Indifferent to what will be born or lost forever, the sleepless sea aided by the wind launches a wave in the middle of the ocean, which in turn multiplies like an amoeba; and so, a few minutes later a school of waves has been formed, which gamble on reaching the port and salting the dock peacefully. In the soft morning light the first fishing boats have cast off their mooring ropes and set out to sea slowly, shrouded in a mist that sits on the water. Each one of them marks its position with a fishing lamp; together forming a temporary village built upon the sea, destined to disperse when the sun comes out and the nets are lifted. From the sailors’ mouths—which sometimes sing songs generations-old like their profession—hang pipes filled with cheap tobacco, while their faces bear thick beards—similar to weeds on the slopes—which no razor dares to touch, and their eyes are alight with a refusal to look to land until they’ve cast their nets; and then the small town at the edge of the sea becomes a solace, as the reason for which they are sailing this dawn, so near to sleepy Gothenburg but so far away from its daily schedule, becomes clear. Every now and then, the sleepy mist tosses and turns revealing one side of the small town or the other—rarely both—yet very often it adorns Gothenburg in a nightgown that conceals everything. The phenomenon even occurs during springtime, and on that May dawn, which is no different from past or future ones, the sailors feel lonely, very lonely, as no man walks on the port; only a couple of dogs bark in unison with the seagulls’ mourning song as they circle around blindly, carrying dead fish in their bills. But the fishermen are wrong; the mist raises its brow unexpectedly, revealing a group of forty maybe fifty people standing in front of two grey, anchored ships, which haughtily face the waves rising and falling, their hulls rolling from side to side. “Pff…” Svensksund—a destroyer of the Swedish Navy—could be saying. “This commotion barely tickles me.” Her cannons look far ahead, with certainty and precision. The sea is the last of her enemies. “Alright, let’s not exaggerate, my friend,” Virgo might reply—a cargo steamship, which can carry up to five hundred tons in its belly and has a thirty-man crew. “There might be trouble out to sea.” But Svensksund knows no fear. “All you barges do is get scared,” she says scornfully. “Hey, hold on a minute,” Virgo retorts, but trails off as pairs of feet begin to embark: the soles of heavy boots stamp rhythmically, and soon enough only the dogs and seagulls remain at the port. “Bon Voyage,” Virgo will wish, but instead of an answer she will receive silence from the destroyer, which in the language of ships translates into something so distasteful that the morals and censors of 1897 cut it. For a fleeting moment, as the two ships disembark, Virgo stares at the cannons of her implacable friend and despite the steady swell, her shell seems to be rolling a touch more.
“May we never be in need of them,” mumbles Fraenkel, one of those responsible for the procession, but not the principal man. Of course, he is referring to the cannons parading in front of his eyes. He is the only one wearing muddy boots but luckily for him he is travelling on the tolerant Virgo. His tired eyes speak of a night away from bed: quite possibly a night of debauchery; and Andrée immediately understands that, not because he has similar experiences himself, but because over the years he has met countless men like Fraenkel, lovers of ports and all they have to offer.
“Did you sleep well after we parted yesterday?” he asks.
“Did we part?” Fraenkel wonders. “When?”
“Aha,” says Andrée, and the look that crosses his face bears a trace of paternal affection, given the sixteen years difference between them.
“Oh,” Fraenkel suddenly remembers, “you mean after the tavern? Well, yes, I slept well, even though, hmm,” he admits rather awkwardly, “I’d had a bit to drink.”
“Was that the only place you had a drink?”
“That, too,” a voice is heard. When all heads turn they see Strindberg: member of the expedition and nephew of the famous playwright, who decided to become a physicist when he realised that the family had no need for another man of letters. “That, too.”
“Oh, come on now,” Fraenkel attempts a compromise. “You obviously enjoy teasing me.”
“I told you that I needed you well-rested for today,” says Andrée. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
“Let him be, Andrée, let him be,” Strindberg intervenes. “One day he will learn, won’t he?” he adds in a didactic tone, even though he is the youngest of the three.
“But I did sleep, I am telling you. What do I need to do to convince you?” he wonders as he coyly focuses his eyes on his boots, the state of which does not really work to his advantage.
