The places to which travel books take the armchair voyager fall into two broad categories: those the reader would like to visit but must do so vicariously, and those the reader has no desire to visit but about which he is curious. "South Light" is of the second category, and a most appealing example of the genre it is: a story of a long visit to Antarctica, a desolate, distant, cold place that beckons only to scientists and adventurers yet arouses the interest of the rest of us precisely because it is so desolate, distant and cold.
Michael Parfit, a Californian, went to Antarctica a couple of winters ago to spend what passes for summer down there. He was "part of this year's complement of journalists, shipped to McMurdo Station by the National Science Foundation to observe the natives," by which he means not the penguins, stormy petrels and elephant seals, but the men and women, scientists and soldiers, who maintain the small but doughty American presence there. He sailed on an icebreaker taking scientists to a mountain never before visited by man, camped out on an ice plateau with two researchers, visited isolated settlements of Chile, Argentina and the Soviet Union; he talked with a number of interesting, appealing people, and he smelled enough penguin dung to last a fellow a lifetime.
Going to Antarctica, Parfit writes, is a trip into "the greatest unknown in the world," a leap from southernmost New Zealand across a distance "so great that on some maps . . . the gap between the worlds was drawn right there in ink, like the wavy lines draftsmen used to indicate that a line was longer than it appeared." He made that leap in an airplane journey that was heart-stoppingly perilous -- the plane, having passed its point of no return, suddenly found itself in a violent snowstorm and had to land in a whiteout -- and that emphasized the danger of the trip: "There was something resolved in those who went to Antarctica, a determination to handle what came. Hardship was in the bargain, and even if you had to look into the muzzle of death the cost still seemed less than the gift you came here to find."
The gift is that of finding "somewhere utterly new," of testing oneself against harsh climate and unforeseen danger, of being in the company of others similarly inclined. For the reader, though, there is less pleasure in the rather purplish passages in which Parfit contemplates Antarctica's gift than in his straightforward descriptions of people, places and phenomena.
He writes with great sympathy about the scientists, for example, pointing out that "unlike everywhere else in the world, this place's pioneers were not followed by the scientists -- the pioneers were the scientists," and about the intense friendships made in this world so distant from "the world of real war and marriage and love and darkness."
He does not write quite as much as many readers will wish about the daily lives these people lead; for whatever reason he does not even broach the subject of physical relations between the sexes, a matter about which it is quite impossible not to be curious. But he does talk about the dangers of loneliness, the vital importance of radio contact within and beyond the continent, and the various ways people band together to amuse and support each other.
He also describes his own initiation into Antarctic ways: a swim in water "just a fraction above freezing," during which "as the water closed over my head I knew that all the mistakes I had made in my life led inexorably to this moment, and that at last and forever, whatever other foolishness I should commit in the future would never come close to this."
On larger matters, Parfit is refreshingly brief. He describes the unique treaty under which Antarctica is occupied peacefully by the nations that settled it, and he notes in passing that this arrangement has thus far worked surprisingly well, but he does not make a geopolitical issue out of it. He notes too that there is unavoidable tension between American soldiers and scientists in Antarctica, but he does not exaggerate it; their relationship is "necessary, but not always comfortable." He points out that the effect of Antarctica on the world's weather is believed to be considerable, but he does not smother the reader in meteorological data or speculation.
What Parfit does particularly well is to give the reader a feel for the place: its isolation, its implacable hardness, its eerie beauty, above all its breathtaking cold. He does exactly what the writer of such a book should: He makes you feel that you've been there.