Thursday, April 21, 2011

*Victim of the Aurora, by Thomas Keneally

Harvest Books/Harcourt, 2001
originally published 1978
219 pp

Author Thomas Keneally was, according to the preface, an "Antarctic buff,"

...for the same reasons people today are teased by questions of space colonization. Antarctica was part of this planet yet it was not. It had no human natives to give it a history and a mythology. The humans who went there to give it meaning were not part of normal communities.  They were woman-less men, Antarctic monks.... What they went through was the ultimate test of human flesh available to their generation, and any who came home from the experience were greeted as a sanctified brotherhood and met by the reverence of their world. They were men who transcended their time...

Keneally also wondered about the seeming lack of conflict (especially in the official journals and the later writings of expedition leaders and other officials) among crews of various explorers, even though “the expeditionary parties must have been as riven with presonality conflicts and even disorders as are any modern endeavors of exploration.”  As a reader of several nonfiction, first-hand accounts of various explorers, this is something that I’ve also wondered about.  It's human nature for groups of people stuck together for long periods to experience some sort of conflict, and in the desolation of Antarctica, such close proximity in darkness that lasts so long, the cold, and the isolation from the rest of the world  must have most certainly made some sort of impression on the human mind.

Victim of the Aurora is a story of one such fictional expedition that took place in 1909, related by Anthony Piers, a well-known artist of the day and now looking back at age 92 from his retirement home.  Piers was invited by the expedition leader, Sir Eugene Stewart, to accompany the Antarctic explorers as the expedition artist. Also invited were a popular journalist (who today might be a star among the tabloid set) and a cinematographer.  The inclusion of a group of such notables on a scientific expedition was purposefully designed to use the fruits of their labors during their time in Antarctica to sell to make up any debt left at the end of the trip.  But shortly after the expedition arrives in Antarctica, the journalist, Victor Henneker, winds up murdered.  Stewart has the onerous task of not only coordinating all of the scientific observations and preparations for his own attack on the Pole, but now he must head up an investigation to discover who among his crew caused Henneker's death.  This will not be an easy task, because it seems that Henneker kept a journal in which he exposed the deepest secrets of many of his companions, so everyone seems to have had a reason to do away with him.

If this were the full story, well, it would be both a decent and entertaining murder mystery and there wouldn't be much more to say, but it's what's underneath the murder  that really makes up this novel.  As the author writes,

...the concept came to me to write of a great Antarctic exploration of the Edwardian era as if it were indeed (ital) a product of the same world that produced World War I; an expedition whose crimes were a prelude to the crimes of the war.

In this context, Keneally looks at a confused morality of the period -- not simply in terms of such normal societal issues  like adultery, homosexuality, and illegitimacy and class distinctions. He also raises a number of  very intelligent questions, for example, -- how can men entrusted to such positions of authority sometimes take it upon themselves to do things that go against the grain of moral and ethical principles?  And what can be said about people who tacitly condone and participate in such actions because of someone’s interpretation of that age-old, utilitarian idea of a higher good?  What causes people to make the choice between “go on,” or “no, stop and sleep?”  And what will be the end result on a man’s psyche in the long run?  Finally, does a "civilized" person's isolation from the rest of the world have a bearing on his actions in his current environment?  How this all relates to this particular Antarctic expedition I won’t reveal here, so as not to spoil it for anyone who might be interested in reading this book., but there is a great deal to consider as you read through the pages of this novel.

Although originally written in 1978, and nowhere near as well known as his Schindler’s List, Victim of the Aurora is still a good read.  You can read it as simply a murder story, but there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface than an Antarctic whodunit.  There are a lot of interesting characters, many of whom wobble in some areas of the moral zone yet simultaneously condemn others for doing the same thing in other areas. At times the book is a bit tedious and a few times tends to stray, but all the same, I think readers will find it a most interesting novel. 

fiction from Australia


  1. I hadn't actually heard of this title by Keneally... may have something to do with it being published so long ago, but I might look this one up!

  2. He's probably much better known for Schindler's List; if you want a copy of this book, I'll send it to you.


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