“Hmm, hmm,” the other two answer as if in agreement.
“Nice boots, Fraenkel,” Andrée notes.
“Do you like them? I had them made in Italy in ’93. They are Strada; they’ve come in handy many times.”
“They take the mud too, I see,” Strindberg points out.
“Well,” is the best answer Fraenkel can come up with, “I was in a hurry to get here on time; I didn’t want to be late.”
“Of course,” says Andrée disparagingly. “Of course. Did you really have to run that much yesterday?”
“Not yesterday, today,” he answers, scared he might have betrayed himself earlier.
“Aha,” is all the other two say. “Today!”
“Oh,” Fraenkel revolts upon realizing that prudence will not get him anywhere. “Leave me alone, will you?” But instead of being left alone, it is he who leaves them in the end to sit somewhere out of the way, with last night’s events his sole companion.
Down below, the sea leads Virgo far away from Gothenburg. “Ah, Gothenburg,” Fraenkel says to himself leaning on the bulwark, holding his hat with his right hand, his moustache with his left. The mist gradually clears, unlike the events of the previous night. “Oh, ports,” he sighs while searching for Gothenburg with his eyes. It is by no means a better port than Hamburg but as he looks closer, he realizes that both are invisible now, having been swallowed by the horizon. There is only the sea and soon enough Fraenkel sees crowds of streetwalkers on it, ready to succumb to him in exchange for a few kronor, ready to succumb to a…
When he left the tavern, he must have wasted four or five seconds trying to yawn convincingly for Andrée and Strindberg, before taking the wicked road ahead. Tumbling through the muddy alleys with their low houses and their extinguished or unnecessary lit lamps, he sees whores with their dirty long dresses everywhere, standing there as if they can read his thoughts, into the night, under the stars, through the mist, and then he presses against them saying the same thing always: “I have missed you (so and so),” and when the whore replies professionally: “But, I am not (so and so)…,” Fraenkel, having transformed himself into a being that does not love women, whispers desperately: “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter…,” and he immediately pulls down his trousers doing what others before him have done: grabbing their breasts wildly, and then, when it’s all over, makes his payment in kronor and looks for the nearest tavern. In those dens a dense screen of smoke conceals the ceiling; underneath it characters with uncertain futures spent the night and depending on the first available rickety table you’ll find, you will see card players pulling cards manically even when their heads are nodding from sleeplessness, witches with tarot cards making bad prophesies for everyone, poultry thieves with feathers on their clothes and in their hair, criminals throwing dice and emptying pockets, while the tavern keeper, recipient of comments and transmitter of abuse, on top of it all has to deal with those who sit on the stools unburdening themselves to the wall, with gazes as empty as the bottles in front of them. In this clamor, whores with frayed clothes and hair walk past; and as they do, men’s hands become independent from whatever they are doing and tickle the bottom of whichever random woman is passing, while she unfailingly searches for the culprit, hoping he might want more. However, hardly anyone sleeps with them as the rooms are next to the lavatories; they are dirty, contaminated places where only mice prosper, sometimes the mice boldly slip through the crowd carrying their stench with them, which drives the whores on to the tables and all hands on them while the occupation does not end unless someone kicks the mouse, and then another one and then another, until the mouse returns dazed to its den, while some British man will observe that this brings to mind that new game, football. That night Fraenkel has kicked his fair share of mice and the whores are looking at him with a certain respect. Fraenkel, however, does not go into taverns looking for whores. All he is interested in is having a glass of beer, absinthe, or wine in silence; to warm his blood and go on the prowl again, into the mud where he will meet whores as lonely as he is, women that will be his, even for a little while.
At dawn, he walks to the port without looking back even for a second. It looks as if there is only one route leading to the sea in Gothenburg, that which he is following; and every step is taking him away from all the women he embraced, all the taverns he drank at. Andrée, Strindberg and the others are already there, in front of the boats awaiting their departure. Fraenkel is constantly looking north and his gaze remains motionless, even when he drifts into solo reverie on the gunwale. People will never inhabit the deep, blue sea; it will continue feeding the fish to eternity, under its own rules, incomprehensible to those who do not have gills. “What is on your mind?” asks the hand patting his back. “Andrée, you gave me a scare,” he says. “I was about to jump into the water.” “Come on, have some of this,” Andrée offers, placing a tin coffee cup in his hands. They say nothing for a few waves and then Machuron takes it upon himself to break the silence.
