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Skating to Antarctica
Jenny Diski

Skating to Antarctica
Jenny Diski
London 1997

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This is an extraordinary and unusual book, part travelogue, part intimate autobiography in which the author sets out to exhume memories and chase away ghosts. She takes a cruise to Antarctica where she examines some of the more painful details of her childhood. Why Antarctica? Because the colour white is like a mantra for her, it has a calm meditative quality which she craves and where better to find it in abundance that the South Pole. This is a lovely and very funny book. Diski has a keen wit and an original mind as well as a talent for being both intimate and detached; the combination of the two is most compelling.

For centuries now, Antarctica has been seen as an otherworldly place; a place that goes some way towards making abstract principles concrete. The purpose of Scotts famous last expedition to the pole was ostensibly to collect Emperor penguins eggs. Perhaps he really went there for some of the same reasons that Diski did, to make some sense of the incomprehensible. Perhaps he hoped that this great pale, reflective expanse of whiteness or nothingness would help to provide him with some answers.

The author came to Antarctica, hoping to find the stillness of an all enveloping whiteness, a whiteness shed only ever come close to in the sterile environment of a psychiatric hospital. Antarctica spells whiteout for her. Isolation. Oblivion. This is a woman who injected the drug Nembutal as a teenager in a bid for instant unconsciousness. Ultimately this sounds like she was flirting with death, and indeed Diski describes it in these terms. She is a writer who displays a great deal of self knowledge.

Depression has had an interesting run in literature recently. Out of Me by Fiona Shaw, is just one example, in which the author describes the raw horror of her recent post natal depression. Both depression itself and the toll it takes on those around the depressive are still things we know so little about. It is fascinating therefore to have some of the mystery illuminated by Diski who through it all retains a light narrative touch and a great sense of humour about the whole affair. That compelling combination of intimacy and cool detachment.

The expression of her inner fears and turmoil, her thoughts and philosophies, becomes an integral part of the plot. She eases the book backwards and forwards between the Antarctic and her childhood memories, producing an easy logic from her minds seemingly arbitrary connections. Diski deals easily with very personal memories and complex psychological issues. She refuses to compromise or simplify emotional detail yet her writing remains crystal clear. She is very straight about herself.

Skating to Antarctica is in some ways a detective work. Diski talks to former neighbours, a group of Jewish migrs, to try and piece together her early life. She recalls, for instance, her mother telling her that if shed known how Jenny was going to turn out shed have strangled her at birth. When she unravels her feelings for her parents, she comes to terms with the grim reality that they were deeply inadequate and destructive people. Their marriage was volatile and violent. They had a lot of difficulty communicating and so, between suicide attempts, they channelled all their grievances with life and each other through their child. It is not surprising then, that this quiet, contained little girl not only broke down but finally walked away from them when she reached adolescence.

Diski is very funny on the subject of her fellow voyagers to Antarctica. She gives them nicknames, “Butch”, “the Zionists”, a distancing mechanism I expect, labelling them to keep them at bay. She is almost reclusive at times on what is for her a personal journey and yet a public one. They are full of inadequacies, foibles and Americanisms; human and irritating. Their desperation to record everything on camera reaches extreme levels. Wrapped up warm and cut off from their environment they wander round like Cyclops with a single camera or video eye. The present experience is made past, they see the scene as it will look later when they show it to friends.

Meanwhile Diski describes the minute details that hit you so forcefully when you travel. The secluded haven of her cabin; lying awake in the rocking ship reading Moby Dick in the paleness of the Antarctic night. The icebergs, an intense blue, transfix her as they float past her window, ” clouds and bergs, bergs and clouds”. She has a clear, fresh view of the natural world around her. The grim sight of humping elephant seals. The Albatross that spends a lifetime of balance and movement above the seas and only lands to mate. Penguins who stand transfixed, staring out to sea as if waiting for something extraordinary to appear on the horizon. Birds everywhere and trainspotters following them with huge binoculars.

I found this book immensely satisfying to read. I hadnt read any of Diskis work before and was entranced by the grace of her writing and the spare power of her style. She has produced a hugely original and moving work.

Reviewed by Jessica Woollard


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