Join us as we venture into the far north in the company of Tété-Michel Kpomassie, or Michel the Giant, whose life was changed as a boy in the 1950s when he came across a book about Greenland in a bookshop in his hometown in Togo, West Africa. Realising that this was a country where it was cold, where there were no snakes (to which Kpomassie had a decided aversion) and no trees (even better, following a traumatic encounter with a snake up a coconut palm tree) he resolved to leave his homeland and travel to Greenland.
It took him some years to work his way across Africa and Europe but he did eventually reach Greenland and Michel the Giant:An African in Greenland is his travelogue of his time there and his memories of the communities he lived in. From discovering the cuisine (learning to love whale meat, guillemot hearts and seal intestines) to learning to ride a dog-sled Kpomassie allows us to vividly experience the life of the Inuit and to understand why – after leaving Greenland and settling in Paris – he always yearned to return.
The book was first published in 1977, and in English in 1981 translated by James Kirkup. It was recently reissued by Penguin as part of their modern classics series. Laura’s book club were intrigued and so listen in as we’re joined by longtime book club member Alice Chicken to hear what they thought of it.
And after the discussion don’t miss our other recommendations for books on an Arctic theme to try for book club or just to add to your own personal reading pile.
The Northern Lights, The Amber Spyglass and The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials trilogy, [Scholastic])
The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller (Hachette)
This Cold Heaven by Gretel Erlich (Harper Collins)
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg (Penguin).
A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter.
Hear Tété-Michel Kpomassie in that BBC programme we mentioned.
Don’t miss our episode on Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine
Hello and welcome to the Book Club Review. I’m Kate.
And this is the podcast about book clubs and the books that get you talking. Today we’re discussing Michel the Giant: An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie who grew up in 1950s, Togo, West Africa. Chancing to come across a book on Greenland as a child, he became obsessed with travelling to that country so different from his own, and this striking memoir describes his experiences.
The book was first published in French in 1977, in English in 1981, and was recently reissued by Penguin. Michel Segalov off reviewing the book for the Observer called it intrepidly, adventurous and unconventional and also said that it was a book that couldn’t be more relevant, a literary work that was well ahead of its time.
But what did Laura’s book club make of it? Did it spark debate? Of course, here at the Book Club Review, whether they loved it or loathed it, what we want to know is did it make for a good book club book? We’re joined by Alice Chicken, longtime member of Laura’s book club to report back to keep listening to hear what they thought of it.
And after that discussion, don’t miss our recommendations, where we’re going to suggest more books inspired by Michel the Giant and the frozen North or South, we think you should add to your reading pile.
That’s all coming up here on the Book Club Review.
Alice, welcome. I think it’s the first time we’ve had you on the pod.
Hi, yes, first time, I’m excited.
And so you’ve been a member of Laura’s book club for how long?
Oh, it must be. It was a good couple of years pre-pandemic, I think, so what does that make it? Four or five. We used to meet in person in London. And that was lovely. But we obviously didn’t during a pandemic. And then since then both Laura and I have moved out of London. So Zoom has been our friend.
We’re both lucky beneficiaries of that, aren’t we? Because if we just left pre-pandemic, no one would have hopped online to have book club with us.
Yeah, I think we would have missed it.
I’m impressed Alice that you’ve managed to evade coming on the podcast this long.
Michel the Giant, the gripping true story of one man’s ten year expedition from a village in West Africa to the Arctic Circle. I had never heard of this book before. How did your book club come to choose it?
It was thanks to our mutual friend Frances, member of the book club, and the reason why Alice joined my book club five, six years ago. Frances had seen the reissue by Penguin that we mentioned in the introduction. And I think, as it would anyone, the title caught her eye. And so she suggested we read it for book club. And yes, we were like ‘yeah, that sounds fascinating.
Well, do you want to set it up for us and tell us a little bit more about what it’s about?
I think you could say so much, so I’m going to keep it succinct simply by reading the description on the back of the edition I have, which, incidentally, is not by Penguin. The North American version is by the New York Review of Books. And that blurb reads, Tété-Michel Kpomassie was a teenager in Togo when he discovered a book about Greenland, and he knew that he must go there. Working his way north over nearly a decade, Kpomassie finally arrived in the country of his dreams. This brilliantly observed and superbly entertaining record of his adventures among the Inuit is a testament both to the wonderful strangeness of the human species, and to the surprising sympathies that bind us all.
