The “Fram” is a three-master. I can see her if I turn my head. She consists largely of wood and canvas. She is weathered and smudged with oil and has surmounted long distances, sailing all the way to the magnetic poles, to Greenland and through the ice in the Northwest Passage. Documents and notes taken by the captain and the crew in the cabins below. Never before has a wooden ship sailed further north or south. And what used to be a model vessel on the windowsill next to my desk is now pounding and wallowing through arctic seas. Wafts of mists are billowing between the canvasses and plaited ropes. Strange birds, although invisible due to the haziness, can be heard. They are screaming and screeching their “Kike-lee-lie!”, “Kike-lee-lie!”, and it gets right under my skin and into my limbs.
Where exactly am I?, where are we? – because a crew has to be on board of its ship. Without our effort, the sails won’t hoist. My memories are unclear. Didn’t I just see a grey-haired captain, just a while ago (Minutes? Hours? Days?), standing there on the bridge? Or was it by the steering wheel towards the rear? A bare-headed captain. And no bonnet above his angular face. Where are you captain, oh captain? I have to reposition myself immediately. Here, within the imagery of the former North we want to explore with Fridtjof Nansen’s ship, there is no haven like the one by my homely desk.
The “Fram” is 39 metres long and exactly 11 metres wide. With a draught reaching right down to 4,75 metres, her capacity pushes aside 800 tons of water. The ship carries 602 square metres of canvas. According to my notes, she should be transporting a polar giraffe – or may have done so in the past. I am not entirely sure yet about the expedition’s schedule and geographical route; but to me it seems impossible. There is no large crate stowed away on deck, yet in lower storeys I managed to find a small picture of this impressive long-necked, snow-white creature – it was in fact rather the photo of a picture. Oil. Surely it originated from a journey that began before I came on board.
Two of the ship’s dinghies have disappeared. Only the third one is still there, dithering in its rack by the railing, knocking against the cordage. The fluttering tarpaulin got torn off and is quivering in the wind, like a large wing of one of those… “Teke-lee-lie!”, “Teke-lee-lie!”; I am not sure whether this wind is normal, normal under nautical conditions, I am uncertain what kinds of secrets are awaiting us. I ask myself: have, perhaps, members of the crew abandoned the boat, taking the missing dinghies with them – but then, in the captain’s cabin, I eventually find a list of names: Sebastian Burger, Carolin Knoth, David O’Kane, Kristina Schuldt, Mandy Kunze, Stefan Guggisberg, Robert Seidel.
The ship’s log provides me with a contradictory summary of the crew’s hierarchy. Stefan Guggisberg is frequently referred to as someone who has adopted the role of a navigator or cartographer. The information given about the other members varies between first, second or third officer, deck cadet, steerswoman, chief of galley. In a way, and oddly enough, a certain equality of treatment prevails on board of the ship. Everything is, seemingly, tumbled and twirled in this storm, yet it all ensues a mysterious, clear order. However, when it comes to the captain, I am simply unable to find further details. A half-finished model of the “Bounty” can be found on his desk, a table which is bestrewn with papers and maps (some bear Guggisberg’s signature, some others are signed by Robert Seidel), large drafts that scare me, a few unfamiliar tools, some of which resemble monstrous paintbrushes or similar painting tools. Much of what can be found on this table has been overwritten, repainted or scribbled on. Inkpots filled with all sorts of colours have tipped over, thereby drawing latitudes and longitudes across the chaos. (An untouched postcard depicting Lionel Feininger, a ship, sloped aside in shallow waters by a pale-brown beach, in front of the horizon, the sketchy geometrical silhouettes of houses in the background behind the ship, the card is subscribed with “Ebb”.)
By now, the pounding and rolling of the “Fram” has clearly declined, or is it perhaps only my imagination? The large room I find myself in after leaving the captain’s cabin is shrouded in darkness. How come I am not afraid, I wonder, considering that the ship is, seemingly, roaming through the unknown. Amidst such strong winds – wouldn’t it be advisable to strike the sails? I read about this somewhere. Yet what counts down here in the pitch dark hull of the ship is not what is going on outside.