“Herr Andrée,” he says. “We’ve got good weather on our side.”
“Monsieur Machuron,” says Andrée while making space for him with his hand. “Let us hope that it stays that way throughout the summer.”
“I am optimistic,” Machuron declares. “I think that it will all go well this year. We are better organized this time. Let alone,” he says winking, “I have a good feeling about this.”
“I hope so,” says Andrée puffing. “How is Mr. Lachambre? What a pity he is not with us this year.”
“He is well. He has asked me to pass on all his best wishes for success. Unfortunately, he was too busy to join us.”
“Of course, he wouldn’t want to damage his reputation,” Fraenkel mutters to himself, receiving an elbow from Andrée. “But, what did I say?”
“Well, work comes first,” Andrée comments.
“…and you know,” says Machuron, “This year uncle received a lot of orders. Being such a perfectionist, of course, they are working non-stop at the workshops in Vaugirard.”
“Yes, yes,” Andrée agrees. “I remember he was working very hard in Paris last year.”
“Yes, of course,” Machuron says approvingly, “and you will no doubt remember those large rolls of Chinese silk and the hard work that goes into making round sails out of that material.”
“Monsieur Lachambre was very particular about this part of the process.”
“As he is with every part, Herr Andrée,” says Machuron; and in his voice everyone but those hard of hearing can discern a tone of admiration which posthumous fame is built upon. “Let us not forget how meticulously he plans everything: from the baskets, to their lay-out, to the gas calculations…”
“Look at those clouds,” Fraenkel urges them, having had from a young age the advantage of getting bored easily. “Don’t they remind you of cannabis leaves?”
“Ca-nna-bis?” Machuron chirps amazed that such words can be uttered.
“What are you trying to say, Fraenkel?” Andrée asks in turn, the word echoing in his ears like an insult.
“Ahem,” Fraenkel replies, “the formation of the clouds brought to mind that particular plant. Isn’t it God’s creation, too?” he says his face as shy as a clergyman’s.
“God’s creation? But it is the plant of the devil,” Machuron cries.
“Oh, don’t say that, Monsieur Machuron,” Fraenkel lectures him, pointing his finger. “Haven’t you heard of the Snake Sect? Its followers believe that Adam ate the apple under the influence of cannabis. They say that its members greet each other sticking their tongues out—hissss,” Fraenkel goes, sticking his tongue out like a Snake Sect member.
“Are we to believe this?” Machuron wonders.
“Of course not,” says Strindberg who has just slithered noiselessly into the group.
“You are spoiling it Strindberg, don’t you think?”
“Fraenkel…”Andrée’s monosyllabic utterance seems to contain unspoken reprimands. “What have your calculations shown so far, Strindberg?” he asks.
“We are doing very well,” he says. “I think that this year we stand a better chance for southerly winds.”
“Good,” says Andrée, “good. How about a light meal, then?”
At the beginning only the four of them sit at the oblong table but as soon as the cook starts banging the ladle on the cauldron repeatedly, a crew of mechanics, meteorologists, sailors and journalists flock to the chairs—which are fewer than those present—hoping for a fair distribution of the kind of food that you eat with a spoon and wipe away with the cuff of your shirt. The cook, aware of the expedition’s importance, does not test his creation with the serving ladle but, led by the swell of the sea, carries the cauldron in a foxtrot without a partner, spilling precious portions on to the floor in the process. After the first spoonful, the anticipation of the hungry crowd turns into jeering: “Does this thing have a name, cook?” “Cook, I don’t think you’re actually meant to sweat over the cauldron,” “This soup tastes like rat piss,” responses that the sensitive cook cannot bear, suggesting instead: “Why don’t you go and…”; a phrase that causes an uproar among the table-fellows and triggers off the hurling of spoons, which result in the rest of his phrase: “…eat at your own homes, then,” never being heard.