So it is this very unlikely story, although I think what this book does is makes you wonder, why is it so unlikely? Why are we so surprised that a young African man growing up in Togo might want to go to Greenland, but you know, he was perhaps the very first black person to arrive in Greenland. And for the Inuit, that was a surprise to them. And it does make for a very different type of travel memoir. And I’m sure we’ll get to this because we talked about it in book club; this is not a white explorer, this not another white anthropologist coming in with that very specific cultural colonial gaze. This is a young Togolese man, who has been a subject of colonialism himself growing up, and he speaks to that. And he’s just so entranced by the Inuit. And he, I think, you know, my Introduction states this, but I think it’s true, he is able to interact with them and get to know them and understand them and share those insights in a way that feels very remarkable for being almost, what, fifty years old now.
There’s something that felt quite timeless about it to me, and I was quite surprised when I started researching it a little bit more and found out that actually, it’s relatively recent history and he’s still alive. He lives in Paris now with his family, and you could go and see him, like he’s just there. I don’t know why, but – because there’s something about this book that made me feel it was written a long time ago, because there is this sort of timelessness to it, which I really loved. You can hear him talking on a podcast that the BBC did called Witness to History on BBC sounds. He said something rather lovely. He said, ‘I started a journey of discovery, only to find that I was being discovered. I was one of them. I became the African Eskimo.’ The theme of identity runs through this, doesn’t it, his own identity and discovering himself and coming of age, and then the people that he is encountering and the lives that he’s sharing while he’s there.
Shall I read something from the book and give listeners a sense of his voice and his experience? I’ve chosen the passage where he arrives on Greenland for the very first time, and apologies ahead of time. We did do a little bit of research into pronunciation but it’s not always so easy to find, so bear with us. ‘We arrived on Sunday, June 27th towards noon. The sun seemed much warmer when the ship finally emerged from the immense sea of ice and sailed up the fjord to Julianehåb. In front of us the bare snow-capped peaks of tall grey mountains were silhouetted against blue sky. Some were haloed in mist in the fjord, a few small icebergs were floating in the tranquil water. Julianehåb is still called Qaqortoq, ‘the white one’. This Eskimo name, the image of the wilderness of white, was given it because the masses of ice and icebergs that drift down both coasts pile up in this area, embedded in an ice pack a hundred kilometres wide and from three to ten metres thick. They prevent ships from reaching the East Coast for months –sometimes for ten months at a time.’
‘When we had sailed up the fjord, the first signs of Qaqortoq was a collection of about thirty little houses made of wood and painted yellow, green, blue or red. They were scattered at the foot of a huge mountain in the midst of green lichens, looking as soft as a lawn and sprinkled with yellow flowers. This tundra, the sole vegetation, clinging to the rocky soil of the Arctic land, casts an irresistible spell over the traveller who has just spent so many days at sea.’ And then I’ll just slip forward a little bit, to the moment where he disembarks. Never were inhabitants of the mountainous land more peaceful looking. They kept smiling, exchanging admiring comments on the Umiarsuaq, ‘the big ship’, and laughed openly at the awkward walk ff the passengers who were staggering about the deck like convalescents. I wondered what their first reaction would be on seeing me, a black man, leave the ship. They had never seen a man of my race, except perhaps in newspaper photographs. Like an actor carefully preparing for his first entrance. I took my time dressing in my cabin, putting on a thinner pullover under my overcoat. Unhurriedly I drew on my woolly mittens, pushed back the hood of my overcoat, and then with my hands in my pockets, I made my entrance. As soon as they saw me all talking stopped. So intense was the silence, you could have heard a gnat in flight. Then they started to smile again. The women with slightly lowered eyes. When I was standing before them on the wharf they all raised their heads to look me full in the face. Some children clung to their mother’s coats and others began to scream with fright or to weep. Others spoke the names of Toornaarsuk and Qivittoq, spirits who live in the mountains. That’s what I was for those children and not an Inuk, like themselves. Like children the world over they spontaneously spoke their minds about me. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the adults. Proud and secretive they masked their feelings behind an unchangeable smile, mild but enigmatic. Not one of them corrected the children get the mothers’ calm gave some of the children confidence. And as they saw me approaching, they too tried to smile, a hesitant, not very reassuring smile. The crowd open to let me pass. It was then that I distinctly heard a woman speak the word ‘kusanaq’. A flattering term that I didn’t understand at the time, but which means ‘handsome’. Handsome, in what sense?’
