Anna Kavan’s Ice is a cold and cruel novel, a colourful work, and a very good one.
An unnamed narrator searches for a girl in an effort to control her. In competition with him is her husband, a man known only as ‘the warden’, with whom he shares an inexplicable, undefined connection. Their conflicting missions take place on an Earth succumbing to chaos as an irreversible ice wall slowly destroys the planet, and the people with it. It’s a novel about boundaries (and the crossing of), the nature of reality, power over others, and the darkness of humanity.
It’s a confusing and beautifully written example of ‘slipstream literature’, which from what I gathered is a post-modern method of demonstrating science and reality, setting and plot, through unconsciousness, emotion, mood, and symbols – kind of like how Murakami demonstrates the post-war malaise of the 80s in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Most facts are left ambiguous, so bear with the uncertain descriptions.
The narrator is not a hero in the traditional sense. He all but admits that his quest for the girl does not have any pure motivation, instead saying that the search seems to be making up for some hole in his personality. He is presumably a governmental official for some nation, judging by the reactions many other people have to him. He is also, probably, an unreliable narrator.
The warden, probably some kind of military official, is a man with cold blue eyes and an oft-mentioned ring – we don’t fully understand his reasons for pursuing the girl, but presumably they are similar to the narrator’s.
The girl apparently lacks assertiveness as a result of parental abuse. She knew the narrator during youth, but married the warden instead; and while their relationship began cordial it evolved into dislike, and by the time of the novel, something indefinable.
The three of them, the only real characters of Ice, travel around the world in a bid to escape one another, to catch one another, and to avoid the ever-approaching wall of ice caused by some science-fiction excuse.
A central theme deals with the nature of reality – much of the book is concerned with events which may or may not have any basis in fact. We don’t know if the girl’s condition was actually caused by her parents; we have only the narrator’s word, and her word, to go off, and neither are trustworthy sources. Add this ambiguity to the constant narrative interruptions, the dream sequences and the visions, and the final product is a bizarre, confusing construction. The narrator climbs out of his hotel window (towards the town’s ruins) to go looking for the girl, and he sees her drown; with no explanation he finds himself in a medieval village. The ruins have been restored, but are being sacked by anonymous invaders. Facts from the outside world are often unconfirmed and indistinct. As part of the physical trappings of this apocalyptic world, news media is censored by the major world governments, rumours about fantastical and terrible kinds of bombs, and trade agreements. The world, in the absence of normal rule, falls to militarism and anarchism. Actual data about what exactly is going on, beyond the inexorable spread of the ice, is unclear. Kavan has created a world indistinct, muddy, and rather like the inside of a brick of ice.
Despite having her personality apparently superseded by victimhood, the girl seems to have incredible power over the warden and narrator. After all, the entire book is about her, in a sense – the warden and narrator are obsessed with her. Her weakness is in reality a disguised strength; because of that weakness she dominates the book. (If I were willing to be slightly more brash, I’d claim that the actual book itself was under the power of this character, although that’s slightly too metaphysical even for me.) Her position is only another subtle example of the book’s competing realities, dreamlike perceptions, and unclear truths – this time embedded in the very text itself. The more the narrator talks and thinks about and searches for the girl, the more his and the text’s continuous explanations of her weakness start to seem like denial. Physically, of course, this interpretation falls flat – she really is damaged, and almost comically weak. Assertiveness on her part is a carefully orchestrated act, torn down by even the laziest show of dominance.
The narrator, despite initially seeming quite ineffectual, is quite strong, able to navigate many situations through force or diplomacy, and usually completes his short-term goals. Of course, he is periodically stymied by the girl or by the warden (usually the latter) but manages to survive with rights and life intact. Physically, he towers over the girl, but the warden is superior to them both.
Throughout the novel, the narrator dreams of studying the Indris (singing lemurs); they are a passionate subject of his. At one point he explicitly gives them the significance of humanity without the negative aspects – they are innocent, playful, gamboling creatures. However, his obsession with the girl and the ice wall distract his attentions. The girl hates them with a passion; at one point the warden put on a record of Indris singing and she actually went so far as to disobey his wishes to switch the sound off. She rejects the possibility of the new, of the innocent, and in some way seems eerily similar to the ice itself, with albino hair and often with a cold, listless attitude. The narrator, because of her/because of the ice is never given the chance to investigate the Indris, symbols of early humanity, or new humanity, or humanity’s regression. They become another casualty of the ice as his decision to pursue the girl leaves them literally and figuratively out in the cold.
I was expecting more from the warden; but he doesn’t seem as important to the power dynamic as the other two. The narrator’s confused feelings about the girl (how she awakens in him terrible possessive instincts which morph slowly into protective ones, as he realises how awful his behaviour towards her is) and the girl’s ornery displays of assertiveness far outstrip the warden’s two-faced behaviour towards the protagonist. Ultimately, he wants the girl for his own shallow purposes, and it appears to us that she has more power over him than she does over the narrator, because we are never exposed to his internal dialogue and most of his actions in the book relate to her. Both the warden and narrator objectify her to a ridiculous extent.
“It was clear that he regarded her as his property. I considered that she belonged to me. Between the two of us she was reduced to nothing; her only function might have been to link us together.”
The warden is powerful enough to command armed forces, and hold banquets and hold people waiting in opulent rooms, and he owns a wall-sized portrait of himself in his last appearance, but while he physically dominates the girl and the narrator he in reality has power over neither of them.
Ultimately, all three are weak in the face of nature.
The world outside the girl and narrator has fallen to the all-encompassing wars typical of post-apocalyptic science-fiction – civil, guerilla, indiscriminate – and serves as a backdrop for the narrator’s search and his victimisation of the girl. He passes in and out of conflicts that only tangentially involve him, but his focus (and so, the novel’s focus) is on the relationship. Typical of slipstream literature, descriptions of the setting and of the character’s actions describe their emotional states and dynamic just as much the material world. Describing a fight, Kavan writes, “In the delirium of the dance, it was impossible to distinguish between the violent and the victims.”
And it is; it’s impossible for me to distinguish who exactly is abusing who here, who ultimately has power over who in Kavan’s callous, beautiful novel. I’ve called it ‘science fiction’ but it really isn’t – that merely describes the trappings. Rather it’s a heavily psychological work that I can’t classify. A quick read, worth the time.
It’s a dark, prismatic tale, a construction of light, a beautiful murky book.