And suddenly my eyes capture a variance, see the shadows of figures, shapes of human beings, settling in the room in front of me. Though it seems that the naval mist has permeated into the hull and is hovering around these creatures. Materialising more and more, their arms are forging towards the ceiling, towards the planks above us, arms that are clenching their fists. I draw back. Revolting wights, first sprouting, then disappearing in the mist. Some of the planks these creatures are turning to are virtually glowing and there is this impermeable black between those yellow boards. Towards the edge of this scenery (reminding me of a mutiny) are ghostly humans, humane ghosts. Dazzling white and yet diffuse. Like the polar giraffe I lost track of long ago. I am trying to remember a film, John Carpenter made it, its title is “The Fog”. John Carpenter is a traveller from modern times, in search of the post and the icy islands of fear and the rebellious inbetweens and the doorways leading into deep red dimensions. Behind it is a narrow opening, smouldering in a blazing red. Or is it all leaning towards that spherical lamp whose bottom part is also dissolving into the fog. Suddenly the fog resembles a finely woven fishing net that is covering the statures, entangled in longings… and overhead are clear geometrical planks. We are doomed if the water starts to soak in from all sides.
Underwater worlds. Are we sinking? Vanishing into the deep hearts of the seas? Is Jona’s whale on its way, coming to devour us, shifting us into its snug stomach?
For a moment I feel as if I have already vanished into the depth of this whale, surrounded by peculiar membranes, brute/vegetal, skin flaps, a small red scarab on one of these flaps, like a nice ulcer, a sea urchin, round and thistly like one of those old buoyant mines. Ledges and elevations, slimy strands like waterfalls teeming with abyssal dragonflies, colours ranging from pale to bright. We are on the “Fram”, Ladies and… “fifteen men on the dead man’s chest…” and all of a sudden two women: “Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum”, and then everything changes and my mouth is filled with water.
Two women, side-by-side, and yet so different. Big bubbles are rising up towards the ceiling, “I am Carolin Knoth, chief officer”, “I am David O’Kane, chief officer”, I am bullshit”, I mumble, “I want to join you on your journey.”
The woman, O’Kane, is looking past me, staring at the ground or, more precisely, somewhere beneath, into the nought. Although… that’s not true. An underwater rabbit is lurking there on one of the ledges below us, the “Fram” has a draught of 4 point seven five and sixhundredandtwo under keel, the animal has blue, pointy ears and its head is framed by a yellowy, fluffy membranous collar, and the woman, it is O’Kane again, is wearing a pale blue jacket, and a mourning resignation permeates the waves of water inside my head photo-realistically (What a stupid word that is. As if photos and reality are…). The chief officer Knoth is also unable to look into my eyes. What made them mourn? Her face under the stripy hat is covered by shadows. They are so close to each other, yet their resigned miens distinguish them. If anything else resigns now, too, the ship will fall apart, with or without its captain, and sink down to the bottom of the arctic seas of the former North. “I need your strength”, I babble. “And where is the rest of the crew? We want to travel further, to the islands, so that I can meet you again!”
The room behind Miss Knoth is reddish, the one behind petty officer O’Kane is made of black, shiny coal. Her hair is also dark and gleamy, every single strand makes me sad, “you should explore this unfamiliar ship!”
The sound in my salt-steeped ears is polyphonic, sounding in five, in six voices, then all I hear are crystals of salt that jingle while the water drains off. Somehow, somewhere, and, from one moment to the next, the room of spirits is clear. “Don’t forget the steering-wheel later on”, a dark voice mumbles. “You will have to keep a clear head between the coordinates”. Was that the captain? But the room oil on canvas changes, second by second, or very frequently at least (space time words image is that correct?), a bird flies by, my next impression is that it is standing still in the middle of these lower deck coordinates, motionless, in the air. Damn, I have to go upstairs, on deck, I have to track the expedition from the bridge! I can sense the proximity of unexplored shores and icy countries (we all love soft serve, pantry!), the deep-frozen East, “Kike-lee-lie”, a figure shows up behind the bird, four images, deep-frozen and yet flexible, the Fram’s cinematograph. We are blindfolded and stroking the bird’s feathering. Is it a dove? Like the one in Noah Jona whaler Ahab? White and grey and pale blue feathers, it has a reassuring effect. Is the storm outside also pale blue, grey and white?