And I’ll end there. There’s so much going on in that passage, so I did go on a little bit. But I wanted to give a sense of the beautiful nature writing that this book rewards you with, as well as the real details of each moment, and then, of course, the human interactions and his observations of how he is received. And then of course, later on, many relationships develop between him and the Inuit who welcome him into their homes.
He’s quite a likeable guide. One of the things I really liked was the way that you don’t start the story – you get the history of his childhood in Togo, but then you get this period where he was travelling from Togo, making his way through Africa, and then through Europe in stages, it took him a long time to get to Greenland. And each time he had this seemingly miraculous ability to make friends, like, crucially, when he really needed help, and he had nothing, he would just befriend someone, and then suddenly, the help he needed would arrive. So he seems to have had a lot of personal charm, but also, he doesn’t talk about it, but reading between the lines, he’s just got this seemingly effortless ability to pick up languages. So by the time he gets to Greenland, he’s fluent in French, he’s learned German, while he’s in Germany, he starts learning Danish and Inuit. And then by the time he gets to Greenland, he’s speaking with the locals and he’s picking up the language as he goes along. But very quickly, he’s able to converse with them. And it’s just really impressive.
We talked about that, didn’t we, Alice, that this is an extraordinary man, for many, many reasons.
Yeah, there’s a really clear sense that he’s a very charismatic individual, by the way, people react to him, not necessarily from the writing, which is reasonably straight, I think, but the stories he tells of the people he charms along the way, and the reception that he receives in Greenland just tells you he’s clearly charismatic. And yes, just so bright, and his affinity with language and with culture is amazing. We definitely thought in book club, there was probably a story in those eight years between Togo and Greenland let alone when he gets to Greenland and tells us the amazing tale from there.
Absolutely. Sue Prideaux reviewed it in The Times, and she wrote, ‘His fantastical journey was characterised by his work ethic, idealism, sheer niceness and enviable ability with languages’, and I think that’s true you like him, you do. I think it’s to do with this idea that he’s very open. And he’s not judgmental about anything that he encounters, which makes for a very good guide. Seeing things through his eyes is actually a really good way to experience this I think.
There’s only one moment in the book that I recall, where he loses his temper, the passage I read aloud begins to gesture to the fact that he is a hit with the Inuit ladies, you know, he’s not visiting Greenland as an anthropologist, he’s ready to, you know, live all the human experiences, and so has a series of liaisons with different women, the passage I recall where he loses his temper, he’s very cross because the woman he’s been sleeping with who has said, ‘I love you’, or at least a phrase that he understands as ‘I love you’ to him – the next day, he finds her in bed with another man. He gets quite angry about it, and the Inuit find this baffling because they seem to be very open in their sexual relationships. And he finds out that actually the woman who he’s been with, well, ‘Why would you get mad because she’s always been with him.’ And he realises that actually, maybe he’s the interloper. He’s the one who’s sticking himself in the middle of an existing romantic relationship. But otherwise, he’s very mild and good humoured throughout.
His ability to accept things and be open to new experiences extends to something that I have to say when I was reading this book would have completely defeated me and that was the food. So when he gets there, he’s presented with a plate of what’s it called ‘mattaq’, which is whale skin, which is sort of chew. Apparently the actual skin is quite tender, but then there’s a sinewy layer underneath which you really have to … and so his very first meal he has there, he’s trying to choke down this whale meat, he manages to eat the portion that they have given him and the woman of the house looks at him, like ‘did you enjoy that?’ And he says, ‘yes, yes, it was lovely’. And so then, of course, she brings him a giant, huge platter of it, which he then has to finish, but crucially he does! He will seemingly swallow anything. I made a little list: ‘A gastronomic tour of Greenland, I wrote the berries I thought probably the best thing – they go into the hills don’t pick berries – but the rest of the time: half-cooked guillemot heart rabid dog? Although I’ve put the coffee with reindeer fat, Aquavit and sugar didn’t actually sound that bad.
