Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 4, 2016

A Woman in the Polar Night, by Christiane Ritter, translated by Jane Degras

A Woman in the Polar NightIf you’re anything like me, you’ll read this book in a mixture of fascination and dismay.

Christiane Ritter was 34 years old when in 1933 she spent a year in Svalbard (Spitsbergen) in the Arctic with her husband, described on the blurb as an explorer and researcher.  But he’s not, according to her testimony in this memoir.  He’s a hunter, one of those inextricably linked to what the Scottish naturalist Seton Gordon describes as the silence that broods ceaselessly about the lands that approach the Pole.  Lawrence Millman, who quotes Gordon in the introduction, tells us that this silence is because

Spitsbergen, or to use its Norwegian name, Svalbard… was still close enough to Europe that it could be pillaged by Europeans far more easily than, for instance, Arctic Canada.  By 1934, when Christiane arrived, wildlife had become relatively scarce, and the taking of animals was strictly regulated by Norwegian law. (p. 2)

So as you read Christiane’s awestruck delight in the beauty of the Arctic, and you marvel at her courage when she is left alone in a blizzard, and you admire her fortitude in coping with so many privations, and you take a sharp breath when you realise that she and her husband have taken these risks while leaving a child (!) back in Germany – it also slowly dawns on you that whatever scientific explorations her Hermann may have done in the past, on this trip and on many others he and his mate Karl are there to hunt.  Mainly Arctic foxes, for furs.  Fur coats and those grotesque little tippets that women used to wear slung around their necks in the 1930s.

And because Hermann and Karl are there to hunt, (and Christiane as tourist cum hausfrau is there to keep her husband company) they also have to hunt for food.  Or they say they have to.  I am not convinced that they could not in 1934 have taken adequate supplies.  Anyway, they kill seals, ptarmigans (a kind of grouse, a game bird), gulls, and a polar bear.

Christiane often expresses sentiments that people who love animals do.  There is a fox they call Mikkl and train as a trusting house fox, feeding him up so that he will be a fine specimen in due course.  Christiane doesn’t want it killed:

“Poor Mikkl, you’re traipsing to your own doom. In a few days the fox trapping will begin; they’re after your life. They will pull your beautiful fur over your head and send you far away where a lot of people live close to each other.  There they will give you glittering eyes made of glass, and then you will hang in one of the thousands of glittering shops in one of the thousands of glittering streets, together with thousands of other glittering things”.  (p. 81)

Christiane also often comments on the shallow values that she claims to have left behind, but in which she is complicit, since her husband supplies this market:

No, the Arctic does not yield its secret for the price of a ship’s ticket. You must live through the long night, the storms and the destruction of human pride. You must have gazed on the deadness of all things to grasp their livingness. In the return of light, in the magic of the ice in the life-rhythm of the animals observed in the wilderness, in the natural laws of all being, revealed here in their completeness, lies the secret of the Arctic and the overpowering beauty of its lands. (p.214)

On the day that Hermann and Karl leave to begin the fur trapping, Christiane expresses her distaste, vainly imploring and beseeching, using [her] entire stock of feminine coquetry to protect Mikkl, and she frees the fox when he is caught scrabbling in the trap that readers had previously been assured killed the animals instantly.  But there are hunters all over Svalbard, just like Hermann and Karl, killing the other foxes.  The text implies that Mikkl is never seen again because his trust is broken.  It’s much more likely that he was killed.

“You shouldn’t measure animals’ feelings with a human scale”, [Hermann] says soothingly when Christiane expresses sympathy for a seal mother whose pups have been taken by a bear (p. 186) – and she doesn’t, not by the time their supplies have run short and they kill a bear.

Despite a fierce wind, Hermann goes out to inspect the traps and comes back with the joyful news.  With knife and sleigh we make our way to Odden through the whirling snow.

The powerful beast is lying in front of the trap, a small hole in its forehead.  It takes all our strength just to turn the bear over in order to skin it.  It is freezing work in the storm. We have just loaded the pelt onto our hand sleigh when the gulls come, screeching and circling around the corpse.

Now we are rid of our worries about food and begin to enjoy life. (p. 202)

But you noticed, as I did, that they take the inedible pelt on the sleigh…

I ask myself why I deplore this hunting when I made no objection to it in my review of The Home of the Blizzard. Obviously explorers like Mawson in the Antarctic hunted polar animals for food too, so on the face of it I am being inconsistent.  But although Millman is scornful about the luminaries of Arctic exploration, calling them an unpleasantly obsessive bunch,  I think there is something different about the heroic age of exploration because the privations suffered and the hunting done for survival have to do with the quest for knowledge and scientific discovery.  Nothing to do with anything as banal as women wearing furs…

On the one hand Ritter’s memoir (which has been a bestseller in Europe for decades) contributed to public awareness of the environmental values of the Arctic, and I found it worth reading for the descriptions of the glorious Arctic landscapes and for the author’s growing self-knowledge as she learns to deal with isolation, fear and the eerie cycle of the Arctic day and night.  But I found their purpose in being there repugnant even though I understand that their attitudes derive from the values of the time.

Not that our attitudes are any much better.  It’s on our watch that the polar ice caps are melting and the habitat of declining animal populations is being destroyed.  We all know it too, and if we belatedly ever get round to doing something meaningful about it, it’s only because our habitats are becoming dangerous and uncomfortable.

Author: Christiane Ritter
Title: A Woman in the Polar Night
Translated from the German by Jane Degras
Publisher: Greystone Books, 2010 (first published 1938)
ISBN: 9781602231009
Source: Gift of Jenny S, thanks Jenny!

Availability

Fishpond: A Woman in the Polar Night


Responses

  1. I suppose the move you mention from explorers who had to hunt to survive and adventurers who hunt for profit is a mirror of how we treat the natural world in general. We discover it, we marvel at it, and then we start wondering how we can make a profit from it, and those who still want to stand back and marvel are seen as self-indulgent softies. I just saw an SBS doco about the effect of climate change since the dawn of human history that scared the pants off me.

    • Yes, and I remain unconvinced that all those nature docos (Attenborough et al) actually make people care enough about nature to change their ways. It seems to me that we have gone backwards since the 70s. You didn’t have to be a hippie back then to insist that excess packaging be removed in the shop so that *they* had to get rid of it and would pressure manufacturers to reduce it. We didn’t have the takeaway coffee cup culture. It wasn’t normal to buy meat, vegetables and fruit in plastic trays. I see how careless people – especially young people who ought to care the most – are these days and I despair…


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