Out of the way sit Pez and Saro: the two cartoonists who, in the name of art, have given up their surnames. They are watching the scene with high amusement. As they cannot convey the actual episode to the newspapers, they decide to offer them a more congenial version instead, based on how things could have been. Using different styles and techniques—Pez rendering with face expressions what Saro is depicting with body language —they transfer on paper first the table and then the people. As their small pens scratch the white surface like nails, filling it with ink, the first one to appear is Salomon Andrée. He has a moustache and dreamy eyes—according to Pez—while his open arms are ready to embrace everyone, conveying his feelings of anxiety—according to Saro. Then it is Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel’s turn: the former is depicted as a scientist eager to become a family man —Pez gives him two wedding rings for eyes—while Fraenkel is portrayed sticking his tongue out to Machuron as he provides a detailed explanation of the Snake Sect. The startled image of Machuron is succeeded by peaceful sailors who eat without listening, mechanics stressed at the possibility of something going wrong, journalists who are after the next big story or its fabrication, and a group of meteorologists led by Dr. Minus around whom everyone is revolving like an atmospheric circuit. The sketches are completed with the image of the cook in the corner: his face taking pleasure in the smells coming out of the cauldron, his chubby hands on the handles. Above everyone’s head, Saro has written “May ‘97”; while in his own sketch on the right-hand corner, Pez has inscribed “V. 1897.” When they finish, they look at each other’s work: “Marvellous,” says Pez, and Saro reciprocates: “Not better than yours,” an admission that forces Pez to confess: “I wish I were as talented as you”—and thus a cathartic dialogue begins for the souls of the two men. Being too busy complimenting each other, Pez and Saro do not realise that the civilized atmosphere in their sketches has infiltrated on to the table, where the commotion has subsided and everyone sits at their proper places. Only the cook does not mirror the pose that the ink has depicted in the sketch: he has dropped anchor upon a chair like the rest and is listening to Salomon Andrée.
The reason for the switch is a question which a journalist has posed to Andrée regarding Mr. Ekholm’s refusal to take part in this year’s expedition. “Do you feel betrayed?” asks the journalist. When Fraenkel hears the question—at a pivotal moment in the Snake Sect story—he opts for silence instead, since he himself is Dr. Ekholm’s replacement. As a result, Machuron’s question is never answered. “Absolutely not,” Andrée declares but the strained expression on his face grants the journalist the right to ask another question: “Mr. Ekholm has reported that the air balloon is loosing hydrogen on a daily basis? If this is true, apart from the steering capacity of the air balloon being reduced, safety issues also arise. What do you have to say about this?”
What follows is a powerful defense—of the air balloon, but not Ekholm—which brings all talk and any intention for retort to a halt, since everyone, including the cook, wishes to hear what Andrée has to say, as they are part of the undertaking too. “Mr. Ekholm expressed his own thoughts,” says Andrée. “The measurements that were carried out in the air balloon did not reveal any problems, whereas all additional parts were in excellent condition. One would therefore have to ascribe his decision to other reasons. We are going to have a smooth sailing, if that’s what you’re interested in—which I doubt.”
As soon as Andrée’s words reach across the table, the journalists start exchanging looks, while the meteorologists, looking out of the portholes, try to predict if the inside of the ship is in for a storm. Even the cartoonists have stopped complimenting each other due to the awkwardness of the situation. Pez is thinking of depicting the scene by drawing the sailors looking at their empty plates—as for Saro, he wants to sketch the sailor gazing at the sea as if he was about to drink it, spoon in hand. “I would be crazy if I were to start this expedition without taking the necessary safety precautions.” All heads are turning, as Fraenkel is taking a stand. “I would not have replaced Mr. Ekholm if his fears were founded. But as you know,” Fraenkel continues, “Mr. Ekholm married a much younger woman recently.” Under the table, Strindberg’s foot has enough space to gain momentum and give a hard kick to Fraenkel, who is nevertheless more annoyed by Andrée’s look. “No one said we’ll be attempting the easiest thing in the world,” says Strindberg, “but for more than a year now the newspapers are raging a war against us. We want you on our side,” he continues, and the agitation in his eyes soon turns into words: “We want all of those interested in this