And O’Kane, chief officer, petty officer, steerswoman, turns the subspace into emptiness, tables and passengers are covered by white cloths in that rotating tunnel inside the hull. I am trying to reach the ladder, as if in slow-motion, aiming at the steps leading to the deck. We are inside a game. Neatly lined up on the vanished captain’s table, hidden under the dirty white – the table, that is – are disembodied hands, picking up the threads of a children’s game. An airy smoke is hovering above it all. Is our captain oh my captain maybe smoking his pipe of peace? The wind is blowing through the bull’s-eyes, Nansen and Amundsen bestead us, Fram Fram I hate cod liver. A cube on the blankets, difficult to describe. Nothing means as it seems. The cube is glowing in all magnetic directions, illuminated in yellow and a greenish orange. Whoever touches it will navigate our ship right into hell. The cenobites are awaiting us already; the hands on this little cube are ticking, casting a cloud onto the chaos of colours, throwing their bodies from the cenobites’ nightmares across the pool table. “Are you playing pool with Nansen here on the ship, Kristina Schuldt?”, an escapee asks, a cube dweller who claims to be the captain on our journey, our frosty journey. Cubic bodies are lying there, squirming on the pool table that was brought onto the ship by Master Amundsen himself. Before Scott died, the queue time was long and large in the ice of the South Pole.
And the gigantic giant is sitting there in the cabins, with a bare red chest. The pale woman is lying on the pool table, wrapped in a hula skirt, and the mobile phone lures me back under deck with its rays and ringing, claiming that Max Ernst is on the phone, claiming that the English artist Clive Barker has opened the doorway to hell with his magical cubes, claiming that the red cubic giant is being fed by his mother Kristina, even though I am waiting for him on the islands by the missing boats. I can hear the buzzing of the wheel and am fighting my way out of this nightmare of colours and images.
And outside, on deck, a sudden silence, like in the eye of the hurricane, and a faint glow pervades the fog from all sides.
And a man is standing there under the mast in the middle (according to my limited nautical knowledge, this must be the main mast), so beneath the main mast is this man, dressed in black, a man with a very pale face. The dim light that seems to emanate from this man is enclosing the “Fram” like a big bubble, like a warp bubble. I wonder whether it is actually a warp bubble. If only I could ask the captain. Surely he would know a lot about the phenomena one encounters in the realm of art and also on its seven and more seas (a leap in time. I am writing about this journey while sitting in a foreign city, outdoors are floodwaters, and, as I look towards the window, I can see how the light in the only illuminated window in the multi-storey building across the road goes out, and later, underneath this dark tall building, I am sleeping and dreaming, dreaming about a small boat that has one mast only, and its sail is like a large playing card. The boat is floating above the water, floating by the horizon. I have seen it before, but I can’t remember where it was. Fram, Fram, solitude, a needle has pierced the eye of the beholder, Robert Seidel, cartographer in the golden age.).
And the black and white man is still standing under the main mast, laying his hands on the knob of a cane. And suddenly I can recall who he is. Julio Cortázar, the great Argentinean author who wrote about time leaps and cracks in space and style and reality, or about the scabby skin of ancient lizards and also about people disappearing in the floor or in pictures. What is this lunatic doing here on board? At least he will be able to tell me what’s going on in here. Are we really stuck within a warp bubble, warping time and space, and which is, according to Einstein, Commander Data and other surrealists, responsible for all kinds of follies, JO MEI o’zapft is!
For how long did I stay under deck at all? And am I not under deck once again, for a split second, a gap in time, when thinking about being under deck? Where a bunch of doctors composed of black and red lines, bodies of dazzling whiteness, like lab coats, wants to operate on a dirty red frog. The frog has obviously taken its heels, hiding by the equally red (clay brick coloured) giant, THIS SEASON’S FASHION COLOUR IT SEEMS, putting on some lipstick, absent-mindedly. So there I am, back in the inside of the death ship, back to where the crew has to drudge until it sweats out bloody semen? (Women bring bad luck, so they said in the old hot days, the three graces from the ship’s grill), why, no, Cortázar is in front of me, leaning on his cane, staring at me in silence.