I was quite put off by the gelatinous seal blubber with bloody webbing woven through it.
There’s a lot of that there’s a bit when he’s watching a woman carve up one of the seals a bit later on in the book, and I highlighted this: ‘The lungs were cut into slices and eaten raw by the children who before putting the pieces in their mouths dunked them in blubber, their hands, lips and cheeks were daubed with blood’. You know it’s the thing that the liver and the heart these are the delicacies and cooking doesn’t seem to be especially relevant here. Quite often they’re eating things half cooked or raw.
We say liver and heart are the delicacies but a book I’m reading right now, which is set on Svalbard, and I will talk about later on, we get recommendations reminded me that of course, you eat those to ward off scurvy. So that’s where you get your vitamins, so you don’t lose all your teeth and die. So that’s probably why they’re delicacies because they’re what keeps you going through those long, long winters.
Mmn. And I was reminded – because it seems that you just acquire a taste for these things – I was reminded of a book we read, which we loved called Women in the Polar Night, which we talked about on the podcast by Christiane Ritter, who is a Norwegian woman who went to live with her fur-trapper husband, in our isolated hut in Svalbard, so deep on the Arctic coast, very remote, miles from any other humans. And she ate a lot of seal meat. But then at the end, I remember when she left, on the boat that took her away, there was what we consider to be normal food there. And she didn’t really want to eat it. And there was this old hunter or whaler or some kind of individual who was also being taken back to civilization. And he had some seal meat. And so they ended up sitting there eating it together, that made me think, ‘oh, right – clearly, it’s an acquired taste. But once you’ve got it, you can’t go back’.
And that seems to be true in exactly the way here. There’s a passage towards the end, when he’s leaving, where he says, ‘Now I had been sharing these people’s lives for sixteen months, their food no longer disgusted me. And I thought nothing of eating a breakfast of seal fat and dried intestines every morning. Bolette, my host’s daughter, sat by me on the platform and smiled, revealing the perfect straight line of her teeth, half worn down to the gums. On her sweet brown face, I seem to read the teasing question, ‘How can you love our food so much and still want to return to your lands so far away?’ but she remained silent.
And I love his interactions with the children. That’s one of the things that’s really nice about this book, the same sort of benign interest that he has in everything he also has in the children. So he doesn’t make a thing of them, particularly. But nonetheless, they’re there. And they have quite a different relationship to him from the adults. And it was really sweet. I thought. Oh, the dogs. What about the dogs? So we should say, he starts off in this place, that’s effectively a town that’s very much supported by the Danish government. One of the interesting aspects of the book is that he’s looking at the way that the traditional way of life that the Inuit have had for centuries has been eroded by the Danish colonial influence, and so many of them are now living in towns, they’re not hunting anymore, they’re being encouraged to work as fishermen, or in factories. And they’re given subsidies, which effectively mean they don’t really have to do anything. But it leads to this malaise, they’re not really happy, there’s a real problem with drinking, people are just a bit sort of lost, I suppose. And he realises this is not the Greenland that he left Africa to see. And so he then heads off again, making this journey north. And one of the other interesting things for me was that Greenland is just so much bigger than we think it is. It’s huge. Greenland.
I think from south to northern tip, it’s the same as from London to the mid-Sahara.
And travelling about is not easy. You travel by sea, and work your way up the coast, or you travel by sled. And so then he has another mission to try and get himself further north. But as with everything, he’s tenacious, he doesn’t give up. And off he goes. And then he does get to the more remote areas in Greenland where the more traditional way of life is still very much part of culture, and then has different experiences there. But the thing that really struck me when he arrives, there is this thing about the dogs, the Huskies, which I tend to think of as being quite sweet, benign animals, but really, they’re not. In his experience they’re really quite savage, barely domesticated. They can be dangerous, and they have to be managed. And you have to take care, which again was very unexpected.
Yeah, I think someone in book club said ‘You know, you eat your dog, you wear your dog, you keep warm with your dog. But first and foremost, your dogs are a tool to help you survive in this cold, cold climate.’
Yeah, it certainly reminds me of some of the memes on the internet about how they used to be wild beasts. And we’ve tamed them into being little cuddly babies in our homes, but certainly not back in Greenland.
