|THE EXPEDITION: A LOVE STORY
Translated by Agnes Broomé
Head of Zeus (headofzeus.com)
On 11th July 1897, three men – Salomon August Andrée, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel – set off from the northernmost point of civilisation in a hot air balloon. Their destination: the North Pole. Three days later they are forced to make an emergency landing. Then nothing for 33 years, until their bodies are found on the southernmost tip of White Island. For over 80 years, there has been plenty of speculation, but no-one has ever been able to explain how these three intrepid adventurers came to their end. Bea Uusma, while browsing a book at a boring party in the early nineties, became obsessed with the expedition and dedicated almost fifteen years to trying to piece together the final days of the Andrée Expedition.
Uusma’s short history of the Andrée Expedition, and her subsequent obsession with the reasons behind these men’s deaths, hooks the reader from the very first page. It’s an odd little book – odd in the sense of being extremely quirky – from the unexpected subtitle (“A Love Story”) to the engaging and conversational tone that the author uses throughout the book as she unfolds first the events of those few months in late 1897, and then the details of her own investigation into the unexplained deaths of these three men shortly after they arrived at a supposedly safe camping site. Along the way we gain some insight into who these three men were, through the remains of their journals, found along with their bodies, and contemporary accounts.
Uusma’s key point is that none of these three men were suited to the harsh conditions that they encountered when their balloon crashed. Unsurprising, considering the plan was to fly over the North Pole, drop a buoy to mark their achievement, and land within a couple of weeks in Russia or North America, depending on the vagaries of the wind. There is a comical element to the account of their short-lived flight, and three-month-long trek across frozen wastes, an examination of how different society was over one hundred years ago, how ill-equipped these men – and others who sought similar goals – were for what they were attempting; like the fact that their stores included formal wear for the three men so that they could attend dinner wherever they might land, or that, despite the weight of the sledges they dragged across the snow and ice, they managed to hold on to bottles of port and wine for over three months of their journey.
The Expedition: A Love Story is only partly about the disastrous journey of Andrée and his companions. The historical reportage is interspersed with a more personal narrative, as we follow Uusma’s own expedition: her examination and re-examination of everything she could get her hands on; her own attempt to follow in Andrée’s footsteps, and visit the remains of his camp on the southern tip of White Island. During the fifteen years, it became an obsession for Uusma (“Sometimes I think I became a doctor just to be able to find out what happened.”) and her enthusiasm for her subject is infectious, so that the book is impossible to put down once you’ve started reading. Besides these two parallel narratives, the book is filled with lists (“The Nature of the Mystery”, the various hypotheses over the years as to how these three men died), photographs, maps, tables, autopsy reports and journal entries, all used as evidence to support the theory that Uusma has developed during her research.
It is through the journal entries that we get some insight into the book’s second love story, as we read Nils Strindberg’s thoughts about the woman to whom he is engaged, Anna Charlier. It is, as you might expect, a heart-breaking story and the author manages to provide evidence from both sides.
As the reader might expect from a book of this type, Bea Uusma has produced her own theory as to what happened to these men. In a brief lapse into fiction, she shows us how they might have met their end, and why their diaries provide no clues. It’s a plausible theory, and one that the reader is likely to arrive at long before Uusma produces it, but as the author herself says:
There will never be an answer. The more I learn about the Andrée expedition, the more unsure I feel about what really happened. Can we really be sure they actually died? Were the bodies discovered on White Island really theirs?
Sure, the theory is supported by the evidence as presented within the pages of the book, but that’s not to say Uusma’s presentation of the evidence isn’t biased towards her theory. (For the record, I like it; it’s a sound theory and ties in with what Uusma discovered in the men’s journals, as laid out in detailed tables in the middle of the book.)
Bringing together the best elements of, say, Dan Simmons’ The Terror (the description of the environment, the sense of cold) and Laurent Binet’s HHhH (the personal nature of the historical narrative and the starring role that the author plays in it), The Expedition: A Love Story is one of those gems that is very easy to overlook. Uusma’s writing style is beautifully developed with a unique and engaging tone that will captivate the reader from the outset, and Agnes Broomé’s translation manages to keep the subtleties of the author’s voice and personality, despite the often technical or unstructured nature of the text.
There are moments of sheer beauty in The Expedition: A Love Story, the type of things that one doesn’t expect to find in non-fiction of this type, observations that make the reader stop and think about what they’re reading. For me, there is a third love story here: there is a point, around page 34, where I fell in love with Uusma’s ability to tell a story.
As soon as I step ashore I get the feeling something’s wrong. Something’s off. Then I realise: everything’s in colour. I’ve stared at the black and white photos from the take-off so many times. Now I’m actually here, in the picture. And suddenly everything’s in colour.
The Expedition: A Love Story is one of those gems that I might never have picked up had I not received a copy from the publisher. It’s the story of a little-known Arctic expedition that went horribly wrong, and one woman’s lifelong quest to discover the truth. Beautifully written, it’s obvious from the beginning that this is a labour of love. We can only hope that Bea Uusma turns her attention to something else in the near future and shares her exceptional talent with us again. I’m struggling to think of a book I have enjoyed more this year, and can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the art of telling a story.