Then, all of a sudden, someone screams. Somewhere behind me, it is not easy to pinpoint where it came from because a plug of salt is stuck in my left ear since I was born. Maybe it was someone up there in one of the crow’s nests. Screams: “What are you doing here on the wooden ship of paintings, you bloody scribbler?” Surely he is talking about Cortázar… “Laaaand ahoy!” A shiver runs down my spine. And my eyes give up the twinkling, like in the REM phase, this shout is pushing every thing aside, despite promising an image, too. I can feel how the crews on hundreds of ships are rising to their feet, craning their necks, “Land ahoy!”. No longer will the scurvy eat away at our flesh, we will taste the dark soil as soon as we are back on the ground, we will observe everything closely as soon as the earthly disc has come to rest. “Drink and the devil had done for the rest, Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”
“Did you know”, Cortázar asked, “that everything looks black and white under the light of the moon?”
“Yes, you mentioned that before”, I say, “back when we were playing chess, when every besieging move I made emaciated you. Towards the end, your head was like a skull, like in this Bergman film, chess and the feeble death, or something like that.”
“I can give you names”, he says, “and tell you where they are hiding, where the captain is hiding. We could do business, words against images, or vice versa.” I know that we have been chatting away far too much already, putting our expedition to the North at risk, the ship is already rearing up in order to break the clinching bubble. Or is it the ice, massive ice floes, exerting pressure on us from both sides. The “Fram” is built solidly in a way that enables her to find a way out of the impending ice, slipping out like a piece of soap that escapes from a hand. So if she gets enclosed by the ice, and drifts away with it, she won’t get squashed and can float in it, safe and sound, and forever, if necessary, from pole to pole, captain Scott’s infinite loop between birth und death.
So. Where were we? “Laaand ahoy!” Will I be able to navigate this enormous ship to the coast of the country that isn’t even in sight yet? Or will it berth without any help? Do wood and canvas and oil and paper obey those mysterious powers that lured van Gogh’s ear off his head (too much grog, too much grog before twelve).
Lewis Carroll has disappeared, or was it in fact Jules Verne, Mister Poe or the crazy Doctor Howard P. Lovecraft himself. What difference does it make anyway, the fog has lifted, and surrounding us are islands of rocks and ice, not entirely visible yet. There are ice floes in our fairway. Are we approaching the Northwest Passage that might lead us far into the East, to a place where natives are dreaming of eternal sunshine and delicious fruits and are canning greasy meat in large jars? (…Nansen contributed considerably to the understanding of ocean currents, to their formation and characteristics. The theory of the existence of internal waves is ascribed to his person.)
There was an endorsement next to one of the names in the ship’s log, adding “East specialist” to it, whatever that means. Was it Robert Seidel? Ordinary seaman, chief officer, vice-vice-captain or Mandy Kunze, ordinary seawoman, ship psychologist on duty, but names have lost their relevance, we are approaching the end of our expedition. All clocks on board stood still, we have to stick to facts and data and hold on to identifiable, clear outlines. Even in this foreign, fantastic world. Otherwise we will succumb to this painter’s lunacy that has obliterated so many other expeditions in the past, affecting them with symptoms causing self-destruction. And I can also remember this penetrating smell in the cabins under deck, a smell of turpentine and solvents. Breathing was particularly difficult in the captain’s cabin. I have been told about cases where they drank bluish, pale liquids out of test tubes and conical flasks until they were pale and blue themselves, with enlarging eye sockets, before they succumbed to madness. There was fresh air in Guggisberg’s room only – that was his name, or wasn’t it? – the walls were covered with drawings and studies (charcoal?). On one of them was a man, sitting on a cube, bending over, a fine shadow along the side or on my retina, his arms and chest stuck in what might have been a straightjacket, his boots were black and large, painter’s lunacy, perhaps a portrait of the captain himself? Others captured creatures somewhere between fixation and movement, dissolving figures, so it seemed. Figures turning their faces away, a Japanese-looking Geisha, her clothes are billowed, as if in a vacuum… In delicate shades of grey, tinted, shadows that had a life, bodies torn at by space, but torn at is too strong, a phrase that carries within too much aggression to describe this flowing, there were lines as if dreams had… In case Guggisberg is staying on one of those islands, Spitsbergen perhaps, I will have to ask him. Taking an observation at the Pole.