And yet, even there, he’s witnessing the erosion of this way of life. The documentary I watched, described it as ‘the dying world of the Inuit and his igloo and the emerging one of the Greenlander’, you know this shifting of cultures as the country was changing. What did your book club think about that?
One of the reviews picks up on this, but Kpomassie’s observations feel well ahead of his time. But that’s because he is, well, partially because he has experienced the same colonial forces in his life in his community and his culture. And so he recognises what’s happening in Greenland, and is critical of that. He talks about the children and how much they love going to school. He says it’s magical, and he’s never seen children, so excited to go to school. But very lightly at the end, he says, It’s just such a shame that they are not teaching the children anything about their own culture and their own traditions. And that feels very timely in Canada, where we’re on a real journey towards truth and reconciliation after the systemic and government run residential schools sought to destroy First Nations culture and to remove it from First Nations children. So he is able to have those views because he’s interacting with a culture from his own culture. In terms of narrative voice Kpomassie is able to bring something very different. And he is welcomed and embraced by the Inuit. And at one point, they even say, ‘Oh, those white people, you know, we’re not one of them.’ So they really see him as one of their own and have a sense of connection that allows him to live alongside them.
In the film he goes back there, and he’s in Nuuk, which is the capital and he says the Inuit people have been in Greenland for 3,000 years, and yet the town of Nuuk is overlooked by one statue of the first Danish priest sent to evangelise the people in 1721.
Alice, do you want to share with Kate and our listeners where Kpomassie is heading for his retirement at eighty?
Yes, I recently read an article that caught up with him in his 80s. And he is leaving France to move back to Greenland. A spoiler alert, he finishes this book leaving to return to Africa and share with his compatriots in Togo and wider in Africa, his experiences in Greenland. He thinks it’s really important that he goes back and shares what he’s learnt with the people that he’s left behind. But he felt very at home in Greenland, and he’s always missed it. So he’s returned a few times on trips, I believe and now he’s intending to retire there and retire as far north as he can go. A great regret of his travels is that he never made it quite to the far north, in his eighteen months in Greenland back in the ’60s, and he’s really, really keen to go as far north as possible and retire up there, which sadly means divorce from his wife of many, many years, who always knew this was the plan, but as it got closer, apparently changed her mind about that being her shared retirement with him, which is a sad element of the tale. But yes, he plans to return. Not everybody’s idea of a gentle retirement,
I think it’s fair to say, yeah, I think his wife has my sympathy.
I mean, he does seem to be someone who’s particularly at home with no material comforts. Frequently, when he’s travelling, he’s sleeping in what just sound like the most horrific circumstances, or not sleeping as the case may be. But he doesn’t seem to mind, he’s very easygoing about it all. And then yes, you’d see obviously, this place creeps into his soul. That’s really nice ’cause in the film, which was obviously made, probably 10–15 years ago, he says it’s his dream to go back there. So yeah, that’s that’s a shame for his wife, loving partner, but ….
He’s being true to himself. We should say that there are dark observations contained within his narrative that he doesn’t linger on, and generally doesn’t provide judgement on either. But when they occur, there’s a few that feature what I would say is child abuse or child neglect. I almost had to put the book down, it was quite shocking. He is there and he doesn’t intervene. And so it’s really interesting, this balance he’s able to achieve. And I think what motivates him is his desire to see things as they are in all different situations and contexts.
Yeah, I think you’re right. And again, it just seems to be his own particular temperament, that he’s able to do that. There are instances aren’t there where he’s staying with families who are clearly not functioning very well or in some distress and in little ways it seems he tries to help. But as you say, mostly, he’s a detached observer. And that’s really what makes the book work as well as it does I think.
Jo, in our book club said ‘the book was a brilliant suggestion, I would never have come across it and I learned so many new things. I really enjoyed it, other than the bits that horrified me.’ And I think that’s fair.
How about you, Alice, what did you think?
