This is the book acclaimed by those who do the acclaiming as the bar-none most compelling tale of people having a bad time, ever told. Paul Theroux describes it as the best adventure book he’s ever read. Couple that with the perennial appearances on the ‘best this’ and ‘best that’ lists and it becomes clear that it deserves considerable consideration by those wishing to be well-read.
There is no doubt Garrard had a horrible time of it. Nor can it be argued that this narrative is anything but compelling; or that the quality of the prose is less than stellar. None-the-less, the accolades given this book lead one to ask, what is it that makes a book the best adventure book ever written? And is this it?
The Worst Journey in the World was written a decade after the fated 1911 Scott expedition to the South Pole. It is a compendium of Garrard's reminiscences and diary entries, as well as the diary entries of Scott, Lashy and others. For the most part it's a clear-heading accounting of the expedition that is both realistic of the hardships encountered and of the team's strengths and shortcomings. Granted, there is certain amount of romance in the telling, but for the most part it avoids the late century gosh-gee-whiz-let's-add-an-adjective school of story telling which ruins so many contemporary tales.
That said, how good is the book?
If the first criteria is the note-worthiness of the adventure itself, rest assured that Garrard's account qualifies. That Scott was runner-up in the race to the pole is reason enough to record the event. The fact that he did so in such miserable, and by all accounts unusually harsh conditions makes it even more so. Cherry-Garrard's winter expedition to collect eggs of from the previously unstudied Emperor penguins was downright awful, and a pre curser to the year ahead ...
" ... a trip so appalling, so horrendous, so absolute in its misery and its danger that you cannot think a man could endure it for a day, much less for five weeks"
In an era where falling into a crevice just once is seen as a cheating death, Cherry and crew impress with their daily, sometimes hourly plunges through rotted snow bridges. As do their accounts of floundering snow blind through mazes of impassable pressure ridges. Temperature as low as -60 and -70 degrees were common. Every morning the team would prop open the mouths of their sleeping bags so that they would be able to climb back into the frozen bags the subsequent evening. Horrendous hardly seems to be the appropriate epitaph. The fact they survived is beyond comprehending.
As odd as it to say, Scott's return journey from the pole replete with spectacularly frigid conditions, depleted supplies and eventual stormbound death seems almost manageable. Not that his journey was easier than Garrard's, but rather quieter and more in the norm of what you and I might expect to be overcome by ...
... blizzard bad as ever -- Wilson and Bowers unable to start -- tomorrow last chance -- no fuel and only one or two days of food left -- must be near the end. Have decided it shall be natural -- we shall march for the depot with or without our effects and die in our tracks.
Thursday, March 29th. Since the 21st we have had a continuous gale from W.S.W and S.W. We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.
It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more.
There is something familiar about the end; proof perhaps that we are mortal, that we are decent, and that there is an intrinsic worth in attempting the unlikely.
There is never any queston that the adventure itself (if one can call it an adventure ... Garrard certainly wouldn't object) is eponymous; it records one of the great endeavours of the modern era. As an adventure in-and-of-itself, however, it's hardly possible to rate it as greater or lessor on some arbitrary scale against F.A. Worsley's, Endurance. It's quite the tale; I'd be a fool to say otherwise. I'd also be a fool to claim it was the greatest of all and so, remain agnostic.
Which leads then to criterium number two; apart from the subject, is the narrative compelling? Well ... it isn’t a page turner like Touching the Void is a page turner, but it was written in a different era. And while it doesn’t plod, it is true to its intent and records the expedition as fully as Garrard thought possible. What this means is that everything from zoological observations to crew manifests are recorded, along with the joys and tribulations of the event.
Nor is Garrard interested in leaving the reader hanging at the end of each chapter; he was NOT negotiating a film deal in the background and the story proceeds accordingly ... everyone knows the ending and we get there eventually. What will surprise is how quickly it comes and how quickly the 550 pages disappear. Is it the most compelling narrative ever ... ? Not really, but it is good. And if one were to take readers' reactions from consumer sites into account the over-arching opinion has it that it's very good.
An adventure, no matter how worthy, coupled with a narrative superbly paced does not make a good book if the telling of the tale gets in the way. Common to much recently written adventure lit is a quality of over-enthusiasm ... a seeming need by the author to convince a reader of the awesomeness of the events; adjectives multiply, perspective seems lost and we're left wondering why the author needs to try so hard.
What will strike a reader is how unassuming Cherry-Garrard is, and how he under-states what the expedition was faced with. His is the precise opposite of a typical over-written, over hyped post millenial account. Stiff-upper-lipped-Britness explains it partially. Eric Newby does the same thing in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush where hardships are downplayed and collegiality reigns. It may be last-gasp-of-the-empire mentality, but the Brits of that class had class. And it shows. It's this quality exactly that has endeared the account to readers for the last century ... and I suspect it's what readers and editors are responding to when they call it the best adventure book ever.
It is good. It is very good. The best, however ... ? Geez, I'm going to weasel on this ... for it to be the best, it has to feel the best and somehow ... somehow ... somehow ...suffice it to say that Cherry Garrard's, The Worst Journey in the World is more compelling than most, better paced than most, and better written than almost all else. It will impress.
In addition to his lifelong interest in the outdoors recreation community, Trevor Paetkau is the proprietor of Moraine Adventure Books, an independent source of adventure, travel and sports literature as well as original reviews, articles and community resources.
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