WUMM WUMM WUMM. The ship trembles, foes are scrunching under the hull. I am running around on deck, aimlessly, to where, in shock, whereto wherefrom, a man named Meier… help me, Wilhelm Busch! The hull is crunching and creaking, making a terrible noise, as if space was tearing at it. I can see nails, unhitched from the planks. I can see how metal is torn off of the wooden wheel, how the pausing clocks are spitting out sprockets, how the cubes’ mechanism collapses, how iron fittings undulate. Are we really where we are not meant to be? At zero? In the dead zone, close to the ice Sphinx? I am standing right by the bow, the bowsprit lies before me and is towering into the sea like an enormous pencil. I am trying to overlook the islands and the rocks and the glaciers, I can’t afford to be affected by the Stendhal syndrome that would benumb my brain due to an inundation of visual information. And I recognise a looming monument, towering right behind two smaller islands. According to Jules Verne, this hyper-magnetic monster should be located in the South. I can’t ask him anymore (I wanted to write consult at first – but clarity is of utmost importance now – seamen do not want to consult!).
Our ship, it seems, is dissolving. The metal inside it was our undoing. An icebreaker of modern build would have been torn apart ages ago already. We are sailing where we are sailing to. And this monument, a man, a giant, in parts as grey as granite, yet nearly entirely covered by a layer of ice, is disappearing now in a cloud of steam that wells up from another island right beside, as if a volcano is erupting over there, or a geyser, or… and the cloud is getting closer, moving towards us, nails and pieces of iron are buzzing around me and past me, like shrapnel bullets. Deadly. My eyes’ and brain’s telegram: cloud turns grey stop cloud changes stop two voluptuous thighs stop dark triangle legs lady stop vanishes stop yellowy stop delicate rainbows in the mist stop buttocks stop spectrum colours Olympian rising in the sky stop butterflies. The telegraph chatters signals in all magnetic directions. We are travelling somewhere… SOS.
I can see how the monument bends over. It looks stupendous, mightful, but is happening in silence.
Nets and ropes above him, slowly forcing him or at least his upper body to the ground. It seems that the magnetic downfall has been slowed down. Though we are still in distress, I run to the last lifeboat, the only one that still remained on board. But there is nothing left apart from a few wooden beams, protruding over the railing. Only a sinuous triangle of beams is reminiscent of the existence of this rescue unit. However, all this wouldn’t have scared me. It is this fox, squatting next to it, holding the balk elegantly between his straddled legs, waving a wan flag. “You there”, I shout, “what are you doing here, Master Reynard!”
Though I think I didn’t have the strength to shout that. I only stood in front of him, silently. And asked myself through which crack in time and space he might have slipped inside, I love the foxes and the dogs and the horses. All are related to each other.
“Attention, boy”, he called, “I am the captain!” Painter’s lunacy. I want to disembark. BUMM BUMM BUMM Jesus Christie, are those the auctioneers with their hammers above the millions? The islands are calling me Mio, my son, have we sold our shadows, like Peter Schlemihl? Or our laughter, like Timm Thaler? Gustav Mahler’s songs of death, Courths-Mahler. Ahab and Baron Lefuet. Heavy is the head that has the whale. White and wise, little by little, Thun from Japan. Schwarzbraun ist die Haselnuss. Stendhal syndrome.
And I was woken up by a rattling noise. I have to disembark before it’s too late.
The “Fram” is no longer seaworthy. A MOPED rattles and surfs past the ship. The engine noise is accompanied by a song, Elvis Presley. What else. “On a cold and grey Chicago mornin’…” And the surfing moped gives me a ride, Peter and Anneli’s journey to the moon, the front wheel is a long-playing record, “California dreamin’”, I am sitting behind the driver, the blue ribbons on his sailor’s hat are blowing across my face, Robert-David-Sebastian?, we are not rats and leave the stinking ship. We dip in deep with the Simson/Suhl, four-speed gear, memories so dear, surf across the archipelagos und dive down into the atmospheres of these frosty worlds. The first second third officer has rescued me. Will the “Fram” stand the test without us?
We can see the airship, the big balloon, just above us, once built by the engineer Andres in order to reach the North Pole. But he died, as we all know, leaps in time, in this island kingdom made of ice and stone. And where do we want to land?
In Liliput, where an enormous head can be found, surrounded by swarming dwarfs? We don’t want any more questions, in the former North we want answers. We have the options, without Ahab, as long as the tank full.
Andres’ balloon lost the gases because the constructing engineers sewed the mantle together and these seams are thousands of little holes, even when they are pasted over and densified.
