One of my favorite leisure activities is taking long walks at night while listening to audio books. I read a lot of paper books too, but there’s something about walking outdoors with a million stars overhead that makes a good story that much more enjoyable. (And now that I no longer live near Los Angeles, I can actually see the million stars.) The images my mind calls up are more vivid when I listen to books at night. Perhaps walking in the dark puts me in a bit of a trance.
Over the weekend, I finished a gem of first-person story titled Kabloona: Among the Inuit, written by a French adventurer who lived and traveled with nomadic Eskimos (as he called them) for a 15-month span in 1938 and 1939.
Gontran de Poncins was an aristrocrat who became bored with the business world and remade himself as a traveling journalist-adventurer. In Kabloona he makes references to his other adventures in Tahiti and New Caledonia, but soon assures the reader that the Arctic is the toughest and most unforgiving place he’s ever seen … incredibly cold, with flat, snow-covered tundra that seems to go on forever in every direction. Without knowing the nearly-imperceptible landmarks, an explorer could easily become disoriented and wander in circles until he froze to death – which Poncins nearly did on one occasion, despite being within a few miles of the trading post where he’d been staying.
Not surprisingly, this tough landscape was inhabited by very tough people, which is the main reason the book caught my interest. Initially, Poncins spent several months with Eskimos who traded furs with whites and had adopted some of the white man’s ways. (They seemed particularly fond of tea and tobacco, for which they happily traded foxes.) But Poncins was determined to also meet the “real” Eskimos — those who rarely if ever saw a white man and still mostly lived as their ancestors had lived. So he hired Eskimo guides to take him hundreds of miles into the interior of the Arctic, where the “real” Eskimos lived. It was this glimpse into the life of an almost-Paleolithic people that I was anticipating.
Frankly, much of that glimpse isn’t pretty, at least as Poncins recounts it. As a journalist writing in the 1930s, he felt no need to let political correctness or racial sensitivity color his descriptions, and early in the narrative much of what he recalls is his general disgust for Eskimos and Eskimo ways. Disparaging remarks such as “The Eskimo has no ability to plan ahead” and “the Eskimo isn’t capable of logical thinking” pop up frequently. So do remarks about the Eskimo’s “savage” habits and their apparent preference for living in poverty.
To be honest, even though I like the benefits of Paleolithic eating, I’m pretty sure I’d be similarly annoyed if I were surrounded by dinner companions who grunted as they tore raw meat with their teeth, gulped and slurped their meat as blood and grease dripped down their faces, then finished by tossing the bloody remnants and bones into a corner of the small igloo where I’d soon be sleeping.
But as the adventure unfolds, Poncins becomes progressively less disgusted with the Eskimos and more disgusted with himself with being so judgmental when he first encountered them. As he travels with his Eskimo guides, he’s amazed by their ability to locate and catch fish swimming beneath the ice, to sneak up seals, to quickly and efficiently cut snow into bricks and construct an igloo. He likens one Eskimo to a gifted architect when it comes to making igloos, with each snow brick cut to exactly the right size and shape so all the bricks fit tightly together in a dome.
He soon realizes it’s not such a bad idea to toss bloody seal guts into the corner of an igloo when you’ll abandon that igloo in a couple of days and move on. He even begins to appreciate the simplicity of living in a shelter that’s basically an icebox: catch your fish, toss them into the corner, and they’re preserved by the cold. Wake up, warm the fish with your hands and breath, then enjoy cold sushi for breakfast.
He’s also amazed by the endurance of the Eskimos. The nutritionists who parrot their textbook knowledge that “you need carbohydrates for energy!” should read this book. Poncins recounts running along trails with Eskimos for hours – he was fatigued and panting, while they barely seemed to notice the effort. After a year in the Arctic, Poncins finds he is beginning to prefer their diet, even though he had supplies of “white man” food on the sled carrying his belongings. As he explains in one passage, boiled rice could warm him up temporarily, but then he’d feel colder an hour or two later. By contrast, raw meat or raw fish was cold going down, but then he felt warmer for the rest of the day.
In the far northwest Arctic, Poncins eventually meets up with a priest who’d been living among the Eskimos for six years. The priest was a fellow Frenchman, and Poncins had brought him some “civilized” food as a gift – a block of cheese being the real prize. But the priest, Father Henry, politely explains that he’s lost his taste for civilized foods. He no longer likes rice, biscuits, or cheese. As Poncins writes, “He’d been living on nothing but caribou, seal and fish for six years, yet he was none the worse for it.”
It was during his time with Father Henry that Poncins began to appreciate the depth of his own ignorance about Eskimos. In one passage, Father Henry explains that Eskimo words have many shadings and subtleties, and that the way Poncins speaks the language, it sounds like he’s barking orders. Yes and no don’t mean yes and no, the priest explains, because the Eskimos don’t think in either-or terms. Both words, depending on how they’re said, could mean some degree of “maybe.”
Soon after that conversation, Poncins spots a group of Eskimos doing impressions of him and laughing themselves silly. He can’t help but laugh as well, and he recounts how they reproduced his robotic gestures as he gave commands, his obvious impatience, even his voice. As he writes, “These people had only just met me, but they imitated me perfectly.” It’s an eye-opening moment for Poncins: the people he’d initially considered savages consider him a fool – a white man, a Kabloona, someone with no sense of what’s actually important in life.
At this point in the story, I realized Poncins included the many disparaging remarks about Eskimos in the early chapters primarily so his readers could fully appreciate this moment … Remember all those nasty things I said earlier, dear reader? Now you know what a fool I truly was. I was a Kabloona.
By the end, Poncins no longer sees the Eskimos as savages living in poverty. He sees them as they see themselves: people living in a land that gives them everything. They can build a shelter in a matter of hours using the snow that’s all around them. The frozen waterways are highways for their sleds. The land provides them with fish and seals and herds of caribou.
Poncins is (or was) a gifted storyteller and often quite witty – which is impressive, considering he was a Frenchman who wrote this book in English. In the epilogue, he explains that he wrote the book while living a small town in Connecticut, and that as soon as winter came and the snow fell, he began to pine for the Arctic.
Personally, I wouldn’t want to live there. But I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the place in my imagination as I walked beneath a million stars.