Sunday, July 06, 2014

Life and Nature of the Eskimo

by Gontran de Poncins

"Below us spread a wide land of forest sown with thousands and thousands of shining pools, an unfinished world from which the waters had still to recede, and where you would have said that no man lived. . . We did not drop down from time to time because life suddenly appeared below us, for wherever we looked no life was to be seen.  Yet wherever we stopped, life sprang up as if spontaneously generated by our coming;  and it died again when we rose as if we were carrying off the seed of life." (p 7)

Seldom have I encountered as extraordinary a book as Kabloona. It is a true example of sui generis writing and it is unlikely that anything quite like it will be written again. The author, Gontran de Poncins, spent a year traveling among the Eskimos in the Arctic. This book is the result, distilled from his diaries by Lewis Galantiere. Poncins took the perspective of the Eskimos, and as a result he, Kabloona (the White Man), took seriously what they did. The book is thus a unique combination of travelogue, memoir, and cultural study. It provides the reader with a unique picture into a society that in many ways had changed little since the stone age. It is a society that neither cultivates crops nor domesticates animals; living by the fruit of the sea for food and clothing.  The natural beauty and its essential nature are also explored by Poncins who observed:
"Strangest of all was the absence of color in this landscape.  The world of the North, when it was not brown was grey.  Snow, I discovered, is not white!" (p 56)

While the Eskimos called Poncins Kabloona, sometimes in derision, they proudly called themselves Inuit ("men, preeminently"). 
"I was to green to have any notion of Eskimo values.  Every instinct in me prompted resistance, impelled me to throw these men out [of my igloo], --to do things which would have been stupid  since they would have astonished my Eskimos fully as much as they might have angered them." (p 64)
Poncins eventually embraced their culture and thereby through sharing their lives and learning their culture he began to understand them. This is demonstrated over and over in the book as Poncins tells of his experiences with the Inuit against the background of the harsh nature of the Arctic.
"Everything about the Eskimo astonishes the white man, and everything about the white man is a subject of bewilderment for the Eskimo. Our least gesture seems to him pure madness, and our most casual and insignificant act may have incalculable results for him."

I was most impressed by the description of nature and the land as in this moment from Chapter Four:

"It goes without saying that this tundra is barren of vegetation.  No tree flourishes her, no bush is to be seen, the land is without pasture, without oases;  neither the camel nor the wild ass could survive here where man is able to live.  The Eskimo, preeminently a nomad and sea-hunter, is driven by the need to feed his family from point to point round an irregular circle, and it is the revolution of the seasons that directs his march." (p 77)

Much of what Poncins saw has disappeared over the decades since he visited the Eskimos. Their life, while still relatively unspoiled compared to most other societies is no longer one of a true Stone Age people. They live in shacks and seal oil is giving way to kerosene; even outboard motors may be seen. This remarkable book chronicles an earlier age of a people whose culture was an amazing anomaly in the twentieth century. The result is an exciting cultural and travel adventure told through a very personal narrative voice.

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Brian Joseph said...

Sounds like Inuit culture is so interesting. Sadly I know too little about it. Well written books like this really open up new worlds to us.

James said...

While I am not much of a traveler I enjoy travel-adventure narratives. This is one of the best and I would recommend it along with the even more inspirational, Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum.