like retiring to a deep freeze. It is also like taking a nap in a cutlery drawer, as one is obliged to cuddle all one’s battery-charged devices to prevent the cold sucking the cells dry.
From the first page, Kpomassie revealed himself as the man for the job. His superb volume An African in Greenland
not only drove out the cold. It did what I most like a travel book to do. It held up a mirror, and the Arctic reflected back the world. The naked portrait of an exotic society – long gone, now – enabled me to understand the flaws (and a few benefits) of my own overdeveloped and overheated niche.
An African in Greenland
was first published in Paris in 1983, a period in which Lévi-Strauss and exotic ethnology had captured the imagination of French intellectuals. In Kpomassie’s book they got two for the price of one, for the first chapters deal with the author’s childhood in rural Togo. It was a long journey from Togo to the Arctic Circle.
The author records how, as a small boy, he fell out of a tree while gathering coconuts and, following a purification ceremony by the High Priestess of the Python, was destined to be initiated into her cult. The prospect was so terrifying that he dreamt of escape – to Greenland, which he had read about in a missionary bookshop in Lomé. Greenland was, to the young Kpomassie, the antithesis of the jungle – white, frozen and python-free. When he was 16, he took off. A journey to the distant unknown is among the oldest stories ever told, but in his book the self-educated Kpomassie makes it his own. It took him eight years to get to Greenland, working his passage up the west coast of Africa port by port and taking jobs in France and Denmark. But his real break came when he found a wealthy mentor in Paris.
In 1965, aged 24 and an Arctic greenhorn, Kpomassie arrived at Julianehåb, now Qaqortoq, on the southern nose of Greenland. At five feet eleven he towered above the Inuit, and of course he caused a sensation. The national broadcasting station announced his arrival on the evening news. ‘I had started on a voyage of discovery,’ he wrote, ‘only to find that it was I who was being discovered.’
Kpomassie was a man for whom the interior and the exterior life converged, and he recorded his observations and responses with the same artless ingenuity, like all the best writers combining comicality with a sense of the sad absurdity of life. As an African, he did not carry the White Man’s Burden, and it would not have occurred to him to romanticize Inuit lives. He describes a baby suffocated by drunken parents; a meal of rabid dog; a group conversation in someone’s front room which continued as each person took his or her turn squatting over the latrine bucket. More significantly, he notes more than once ‘the crying lack of mutual help in a Greenland village, and the villagers’ profound contempt for their poorer countrymen’. But he took everything in his long stride. When his drunken host pissed in his rucksack, soaking all his clothes, he was unperturbed. In his book he perfectly captured the pared-down existence of Greenland and the grace of its people under pressure.
The Inuit competed to entertain him, and he immersed himself in their lives, learning both language and customs. Greenlandic society was on the cusp in 1965 – or rather, it had just teetered over the edge of the slope that led to Westernization. Qaqortoq already had a cinema, though the projectionist halted the film every ten minutes so that a muffled voice could translate the last batch of Danish subtitles into Inuktituk over a tannoy, but there was still no bank in the country. In the populated south the old customs had already vanished. ‘Children are sent to school’, Kpomassie observed, ‘but are not taught anything about the traditional activities. Even worse, that way of life is disparaged to their faces, although it is their own. When they grow up, they can’t even paddle a kayak.’
Like many white men before him, Kpomassie relished the Inuit Greenlanders’ enthusiasm for casual sex, and for loaning out wives. Until, that is, he found his special girlfriend snuggling up with another. ‘I was quite willing to share other men’s girls’, he notes, ‘but not my own.’ But endemic boozing and casual sex eventually lost their appeal. ‘Greenland morality was beginning to disgust me,’ he writes (no wonder: he had just done a long stint in hospital with a suspected dose of the clap), and so he made his way up the west coast in search of the pure white land he had read about in the Togolese jungle.
Denmark laid claim to Greenland, a land mass fifty times its size, in the seventeenth century, and at the time of Kpomassie’s visit, the islanders had not yet won Home Rule. But as our Togolese Odysseus moved north, Danes faded away. He wintered in a turf hut entered through a tunnel on all fours. ‘The house’, he wrote, ‘vaguely reminded me of an African mud-walled hut.’ (In fact, it was an iglu. Contrary to Western belief, an igloo is a traditional, turtle-shaped house made of stone and peat, entered by a tunnel and ventilated by a hole in the ceiling.)
Kpomassie’s host was Robert Mattaaq, a destitute paterfamilias who wore trousers tied up with string which he did not take off for the entire winter. Mattaaq had papered the walls of his igloo with pictures torn from magazines; he referred to the collage as his library. Under his supervision Kpomassie learnt to drive dogs, perched alone in the darkness on a mound of frozen fish, and he came to see the patterns that had governed Inuit life for centuries. Even wife-loaning had a practical significance, for if a man was killed hunting, his wife’s lover provided for the dead man’s family (so there was some mutual help after all).
Above all Kpomassie immersed himself in the spirit world. In the inner life of the Inuit, not only did all living creatures have souls, but so did inanimate objects. Each rock, lamp and sealskin had its inua, or owner: ‘These inue’, he writes, ‘are not exactly souls but manifestations of the strength and vitality of nature.’ They were spirits that walked around at night, and talked, and they made the empty Inuit land less lonely. Rituals designed to appease the spirits governed every aspect of life, from hunting to mourning the dead. ‘In the eyes of an Eskimo hunter,’ marvelled Kpomassie, ‘the Arctic world withits vast, frozen expanses, its barren, snowy peaks and great bare plateaux – all that drab, white, lifeless immensity of little interest to an African like me – becomes a living world.’
Once the forces of what we call civilization set about the dismantling of Inuit culture, there was little chance for those myriad spirits that had been roaming the hunting grounds for two millennia. Shortly after Kpomassie’s visit, the Danish government pursued the now infamous G60 policy. To facilitate administration, civil servants decided to concentrate Greenland’s population in the bigger communities of the south, and as a consequence they relocated the occupants of villages with fewer than 500 inhabitants. In larger settlements the Grønlandsk Teknisk Organization bulldozed turf dwellings and replaced them with flimsy wooden houses. Mattaaq was shifted south like a piece of furniture, still with the string holding up his trousers, but without any of the less tangible things that had warded off despair.
Kpomassie went halfway home at the end of his Greenlandic adventures: he settled near Paris, where he still lives quietly. Forty-five years after he first drove a dog team across a starlit ice field, the future of the Arctic remains uncertain. Both polar regions appeal to something visceral in the spirit, especially in an era when we have lost contact with the natural world. But in the Arctic, unlike its southern counterpart, there is a figure at the centre of the picture: the Arctic is an image of the real world in all its degradation and beauty. Many authors kept me company in my sleeping bag when I made my own circumpolar journey, but Kpomassie came closest to capturing that ambiguous polar truth which is, after all, at the heart of being human.
© Sara Wheeler
Extracted from Slightly Foxed Issue 28, Winter 2010