Everything looks very clear from above, we are rattling through the skies. The horizon is black. In search of God, like the Starship Enterprise. And there is a face along the black horizon, laughing at us and laughing about us, God is smiling. I am still on board and at the same time on the back seat of this vehicle that straddles my legs. We have to land, the internal waves will not carry us any longer. And the ragged chunks of earth below us are colourful and mysterious.
There is a raft, right there in the frothy water while we sag. A man is standing on it. The ship is fully laden… Barrels are stowed away on the wooden surface. Her sail is love’s sweet passion, the Holy Ghost her mast. And the mast and the sail are an easel. And the man is painting, lost in thought in the forlornness. He doesn’t seem to take any notice of us because we are… Hold on a second. Something is wrong. Where is the beginning? Where is the key?
Wasn’t it floating above a ship earlier on, a ship that looked like a castle, a swimming castle, wasn’t it floating above this castle by the black horizon? I have to go back to the beginning. Did I forget to tell the captain that the questions are perturbing and that the facts should be oak beams…
On January 14, 1911 the ship arrived at the Ross Ice Shelf in the Bay of Whales. Between 1918 and 1920, Amundsen tried to sail across the Arctic with a ship. In March 1899, after more than four weeks of work, the crew finally managed to cut a channel of 600 metres length through the ice and into the open sea.
We are slowly moving across the mountained surface of the ice. Seven members of the crew, the captain and myself. We are taking turns in pulling the sleighs. We reckon that the “Fram” is lying approximately three thousand kilometres ahead of us. She is built in a way that enables her to withstand the pack ice.
We have to withstand the worlds that are looming to the left and right. I think our ship has foundered, but I shall keep that to myself. On this journey, I am only a visitor. I’m getting paid as a reporter. But I won’t comment on everything because if I did I would end up in a nuthouse, London East End, Spitsbergen, Bear Islands, Bering Sea, Leipzig Dösen, “Kike-lee-lie”. I have seen too much. And am still seeing things.
How the North and the South Pole hook, towards the East. How enormous primeval birds are circling around us, screeching in the light of murky suns. How a huge white bedside locker is standing on an uninhabited island, protruding gallows, and a surfboard dangling on its ropes, lost lifeboats.
So I ask Mandy Kunze whether she knows anything about the soldiers next to us, right there under the pink light, men with green helmets, storming towards invisible front-lines like in slow-motion. And I carry on asking her whether she has also spotted those wiry matadors on the vast icy surface who are throwing their delicate Capas towards those who are desperately waiting in the red background, Harry Haller and his steppenwolves in the magic theatre. And has she seen what I saw – how two swordsmen in white and grey and in the dark suddenly awoke in the expressionism of the arctic desert, battling against each other on and next to sharp-edged diamonds?
We stride. The unfavourable icy weather in the Smith Sund forced us to hibernate. In 1899 and 2010, we approached the Jones Sound (California Dreamin’) where we hibernated thrice, exploring the area in the meantime.
I am not the only one who discovered tropical subsurface enclaves during this period. But who’ll have none of it is blind. A monkey was sitting in a giant igloo. An orang-utan or something like that. The way he was sitting there, so airily, he reminded me of this red giant under the deck of the “Fram”.
The captain told me I am crazy. That surprised me because I was familiar with the notes he took on his previous expeditions. Neither was he able to tell me where he had been during the missing intervals. And we all saw the floating city on the invisible rock. One day, they will give an account of it. The painter’s lunacy will loosen their hands and paintbrushes.
And one day, the horizon seemed to have been cut off, an island appeared, showing up in the deep blue where we had been withstanding the glaring whiteness for hours already, owing even this to our sunglasses.
Perhaps the secret lies within the cubes. We should plunge them into the holes we use to catch fish. Everyone is still alive, and we are marching along. And sometimes I think we are walking across glass, the water is foaming in lower levels, we only have to reach the boats, and in upper levels, too. The “Fram” will be there. I can see her if I turn my head. And if we open our eyes widely, we can, in fact, see EVERYTHING
(At the same time we were able to verify that the polar sea under the inner Arctic is not – as assumed hitherto – a shallow sea with islands, but a deep-sea basin of more than 3500 metres depth.)
to be continued