venture on our side,” he falters, “as there is a possibility we may never come back.” In the moments that follow, a hullabaloo rises like a wave over the table, at times apologetic at others inquiring, nevertheless in a general atmosphere of consensus—whereas Strindberg, far away from the babble, envelops himself in the imaginary embrace of his fiancée Anna. Having parted from her after a night of promises (“I will come back, Anna,” “Oh Nils, but…,” “My precious, I promise you…”), uncertain he will ever see her again, he is suffused with the tragedy of the moment, his innards twisted in a knot. When his senses bring him back to the table, the clamor has subsided and Andrée is talking again: “…and if we are luckier this year, we will succeed. Last year, we did not set out because the winds were unfavorable. That’s why we are sailing towards our departure point earlier this year. We stand a better chance this time, being better organised. Mr. Minus and the team of meteorologists will be able to tell you more about the winds. If the current from the south arrives, we will be able to fly immediately. If the hot-air balloon lifts off, I am absolutely certain that we will become the first people to cast eyes on the North Pole, and the first to land there.” The cook springs to his feet and starts clapping away with such force as no other cook before him, and soon, everyone who shares his optimism (that is, a little more than half of those present) gets carried away. “And we will come back alive to prove wrong those who are not applauding us!” Fraenkel cries, polarizing the crowd, whose applause grows stronger and stronger, whilst helping Strindberg visualize his return with a little more certainty. Pez and Saro are in the line of duty with their small pens in hand. Having exchanged a momentary look between them, they start sketching—only this time, they start with the cook.
In the afternoon, the sea roughens and the waves soak the sailors to the bone. When one of them enters the saloon, his hair is stuck to his forehead and his clothes form rivulets as he walks or lakes when he stands still. Those that are dry are in two minds whether it is a bush or a curtain that has just come in, but the good sailor, having confessed his countless sorrows to the sea, can easily come up with a few words for the passengers, somewhat rude of course, and then leaves the saloon slamming the door behind him in order to return to his duties and receive another drenching. The others have been divided into groups and stay like this throughout the day—except around meal times when they all come together against the cook—talking about their future plans, whatever these may be. Later, having drank a bit and having thrown up a little more, they exchange goodnights that are not always so well-intended and shut themselves up in their berths for the rough night ahead; with the sea often throwing them out of their cots, disturbing their dreams at the critical moment, sending their loved ones back to the shore. Fraenkel falls asleep immediately, whereas Andrée and Strindberg stay awake and every now and then do a good deed by taking Fraenkel by the arms and legs to put him back into the cot, from where he has fallen without waking up, the pillow in his arms like a woman.
“I wish we were like him, Andrée,” says Strindberg with a touch of envy. “Look how soundly he’s sleeping.”
“He hadn’t slept all night, that’s all,” says Andrée. “Don’t think he is less of a worrier. Just watch him during the hours he’s alone.”
“I must confess I am a little scared.”
“Don’t worry, everything will be fine. If our plans are accurate it will be easier than it seems. In reality we only need the southerly winds. It is just 650 miles from our takeoff point to the North Pole and according to my calculations, we can get there in forty-three hours if the winds are good, whereas in less favorable circumstances it might take us four or five days. If our return trip takes another four or five, plus a couple of days for observation, the journey will last from six to fifteen days. There is no reason for worry, Strindberg,” Andrée continues. “After all, we have enough gas to last us thirty days.”
“But didn’t you say that it might be a year before they hear from us again?”
“I just said that so that they’d leave us alone, Strindberg; and make them realize that we will return, whatever happens.”
“Well, you gave me a fright when you said to that Frenchman: ‘I will drown.’ It was so sincere and sudden that for a moment, I must confess, I thought I was drowning.”
“But what else could I say to someone who asks what will happen if the hot-air balloon drops and I fall into the water without managing to open the life-raft? Stupid question—idiots like him should hold their tongues, that’s what they should do.”
“Let’s just hope we will make it.”
“You can be sure of that,” says Andrée looking at Fraenkel. “Give me a hand now, Strindberg. Fraenkel has fallen out of his cot again.”
