Translated from German by Ralph Freedman
And so from a protagonist who couldn’t wait to leave the sea behind to one who spent his life itching to get onto a ship to discover the North West Passage. John Franklin was more than a naval officer and arctic explorer. He was also the governor of Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land) from 1839 to 1843.
But before all that he was a boy and the first part of Nadolny’s novel is devoted to his Lincolnshire childhood and the characteristic which separated him from the other children – his slowness. Not in the sense of lacking in mental capability, but in the sense of not being spontaneous, taking time to react, to respond. Neither does this improve with age. As Franklin’s career progresses, he compensates by practicing imagined scenarios … and ensuring there is a quick-witted right-hand man by his side. Note well this characteristic is an invention of Nadolny’s making, who decided his Franklin would be a role model, a poster boy, if you will, for the advantages of slowing down the pace of life. (Apparently a big thing in 1980s Germany, which is why this novel, originally published in 1983, became a runaway success.) Thus Franklin’s slowness is shown to be a good thing. While other folk are hurry-scurrying around in times of great stress – when under sniper fire at the battle of Trafalgar, or lost on the Arctic ice – Franklin takes time to think about the problems at hand to find effective solutions. Which, of course, the real Franklin would have had to do. Whether he would have been so measured about it is another matter entirely.
I have to admit Nadolny sometimes labours his point, but not so that it irritated me. In parts the pace of the novel reflects Franklin’s (fictional) slowness: his childhood in Lincolnshire, the times on land between ship voyages. At others it’s all systems-go: sea battles at Copenhagen (1801), Trafalgar (1805). Then there is the prolonged suspense of the two Arctic expeditions: the first over land, with its dependency on native Indian tribes and Innuits for tracking and supplies, together with the miscalculations which resulted in many starving to death; Franklin, himself, barely making it out alive; the second, the ill-fated attempt on ship to discover the North West Passage from which there were no survivors.
Nadolny has written a fascinating, vivid historical novel which shows Franklin to be a humane commander and a progressive governor during his time on Van Diemen’s Island. Though it’s fair to say that if you don’t like novels depicting life at sea, it’s probably not for you. Now, despite my fear of the sea, I do enjoy novels on the ocean wave, especially when details reveal insights that astound me. In this case, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact men willingly took to sea for a three-year expedition to the Arctic in ships they knew to be leaking. Is that bravery or insanity?
Canongate was founded in 1973 developing, since that time, a diverse catalogue with milestone publications such as Alasdair’s Gray’s Lanark, the best-selling booker winner Life of Pi, and Barack Obama’s memoirs. In 2011 Canongate’s CEO, Jamie Bing founded World Book Night. He was also instrumental in bringing back William McIlvanney’s beloved (yes, really) Laidlaw series back to print. The Discovery of Slowness is part of The Canons, a series of classics and soon-to-be classics; a list which truly showcases the diversity of the Canongate catalogue.