“John’s eyes and ears,” Dr. Orme wrote to the captain, “retain every impression for a peculiarly long time. His apparent slowness of mind and his inertia are nothing but the result of exaggerated care taken by his brain in contemplating every kind of detail. His enormous patience…”
This book by Sten Nadolny published in 1983 about the polar explorer John Franklin, read for German lit month follows Franklin throughout his life from a young schoolboy to his death and studies how a particularly slow child could slowly develop and in adulthood turn this diadvantage to his favour. He is at first taken for and treated as an imbecile, the first person to see anything else in him is his teacher Dr. Orme who tries to explain his condition to a ships captain as John’s dream is to go to sea, illustrated in the opening quote.
The writing follows John’s developing thought process and is initially quite disjointed, becoming more and more clear as John slowly builds his theories regarding slowness, and its role compared to fastness. John lives through extraordinary times, taking part as a young midshipsman in the battle of Trafalgar realising that his inability to act quickly could be a dissadvantage in a wartime situation as a midshipsman but countering this by an ability to learn vast quantities of information about boats and by showing great braveness. Following this battle he obtains the opportunity to sail on a scientific voyage of discovery in the south seas which circumnavigated Tasmania. This voyage was of huge importance for him as he very slowly managed to persuade the crew of his capability, terminating in the sinking of the ship off of the coast of Australia and the stranding of the crew on a narrow and shallow sandbank where two events were to shape his future. Firstly the captain, rather than rushing took the time to get exacy bearings of the sandbank before rowing the more than 100 miles to the main land and coming back with help, thus a man in responsibility should not act precipitously and a captain should always bring back his crew. Secondly whilst the others were hurrying around the sandbank he thought carefully and after a day decided to put their food safely high above the sea, this was swiftly followed by a storm which wasshed away everything except the food which permitted them to hold out until rescued.
On the trip back to Europe with a boat with a number of others from the East Indies company and after an act of bravour by the captain when faced with an overwhelming force of French men of war John’s reputation now went before him as the captain proclaimed:
“Scrutinize three times; act once. Young people don’t always grasp this. Being slow and faultless is better than being quick and final. Isn’t that so, Mr. Franklin?”
But it was the North West Passage that was to make his fame, where he was chosen as captain and set off believing that after the ice there was open sea at the north pole, they were totally unprepared for the trip and as illustrated when they began to get caught in the ice:
Above 81 degrees latitude the ice floes turned into platforms, and those into islands. At one point, under the most favorable transverse wind, the Trent simply stood still and didn’t budge. “Why don’t we go on?” Reid called from below, and a few minutes later the second mate, Kirby, came on deck: “Why aren’t we moving?”
Once again Franklin’s slowness comes to their rescue as all around is panic and he appears to do nothing until his observstion saves them:
The critical moment had arrived; even Beechey became nervous: with their slow captain the whole ship would be wrecked. But why did Franklin stay so calm? What did he actually believe? Why did he stare at the shore; what did he look for with his telescope? “There!” John shouted. “We’ve got to get there, Mr. Beechey!” What did he mean? Into the pack ice? Voluntarily?
This experience caused him to think that command required two people, a first officer to handle the quick work and a captain to reflect completely and to act slowly.
So, onto the voyage that would make his legend, “The man Who ate his shoes”. He was to lead a land expedition to find the North West Passage, for this his nature and his intuition were to prove useful in his first meeting with the indians necessary to help him fulfill his mission, amongst the whites they recognised him at once as the leader:
John saw the Indians approach across the lake in a long line of canoes. Behind him, a tent had been erected at the fort. The flag was waving, and next to him the uniformed officers and Hepburn were lined up in formation. Upon John’s command they had put on their decorations. He wore none himself. His instinct for dignity told him that as the highest chief, he should be able to do without them. Akaitcho climbed out of the first canoe and strode slowly up to the Englishmen without looking right or left, so that John had to take him most seriously. This was no man who would let his warriors fall upon Eskimos and chop off their hands and feet. Whoever walked this way kept his word. In contrast to his warriors, the chief wore no feather headdress; he was dressed in mocassins, long blue trousers, and a wide shirt with crossed shoulder straps hanging loose over his trousers, belt, and powder horn; a beaver cloak hung from his shoulders to the ground.
Few of the original group made it back alive, those that did owed it in part to the decisions of their captain, in part due to a solid young sailor who went on ahead to fetch help and in part to the impression that Franklin had made on the indian chief, causing him at great risk to his life to come to resue them. This event, back in England, was perceived as a fiasco until John, slowly wrote a book about the trip, omitting nothing including that he had eaten the leather of his shoes in hunger. Thus book became a best seller and redeemed him to the public, strenghthening his belief in slowness.
Then came his later life, his knighthood, his years as governor general of Tasmania, a mostly penal colony and his final fatal mission to the North West Passage. Throughout all of this, the people that came to know him were fiercely loyal to him as he was to them.
First Published in German as “Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit” in 1983 by Piper.
Translated into English by Ralph Freedman and published as “The Discovery of Slowness” in 1987 by Viking Penguin