The line between reportage and travel literature is a fine one, but one factor defines the separator. The best of travel writing is layered in subject matter, its authors gliding between biography, geography, history and much else. Pamela Petro’s The Slow Breath of Stone (Fourth Estate, 2005) is a quest in Southern France and Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau (Pan Macmillan, 1999) is a sea journey along America’s Pacific shore. Both books are united by a layering of thematic density.
So too it is with Icebreaker (Chatto Windus, 2017) whose ostensible journey is on a ship of that class in the further Baltic Sea. (Horatio Clare barely mentions a temperature that is higher than minus ten centigrade). Icebreaker is also a centenary book. It was not a centenary widely noticed, but 2017 was that of the foundation of an independent Finnish Republic. The base of his book is a report, affectionate and respectful, but objective, of Finns.
Clare’s engagement was sparked by a friend from school days, Pekka Isosomppi, later at the press office of the Finnish Embassy in London. Isosomppi is a name that is distinctive and Clare goes on to depict a people of the same distinctiveness. He starts on land with the sharpest of eyes. In the architecture of Helsinki he discerns strains of Prague and Trieste. He touches lightly on the history: Mannerheim’s declaration of independence from Russia in revolution, the Winter War of 1939-1940 in which the Finns held off Soviet invasion remarkably. Clare greatly likes the modern society of 2017 and its governmental initiatives are compared admirably against those of Britain. As for the individuals they, and their language, are not as we.
The crew members live up to the stereotypes of taciturnity. But they have jokes and stories and the author comes to discriminate among the silences. He observes “relaxed silences, companionable…unhappy, charged and thoughtful silences, even lyrical silences”. At the heart of the companionship he warms to the concept of “sisu”. “Sisu” is like “Hiraeth” in being untranslatable but embodies grit, courage, resilience. His wonder at the language picks on a word “kalsarikännit.” Its five syllables mean “to get drunk at home alone in your underwear with no intention of doing anything else”.
Beyond the people is the geography. Clare quotes Coleridge from “Frost at Midnight”. “The frost performs its secret ministry”. It is an “an image of holy work in some middle place between life and thought, between the perceptible and the immanent.” If Raban on the Mississippi is the great literary anatomist of river currents, Clare is his equivalent on ice. First he learns the words that discriminate. A collection of ice boulders is called “shuga”. There is grease ice, or “fazil”, crystalline lumps in the water. When there is neither wind nor wave crystals join to make a thin sheet called “nilas”. Its columns grow downwards into the water, first year-ice that can grow to a metre and a half. At a molecular level this young ice has crystals all oriented in the same direction. That renders it weak and easily broken by an icebreaker’s bow.
By page 140 he has begun to understand what is around him.
I am beginning to develop a feel for the ice now, as I circle the deck in the freezing dark, listening to it. It is like weather, like rain or mist, in the way it comes upon us according to its own laws. It is like the sea in its tenacity and its restlessness, in the way it moves ship tracks, grapples down buoys, traps stragglers and climbs hulls. It is like rust, like entropy, in the way it sidles aboard, rinds the rails with icicles, patches the decks and stiffens the ropes. But in its reformations and renewals, in its unpredictability and its beauty, ice is all but alive.
The surroundings on ship and sea elate and exhilarate but good travel writing is multi-hued. Icebreaker is overshadowed by a melancholy of lament. Human time is small beside that of geospatial change. Finland itself is rising by ten millimetres a year. The loss of ice with its vast capacity for reflecting the sun’s radiation will expose bare tundra. The release of methane on a vast scale has the potential to trigger a vicious cycle of climatic change. Methane has twenty-three times the warming power of carbon dioxide.
The ship itself is implicated. Were the combined fleets of ships a nation they would be collectively the seventh most polluting country. An icebreaker alone can consume 100 tonnes of fuel a day. For comparative purposes an average Finnish family home might use 1.5 tonnes a year.
But Icebreaker has an unfailing quality of prose to match the epic splendour that the author witnesses. Clare steps out onto the Baltic. “While standing on a mountain top grants you the vista of a scoop of space, from valley bottom to cloud level and beyond, standing on the sea under clear air erases depth and height. The sky begins in the snow under your boots. You are simultaneously huge and as tiny as a fleck.”
As for the role of humans ours is the species with the prowess to engineer the vessels to plough the ice and create the channels for trade. But it is a role that is still minor to the gigantism of the Earth. “Now I think of ice as a being” Clare writes “its movements, its agency, the way it determines, yields, thickens, prevents, makes wonderful. I think of ice as Gaia, as world spirit given form and colour. Sea ice can be infinitely studied, tracked and measured, hymned and wondered at; sea ice can be hacked and broken, but sea ice cannot be made by us and cannot be controlled.”
Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North is available now