The endurance of intrepid dreamers


The endurance of intrepid dreamers

MARELI STOLP says Darrel Bristow-Bovey's story about the loss and rediscovery of Shackleton's ship is much more than the sum of its remarkable parts. It ends up being an ode to our broken world, and inspiration for the future.


I FIND the distinction between the Afrikaans and English words for “history" interesting. “Geskiedenis" sounds to me like something that occurred. A record, therefore, of deeds, actions and events. However, the English word “history" has an entirely different implication when you explore its origin. It was derived from “historia" in ancient Greek: it's the verb for “to know"; to act for the sake of new knowledge and insight. But primarily a narrative. A story, therefore. The ancient Greeks didn't see history as just a documentation or record of events — they understood that an action without an accompanying story cannot truly be meaningful. It's the stories that keep what has happened alive.

In his remarkable book Finding Endurance: Shackleton, My Father and a World Without End, Darrel Bristow-Bovey creates a work that is delicately balanced between history and story — also inheritance, archive, description, science and wishful thinking.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

The book has three premises. In 1915, the ship Endurance sinks in the Weddell Sea on the edge of Antarctica. Historical fact. In 2022, the wreck is found by a research team aboard the SA Agulhas II. Also a fact. And a writer begins his own journey of storytelling. This journey weaves the threads of numerous stories together: the lives of the men who survived the sinking of Endurance; stories of their determined endurance and the struggle to return to civilisation; stories of the writer's own family, especially his father; stories of explorers, poets, scientists, the Weddell seal, Belgica antarctica (a tiny midge with a fancy name, the only animal that lives full-time on land in Antarctica). Charlotte Brontë and Sara Wheeler make appearances, as do Bruce Chatwin, Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott and Peter Pan.

The breadth and depth of this author's knowledge and life-awareness are astonishing, and I was repeatedly amazed by the sophisticated and stylish manner in which he can bring together seemingly unrelated subjects. Truly an exceptional literary stylist.

Ernest Shackleton was a formidable explorer, and Bristow-Bovey uses the story of Endurance as a symbolic vessel for his own journey of discovery: he delves into his family history, searching for his father who died when the author was very young. As a child, Bristow-Bovey's father told stories about Shackleton, whom he supposedly knew. One must take that with a pinch of salt, however, as Richard Bovey wasn't born at the time of Shackleton's expeditions. But as he researches Shackleton, Bovey junior discovers resonances between his father and Shackleton's characters: they were brave dreamers, always seeking paths untrodden by others. Earthbound souls with hearts sometimes too big for the ordinary everyday world.

By studying Shackleton's history, Bristow-Bovey gains insight into his father, but he also travels further: he contemplates the lives of the spouses of Shackleton, Robert Scott, and other explorers of the early 20th century — the strong women who had to soldier on while their husbands were fighting through the polar ice for fame and recognition. He gains insight into his mother, who, after Richard Bovey's  death, had to make a life for herself and their children, earn money and keep her head above water. He becomes  aware of his mother's bravery, her determination, and yes, her endurance.

Early in the book, Bristow-Bovey writes: “There was nothing to be found in the Antarctic but symbols; nothing to be extracted but stories." The stories of the men on the Endurance become the driving force for the author's own stories, and he finds symbols in Antarctica that he uses to provide perspective on social issues. 

For example, he looks honestly and with open eyes at race. One of my favourite chapters is dedicated to Knowledge Bengu, the black captain who was at the helm of SA Agulhas II when the wreck of the Endurance was discovered. Bristow-Bovey doesn't shy away from class awareness and addresses his own prejudices in chapters dedicated to his aunt Molly and her son, Roy. Fresh and honest insights about gender, discrimination, war, personal relationships (family, romantic), leadership, community, ego, politics, the cruelty and beauty of nature … Bristow-Bovey masterfully weaves them all together. He travels as gracefully as an albatross in flight through the symbols and stories that bring this book to life.

And he ultimately leaves the reader with a message of hope. Endurance becomes a symbol of optimism.

Finding Endurance reminds us that the world is still as extraordinary as we have always felt it to be, that there is still human magic in it. Time and the world do not only take from us, they also give something back, and what we do with this is up to us.

There is a lovely chapter titled “The infinite game". The gist of it: the world is a trembling threshold of possibility. Everything is possible, as long as we keep living, wholeheartedly. Like Shackleton, like Richard Bovey. Like the albatross persevering in flight. The point is to keep playing.

Read this book: it's history, a story, a piece of poetry, a travel journal, an adventure tale, an ode to our broken world, and a tremendously strong encouragement to let our world survive. To keep journeying in search of beauty. To see it. And to cherish it.

Who, what, where and how much?

Finding Endurance: Shackleton, My Father and a World Without End by Darrel Bristow-Bovey was published by Jonathan Ball Publishers and costs R290 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.