Gradually the sea calms and for the next few days, Svensksund, which in Swedish means Swedish Passage, leads the way for Virgo under the cloudless sky. When the horizon clears, the Norwegian coast becomes transparent, and as the ships go up the long, narrow country, the fjords look like pieces of glass planted in the water, behind which hides a dominion under the rule of the Swedish King. Oscar II, wanting to show his subjects that Norway and Sweden are regarded as one country, chose to be crowned in Trondheim instead of Stockholm, in September 1873. Since then, the King has lent his support to a number of scientific programs for obvious political reasons—which of course have been artfully concealed. From 1880 onwards, secretive scientists walk about the palace’s corridors—some of them being bearers of good ideas, others being slightly bonkers—asking for an audience with the King in order to request funding, which results in the King either diving one of his hands into his pockets or using both to pull his hair out. One of these ambitious scientists asking for funding is Andrée. This is the spring of 1895, three months after the official presentation of his plan to the Academy of Scientists in Stockholm, following the suggestion of famous explorer Nordenskjold, who also arranges for him an audience with the King. Andrée hires a coach to take him to the palace, where he follows closely behind a footman, who hands him over to another footman, and then another one, until he loses count and contents himself with observing the décor, the high walls, the paintings, the chandeliers that look like overgrown diamonds, and the windows that give an unvarying view to the well-kept gardens…all whilst the floor is making his shoes squeak. Upon finally reaching the heavy door behind which the King is hidden, Andrée is certain that he cannot remember the way out. As the door opens, a servant receives him and directs him towards a velvet armchair, which has enough space for two, but upon which he will never sit again. As he starts relaying the purpose of his visit, tea is being poured into porcelain cups with carved garlands; and at the exact moment Andrée says: “…to be the first to reach the North Pole in a hot-air balloon,” a silver tray with sweets lands on the large table. Then the servants leave the room and in the stillness that this sudden lack of movement brings about, Andrée is forced to look at the King in the eye in total silence; only then does he realise where he is—for a fleeting moment, that is—because a little later, he feels that he is watching the scene from the viewpoint of another person who is observing his double-talking. “Please, continue,” Oscar II urges whilst picking a strawberry tart from the tray. Andrée continues discussing the plan in a way that makes it an experience already lived, a thing of the past; and so infectiously powerful are his words, that the King, visibly pleased with the story, every now and then cuts another pastry from the tray’s budget so as to maximize the pleasure.
A little later, all the facts have been presented, and without any further ado, the King announces his support in the amount of eight thousand, six hundred and fifty dollars. So, Oscar II’s name is added on the list of sponsors underneath that of Alfred Nobel: the melancholy inventor of dynamite and an additional 355 patents, who earlier that spring had carried his fragile body to Andrée’s office to offer the amount of seventeen thousand and three hundred dollars. In the shadow of these amounts, lesser ones are being added and in the list one can see names such as those of Rothschild, Baron Dickson of Gothenburg, Captain Windran, the Tsar of Russia, the notoriously parsimonious King of Denmark—who is rumoured to suffer nervous breakdowns at the loss of a coin—and Colonel Sellstrom, whose cheque of a thousand dollars is accompanied by a note reading: “…even though the required amount has been collected, please accept this cheque to cover any further expenses.” Indeed, by the summer of 1895, fifty thousand dollars have been collected and Andrée decides to refuse any further donations, as even his wildest estimates do not exceed the amount of thirty six thousand dollars. The unexpected response leads him to move the departure date to a year earlier: that is ’96 instead of ’97, as had originally been planned. In the meantime, the hot-air balloon is being constructed by Mr. Lachambre in Paris, under the supervision of twenty specialists, including Machuron, and is brought to completion in May 1896. However, the summer of that year is not blessed with southerly winds and despite the fact that they are all set to go, the journey is cancelled.
Now, for the second time around, the expedition is sailing towards the same point of departure; feet on the deck, backs against the wall. The King has made a second contribution, just like Nobel, who has also offered to finance a new hot-air balloon, if the present one proves to be unsuitable. Andrée declines: “The hot-air balloon is safe, and as a result the construction of a new one is deemed unnecessary…” Nobel reads this on his veranda in San Remo, on the same spot that Death will ask for his details in order to include him in his own list, in December 10, 1896. Andrée, incapable of getting over any death by this stage, is on the deck of Virgo thinking that with Nobel no longer around, this is his last chance to reach the Pole in the hot-air balloon that Mr. Lachambre has unoriginally baptized the North Pole.