NPR logo Sly, Sinister 'Aurorarama': An Arctic Utopia In Peril

Book Reviews

Sly, Sinister 'Aurorarama': An Arctic Utopia In Peril

By Jean-Christophe Valtat
Hardcover, 416 pages
Melville House
List price: $25.95
Read An Excerpt

The North Pole has long been more a place of fable and fantasy than a solid place to plant a flag. Unlike its sturdy and stable twin the South Pole, the North is built on constantly shifting fields of ice, so the bit of ground you label the pole today might drift five miles away soon after. No wonder so many of the stories centered on the North Pole — Hollow Earth theories, the tales of lost Edenic paradise, and, um, Santa Claus — survived for hundreds of years. How do you know they're not true? That the proof didn't slide over the horizon just as you stepped forward?

Parisian professor Jean-Christophe Valtat is obviously well versed in the extensive North Pole mythology — his many epigraphs quote from centuries of it. Out of these stories he builds New Venice, an early 20th century almost-Utopia established deep in the Arctic Circle. It's an almost-Utopia because the city has been hijacked from its original settlers by a sinister council and its (very well dressed) henchmen, the Gentlemen of the Night, who ostracize the Inuit and Scavengers (a polar version of the Untouchable caste) and crack down on the city's nightlife. A small number of citizens start to formulate plans to restore New Venice to its founding principles of fairness and inclusion. The radical, anonymous pamphlet A Blast on the Barren Land has been circulating, calling for revolution, and it is not a good omen when a sled carrying a woman's corpse clutching a mirror with a secret message shows up outside town. Then there are the drugs (snowcaine, Letheon, boilers), the mysterious black airship that quietly hangs over the city, the woman who stopped time for a little bit, the mad Russian bomber, and the magician's assistant with a star field tattooed on her back.

Jean-Christophe Valtat i

Jean-Christophe Valtat also wrote the novels Exes and 03. Melville House hide caption

toggle caption Melville House
Jean-Christophe Valtat

Jean-Christophe Valtat also wrote the novels Exes and 03.

Melville House

Valtat enhances his text with Inuit words, relying on their wonderful specificity, like a philosopher throwing around compound German terms. (Qarrtsiluni: "the time when something is about to explode in the dark." Ingersarvik: "meant something like 'Humping Place.' ") The detail extends to the time period — it's set in 1908 — with Victorian scientists, anarchists and explorers. It was a big age, with glamorous clothing and a sense of worlds to be conquered, and it suits Valtat's ambitions.

What saves Aurorarama from being too dense and overwhelming is the writer's obvious joy for working with the material. The sense of utter uniqueness and the madcap world-building never capsizes the story of revolution and resistance. Rather, it entrances and delights. You could spend years picking apart the sly references and the particular myths, poems, novels and songs that inspired Valtat, or you can simply enjoy it for the experience. Valtat is making his American debut in a big way — his novella 03 was published in June by Farrar Straus & Giroux — and with his remarkable enthusiasm and bravery, it's completely possible he'll conquer the world.

Excerpt: 'Aurorarama'

By Jean-Christophe Valtat
Hardcover, 416 pages
Melville House
List price: $25.95

In New Venice, every year around February 15, when the sun goes up for the first time after four months of polar night, it is customary for the inhabitants to gather on the bridges and embankments and take off their mittens and hats to salute the benevolent star. By this, as the Inuit do, they manifest their respect and also their hope that they will be alive at the same time next year. It is a well-known piece of local lore that, having mocked this ritual, the German explorer Mr. Wulff died from cold, hunger, and exhaustion a few months afterward.

As far as Gods go, the Sun may not have, it is true, the most impressive record. He has certainly none of the gift of the gab that runs in the Jehovah family and when it comes to throwing lightning bolts Jove-style, He is as inept as the average mortal. But, down to earth as He is, when one needs a God who is punctual, reliable, and handy around the house, and that is exactly the kind of deity one needs above 80 North, good old Ray is likely to be the connoisseur's first pick. This is why, whatever confessions they claim to belong to, the New Venetians are at least once a year sun-worshipping heathens of the purest ilk. The sun, on this day, just stays around — more than up — for an hour or so, but when the night comes down again, the crowds throw a party in the streets that is noisy, spectacular, and messy, full of dominoes, fireworks, confetti, screams, laughter, brawls, trysts, and vomitus.

There is, however, a corporation for which this could be said to be the worst time of the year: the shore workers of the Septentrional Scavenging and Sewerage Service, whose ungrateful duty it is to clean up the mess. It was during the long night of that short day that one of their "gangs" made a strange discovery.

The three men, clad in the traditional black overcoats, white bird masks and wide-brimmed hats of their plague doctors' outfits, operated in foggy Niflheim, the northernmost part of the city, right at the corner of the Pining and Pothorst canals. Their chasse-gallerie — as the shore men call their barges — was waiting just below the embankment, still in sled mode, for the ice on the canals had not been broken yet, as it would ritually be for the Spring Equinox.

Their sturdy silhouettes fading in and out of the thickening mist, the Scavengers were busy hooking an over-brimming large dustbin to the crane in the barge when all of a sudden a faint jingling sound made them turn their long hooked beaks toward Byfrost Bridge. There, coming from where the canal dissolved into the night, passing the rare gas lamps that smeared the milky fog with blurs of livid light, emerged by and by, and much to their surprise, a sled whose pack of dogs had no driver at all.

The ghost sled approached, as steadily as allowed by the dreamlike strangeness of its apparition, and as it arrived next to the chasse-gallere, stopped right there on its own. Wrapped in a cloud of breath and steamy fur that blended with the surrounding haze, the dogs stood still and, heads tilted, stared with intelligent eyes at the three Scavengers.

Such men, whether by trade or character, are not easily troubled, but this went, or came from, beyond the pale. They gazed at each other for a quizzical while. Chipp, who led the gang, eventually walked toward the edge of the embankment, snapped open the skates inserted in the soles of his hip boots, and lowered himself carefully onto the ice, while his gang mates reached for their lever-guns and watched over his progress. The dogs, however, showed no nervosity or fear as Chipp slid closer to them, his skates grating in the silent night.

The sled struck him as a curious hybrid of Inuk technique — its runners were obviously one of those complex mosaics of driftwood and animal bones — but its body was of a quite different nature: the platform was a copper cylinder, painted black, but with a pale green glass or crystal lid, over which Chipp leaned as far as his beak allowed, trying to see if there was something inside.

It was not something, but someone: a lady. Old enough. Dead, or so it seemed, as no blur of breath troubled the glass above her thin dark lips and her pale bony face. She wore a sober black dress of antique cut, and on her lap, her long fine hands were placed around an oval, silver-framed mirror that reflected a distant, dreamy image of Chipp's bird mask.

He thumped on the glass with his thick black glove, knowing that it was useless, that the heavily made up eyelids would not open at his signal. He wondered what he should do with this spectacular piece of tosh — as they referred to their findings. Report it to the authorities? Certainly. But for Scavengers, the authorities were first and foremost their own tight community. They would decide together what to do.

What puzzled him most was that the sled seemed to have come straight from the North. And he knew that north of here there was nothing, and maybe not even that.

Excerpted from Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat. Copyright 2010 by Jean-Christophe Valtat. Excerpted by permission of Melville House.

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