Yeah, I mean, I definitely agree with that summary, it feels like he just has a desire to bear witness. And the fact that he talks in the Afterword I think about how much he loved it there, and how sad he was to leave, but not within the body of the book demonstrates, I think that he uses the book to bear witness to what he’s seeing and not bring his own emotions into it. We had an interesting observation as well, you spoke earlier about the children. It’s one of the few areas where a small amount of judgement seems to creep into his writing where he sees the children running wild in the long polar nights, and seems a bit put out by that. And there’s a point where one of the families he’s staying with is having breakfast and the child doesn’t want what’s available for breakfast, and he assumes that the parents are just going to say, ‘Well, tough, this is what you’re getting.’ And instead the dad traipses out to the shop to buy what the child wants. And I think coming from a very hierarchical family setup in Togo to see the children that are almost ruling the roost like that is quite a surprise to him, I think. And the closest he gets to a bit of judgement in what he writes.
And yet there was a slight element wasn’t there that that was one of the things that he’d liked the idea of, because as you say, his own culture is so hierarchical. within the family, there’s very strict order of precedence. And he was really down quite low in the pecking order, and really had to do what he was told me most of the time. And then I think he reads in the Greenland book, doesn’t he something about the fact that the Inuit child is treated as a king. And what would that and there being no snakes in Greenland, that kind of lodged in his head I think.
Yes, yes, of course. No snakes in Greenland. Yeah.
No trees, of course, either. Which is strange to imagine,
Yes, having had an interaction with a snake in a tree in his youth. And that being one of the reasons why he wants to get away before his father passes them off to a different snake worshipping tribe. We haven’t lingered on the beginning. But you know, we were retreated to what maybe sixty pages or so about his childhood, and then his journey to Greenland. It’s such a rich book, and you could open it up in any section, and just get going. I think, I really really loved it. Alice, you might not know this, but Kate and I love a polar novel, memoir, nonfiction. This is one to be added to the Canon alongside women in the polar night for sure.
Looking online, Chris D. gives it three stars. He says ‘The book itself is a bit of a slow read, but maybe that reflects the nature of the voyage. The experience sounds miserable. The author gets drunk a lot, gets venereal disease, sleeps on cold floors, urinates in buckets and eats various animals such as seals, whales, and even dogs boiled and without seasoning. Yet he never mentions any longing for tropical Africa. Note to self: cancel vacation plans to Greenland.’ Meanwhile, Maren Robinson gives it five stars, and says ‘An African in Greenland is the most remarkable travel journal I have read in a very long time. Kpomassie is a charming and honest narrator. He is at once perceptive, right and compassionate in his account. He describes his travels and interactions with various cultures with almost anthropological detail, and yet he never forgets the people he meets are human, wonderfully flawed, perhaps but human nonetheless. He turns his critical eye on his Togolese upbringing, his time in France, Germany and Denmark and ultimately, Greenland. He never neglects to mention his own foibles in his interactions in the lives of those he meets. How could he not since he was the first African most of the Greenlanders had seen. The story is also tinged with sadness for the loss of customs and rituals per Massey had hoped to witness in Greenland, the combined poverty and generosity of the people and the inevitable sorrow of ending a journey. It’s a fascinating study of Greenland, but also a study of a man pursuing a dearly held dream. And that’s what makes it such a satisfying read. I’ll second that!
Yeah, yes, me too. And I would highly recommend it as a book club book or as a solo read. Firstly, it might be a good summer book to take on holiday. I sometimes like reading about the opposite of the experience I’m having, you know, in the winter, you read about the summer in hot weather, and then in the summer maybe read about Greenland.
Inspired by Michel the Giant: An African in Greenland, here are some more recommendations for your next book club book.
Alice, do you want to go first? What other book Can you think of inspired by this?
I have to say I struggled because I don’t have the same historic fascination as you two because I had to call on my dad and stepmum. We talk about books a lot and share recommendations and I had to say ‘Have we read any books about the Arctic?’ and then all the ones that they had read I had not. So I struggled.
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in that conversation. That sounds great.
Yeah, I mean, they had some good sounding recommendations, just nothing I can speak to. Where I settled – slightly left field – is the His Dark Materials trilogy where great swathes of the action takes place in the Arctic, and the Arctic is a very important place in story. And what I quite liked in terms of connection to this book, is that I think one of the wonderful things about this book is you don’t have any of those slightly cliched moments of African sees snow for first time or anything like that, he’s much more sophisticated than that. And I think that’s great. But the one thing that does shock him when he sees it, and he’s slightly panicked until somebody comes in down and says, Okay, this happens a lot is when he first sees the Northern Lights, which is quite beautiful. And actually, I love that passage. It was wonderful. He was the first time that he just kept completely amazed by something he’s saying, and really touched by this environmental thing happening around him. And certainly in the UK, the first book of the trilogy is The Northern Lights. And that’s a very important part of the story. So it’s fantasy, and obviously young adult leaning, but an excellent excellent read, some wonderful Arctic characters, like talking polar bears, and witches that fly around the Arctic, and some really creepy but important things happening in the story and just a wonderful set of books. So not quite his very real down to earth difficult Greenland experience but a fantastic Arctic story nonetheless.
