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At December the 14th 1911, Roald Amundsen claimed victory by reaching the geographic South Pole weeks before his rival, Englishmen Robert Falcon Scott, in a race that never has been one.
Ever since the „prerogative of interpretation“ in what regards nature of the contest, as well as heroism, furtiveness, endurance, inability, virtue and candor, of its protagonists is as fiercely disputed as the original cause itself. To many Shackleton is regarded as the true leader, Amundsen the congenial perfectionist, Scott the genuine man of honor driven by finest sense of responsibility to self-abandonment. Yet there are also more critical voices, questioning Scott`s motives, background, and not least personal abilities. Others, in turn, openly condemn Amundsen not less for forcing Scott into a battle with unequal arms.
It thus comes as little to no surprise that over the course of 2011, that is 100 years later, ample documentaries, reports, and coverages of all sorts were looking back to what is know to many as the „Heroic Age of Polar Exploration“. Amongst those, however, two books will certainly stand out; „Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen“ from Robert Huntford (published in 2010 to be precise) as well as „Pol: Hjalmar Johansens Hundejahre“ from Reinhold Messner.
The former is well-known for his harsh critics about Scott, ranging way beyond Scott himself but fundamentally addresses the British Empire and it`s desperate attempt to battle its decay. Scott, a royal navy officer with background in the lower, fading ranks of the British establishment, may thus too be seen as the prefect symptom of a hence much broader cause. And indeed, Huntford argues extensively along these lines, and so does Preston, Fiennes, Thomson, and many more. Yet non of latter so fundamentally, consequently, but also controvert as Huntford. Eventually, Huntford, which is by all accounts one of a handful persons regarded as to be a true master of this domain, may be seen as to have given in to a sense of compulsion, most notably after Ranulph Fiennes defense of Robert Falcon Scott from the perspective of a man that stood at the very same forlorn place on earth, the South Pole. And fate has it, despite being an argumentative stretch, this compulsion may indeed connect to a similar force that drove Scott. That is to remain known as a man of great ability but ill-posed achievements, evidenced by post-analytic scrutiny carried out by a set of eager scholars in quest of seizing „prerogative of interpretation“.
The author of the second book, Reinhold Messner, and Ranulph Fiennes share this unique polar experience. But Messner`s journalistic compass points to the north albeit being to the South Pole, to personal tragedy of similar sort, the life of Hjalmar Johansen. This book is (to the best of my knowledge) only the second account about the life of a man who““““““““s place in history is still to be granted. A man full of virtues at one hand, and human shortcomings and weaknesses at the other. The typical underdog, given this one and only chance, earned via uncompromised, honest endurance of inhuman hardship „Farthest North“. Ragnar jr. Kvam was first to question and revise the common perception of Hjalmar Johansen, especially in his homeland Norway, and perhaps from the perspective of a patriot. Now Reinhold Messner adds to this from his very own perspective, albeit it remains to be seen – to me – what the result will be. But no matter how positive or negative this account will eventually be, one honorable deed is that Messner popularity will draw attention to the achievements of a man that has suffered the most from being sidelined, from being left alone „In the Shade“. Regretfully, history once again proves that justice takes time, too much time in so many cases, in the case of Hjalmar Johansen, whose life found an undignified end in one of Oslo““““““““s parks, likely a place that most closely resembled the spirit way beyond Franz Joseph Land.
The interested reader may visit DIWAN, a literature review broadcast by the German radio station BR. The Dec 2011 issue featured a review and interview with Messner about his book (download podcast, in German only)
“Never stop because you are afraid – you are never so likely to be wrong. Never keep a line of retreat: it is a wretched invention. The difficult is what takes a little time; the impossible is what takes a little longer.”
— Fridtjof Nansen
A new chapter in a most likely never ending quest for truth, a new book by Roland Huntsford „Race for the South Pole: The Expedition Diaries of Scott and Amundsen“ .