Reviewed by CARRROLL DU CHATEAU
The clue to this collection of writing about Antarctica is in the sub-title: writers imagine Antarctica. And imagine they do, many of them with a cold, stealthy foreboding that paints the white continent as a place of horror.
Back in the summer of 1998 Bill Manhire, poet, novelist, teacher, was one of the first writers to be sent down to the snow on an Artists' in Antarctica trip. Now this book, compiled while he was a world away in sun-baked Menton, in the south of France, "makes room for authors who have never been to Antarctica ... samples some of the ways it has been devised by the human imagination".
There are imaginary voyage narratives satirising European customs; extracts that build on the notion of Antarctica's purity and perfection; the heroic behaviour the ice somehow inspires; pure terror.
Writers featured span eight centuries and range from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with an electrifying extract from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, to Ursula le Guin and her fictional story about a group of women who follow Captain Scott to the South Pole.
Poets are well represented too. Denis Glover, Dante, Chris Orsman, Manhire himself are here, as are some writers who actually did make it to the ice. Robert Falcon Scott is represented by his journal entry, "Impressions on the march", written well before the famous "canonical" last passages in the same journal — but which Manhire decided to avoid.
This is a marvellously unpredictable book, from a man who must have read almost everything written about Antarctica, from the brilliant to the excruciatingly awful — and who plucked a piece from many of them, including the title of the "very bad" novel, The Wide White Page, from which he took the name for this fascinating collection.
* Victoria University Press, $34.95