Into the void

I am very fond of Jenny Diski´s travel stories. She has written quite a few novels as well, but I haven´t yet read any. The first one I read was "Stranger on a train" ("Främlingar på tåg") and I just loved the contradictions. Diski does not like to travel, she does not like to meet new people. She´d much rather be left alone at home, doing nothing. Still, she travels, and she travels a lot, and not because she has to write about it either. She started out with this book, her first non-fiction, "Skating to Antarctica" ("På tunn is, en resa till Antarktis"), because it was the only way she could afford to go.

This is also a memoir, a story about her parents, the father who died in 1966, the mother who vanished only a few weeks later after a terrible row. Diski was 18 years old and had since never heard from her mother, to her great relief. Now, her own daughter was 18 and wanted to know. At least this: was the grandmother still alive? Diski entertainingly uses the analogy of Schrödinger´s cat to describe how she´d rather not know, how she preferred to keep her mother, so to speak, inside the box.

The trip to the Antarctic is a quest for a whiteout, for nothingness, for oblivion, for blissful emptiness. But even Antarctica proves to be full of colour and life, not to mention a bunch of (mostly American) fellow travellers. In the end, what she takes home with her is the experience of being inside her cabin, a most perfect cabin, not a cruiseship cabin with flowery carpets and colourful bed cloths, but a pure, white, research ship´s cabin, a perfectly functional space. Here, Diski finds the peace she craves and a severe cold allows her to stay in there for a few days without having to go up on deck. Being in her cabin, looking out the window at the icebergs passing by, becomes a piece of heaven.

In between the passages that recounts her journey, she remembers her past. Her parent´s violent rows, her mother´s childish demands for love, her father´s charming lies, the threats from both parents to kill themselves, the stays at boarding schools, foster parents, drugs, being hospitalized for years. Some of the things her parents call her she even agrees with, understanding their point of view, however unjust that point of view is. She is unsure whether she has actually processed her past or if she has just fled from it. She doesn´t really care. She just tells it.

In the end, when her daughter tells her that the mother is dead, when her old neighbours tell her about the rows and how bad it was, when her mother´s later neighbours tell about her rows with the new husband, Diski is relieved. Relieved that it wasn´t just her, that her mother actually was this really horrible person she remembers, other people can confirm it. And in that realization, the guilt she has felt all along but never acknowledged is finally laid to rest. Actually, I think guilt is at the core of this story, at the core of the longing for peace.

There was an article in the paper a few weeks ago about the urge to write to tell one´s life story. Apparently, this is something many people want to do. I have met a few, and they all seem to think that their story would somehow be healing to others. I´m sure they are right, or at least: they, themselves, have been healed by other people´s stories and now they want to give back. I understand that, I have myself found a lot of clues and comforts in biographies and biographical novels. However, I´m not sure I would want to do anything like that myself, even if I had a dramatic tale to tell, which I don´t. It takes a special gift, I think. Some people can write interestingly about a perfectly normal life, others tell boring tales about very unusual circumstances. I´m not sure what that gift is.

Diski has both talent and a special story. Most of all, she is completely devoid of sentimentality. She is brutally honest, which I appreciate. And, she has a sense of humour. Her life may have been tough, but never tragic. She is made of sterner stuff than that. She is a survivor, and as such, she can inspire anyone to do anything.

I also warmly recommend "On trying to keep still" ("Den motvillige resenären"), where she travels to my neck of the woods, Swedish Lapland. Hugely entertaining.

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