I love those books, such a great recommendation. Laura, how about you?
I am going to recommend The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller, which was only published last year. It is a novel despite the title, and it is the story of Sven Ormsen, who leaves Stockholm to seek adventure in Svalbard. Kate mentioned that earlier as did I. And it is an Arctic archipelago north of Norway, and he leaves in 1916, and spends the next – well, I haven’t quite finished, at least he spends the next ten years there, we’ll see where he ends up and how the book ends. And he very early on is working in a mine. But when an avalanche comes down on the mine, he is brutally disfigured and he loses one of his eyes, and half of his face is really destroyed. And so he becomes quite shocking to look at, and that leads him to seek ever increasing solitude in the Far North. And the author Nathaniel Ian Miller was inspired by our favourite book, A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter, which is a real memoir, in which she mentions a person named Stockholm Sven. And so this is fiction, but very, very, very loosely inspired by this character, this trapper living on the north of Svalbard all alone, and what that would have meant for him and why he would have chosen that life. For a book set in the Arctic he never really talks about the cold. And I think that is quite strange, a very strange authorial decision. But nonetheless, it’s a great read. And actually, it’s populated by these extraordinarily memorable, genuinely quite kind-hearted characters who sustain our narrator. I would highly recommend it.
That sounds great. I would never have picked that up.
No, so it’s good to have the recommendation – like Michel the Giant, I just, you know, these are not books that I really had any idea that they existed. I’ve got three quick recommendations, two of which I’ve read, one of which I haven’t. But when I read the review of Rebecca, on Goodreads, who gave it five stars, I thought that sounds so great, so I just wanted to just read it quickly. And it seems just such a perfect follow on book. It’s called This Cold Heaven like Gretel Ehrlich, who’s an American travel writer. Rebecca said, ‘I never want to go to Greenland. English winters are quite dark and cold enough for me, and I don’t know if I could stomach seal meat at all, let alone for most meals and often raw. But that’s okay. I don’t need to book a flight to Qanaaq because through reading this I’ve already been in Greenland in every season, I’ve huddled onto a sled pulled by twenty dogs. I’ve gone hunting for polar bears. I’ve had a terrifying crash through thin ice. I’ve met Danes and Greenlanders of all ages and heard their legends and learned of their struggles to adapt to a modern life. It’s a place that lends itself to silence and solitude, but also requires loyal partnerships between people and between people and dogs. I thoroughly enjoyed my armchair trek across this frigid island nation in the company of Gretel Ehrlich, who travelled here repeatedly between 1995 and 2001 and intersperses her journeys with those of her historical model, Inuit Danish explorer, Knud Rasmussen, whose seven Arctic expeditions took in the west coast of Greenland and the far north of the North American continent. Once a year or so, I encounter a book that’s so flawlessly written you could pick out just about any sentence and marvel at its construction. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor is another one that springs to mind. That’s certainly the case here. Ehrlich is always describing the same sorts of scenery, and yet every time she finds a fresh way to write about ice and sun glare and frigid temperatures. For the most part, she absents herself, becoming just a photographic lens for transmitting the people and places she encounters. But we also get personal glimpses of the privations this kind of travel involves: missing the last plane of the season, not changing clothes for weeks, going hungry if a hunt fails, and the shock of blood on the snow when she steps off a sled to relieve herself and realises her period has arrived. I’ll be looking into her other books for sure.
And she’s pulled out a favourite paragraph: ‘The ice cap itself was a siren singing me back to Greenland. Its walls of blue sapphire and sheer immensity always beguiling, part jewel, part eye, part lighthouse, part recumbent monolith, the ice is a bright spot on the upper tier of the globe, where the world’s purse strings have been pulled tight, nudging the tops of three continents together. Summers it burns in the sun, and in the dark, it hoards moonlight. Doesn’t that just make you immediately want to run to the bookshop and get that? It did me.
It does. The descriptions of the blue icebergs comes up in The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven as well. This idea, we think of ice as being white. And actually glaciers and icebergs are all the shades of blue.
But Laura, we could not do an episode about a book set in Greenland without mentioning my favourite book set in Greenland, which we luckily have a whole podcast for people to enjoy. It’s episode six, and it is on a book one of Laura’s favourite books, called Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine, who is a Danish-Norwegian author. It’s translated brilliantly into English by Martin Aiken, and it is a strange, dark-edged historical novel that takes place in 18th-century Greenland, where a young Danish priest has been sent to preach Christianity to the Inuit. His name is Morten Falk, and his experiences are the focal point around which the novel turns but what the book really explores is the Inuit people’s experiences at the hands of the Danish colonisers who are shown to be ruthless and corrupt, and the collision of traditional ways with European culture. It’s quite a strange read. It’s the very definition of a visceral read. If someone says visceral book to me, I think Kim Leine. It’s very grounded in physicality, which you may or may not like. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like sleeping on a lice infested mattress or eating your own shoe, this is the book for you. I found it an incredibly powerful read, I was deeply engaged with the characters, the story, the twists and turns, it made for an interesting book club book, if anything, I would have to concede it probably was a bit long. And people struggled with that. But I still look back on it fondly to this day, and it was with much interest that I noticed that he has a new book out that’s just been published in English, which is called The Colony of Good Hope, which seems very much like a return to the themes I so much enjoyed in Prophets of Eternal Fjord.
That is an excellent follow on recommendation. And I will even put that into our book club Whatsapp group. But I’ll reiterate what I said on our podcast episode dedicated to that book, which was ‘I do not hate this book. But I hated reading it.’ Because Morten Falk is not Kpomassie in terms of how stoic and accepting he is of the deprivations he faces and he goes into great, great, great, great, great detail with lots of exciting adjectives to make you really, really feel it alongside him,
You do, but that’s, you know, that’s great literature, right there. A book I’d also recommend, perhaps you might have read? It was very popular in its day, it was published in the 1990s. And it’s called Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by a Danish author called Peter Høeg, translated from the Danish by Tina Nunnally. I generally am not much of a crime thriller reader, but this book is just a total favourite of mine. I’ve read it more than once. It’s almost like a slight comfort read to me. And the thing I love about it the most is its heroine Smilla, who is an interesting character, she is half Greenlandic. Her mother was Inuit and her father is a Danish doctor. And so she grew up in Greenland, she lived with her mother. And then when her mother died, I can’t remember she was killed by a walrus or seal or something? A walrus probably – can’t imagine someone being killed by seal. But anyway, then young Smilla is brought back to Denmark and then she lives in Denmark. And so it’s really interesting because through this character, the author is really exploring the culture clash between these two nations and the traditions and cultures of each.
Because Smilla grew up in Greenland she has this deep understanding of snow and ice. And that gives her almost like a kind of special insight into things that are going on around her. And so when a boy, another Greenlander, who is living with his mother in her apartment block falls to his death from the roof of that apartment block. The police say that it’s just an accident, a very tragic accident. But when she goes to look for herself, she can read in the snow, what happens and she knows that there was more to it than that. And so then this kickstarts this investigation, as she tries to uncover what really happened to this boy who was also her friend. It was made into a not very good film with Julia Ormonde. And for the film, what they did was they cleared up a lot of the ambiguities about the way the book ends. But actually, what’s great about the book is there’s a lot of ends, it doesn’t tie up and a lot of ideas that just let it linger. And that’s really much better than the film. But mainly it’s just this heroine, this unforgettable heroine, who is just brilliant and the way it’s written. It’s such a page turner, I absolutely love it. So if you’ve never read it, I really recommend it.
I have not read it. It sounds great.
That was one of my dad and stepmum’s Arctic recommendations
I’ve seen it on shelves many times and thought should I read that? So now perhaps I will.
Yes! It’s a thumping good read. Read it and then come back and tell us what you thought about it. I’d love to know.
Over to you. What’s a book set in the frozen north, or south, that you love. Comments here go straight to our inboxes, so drop us a line, we love to hear from you.