The Ice Wanderer
Created by: Jirô Taniguchi
Published by: Fanfare/Ponent Mon
ISBN: 8496427331 (Amazon)
In fifth grade they had us watch a short-film adaptation of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” I don’t know if we were treated to the all-words version as well. It’s the film that I remember and it’s the film that completely turned me off of both Jack London’s body of work and the survival genre in general.
It’s not so much that there was anything wrong with Cobham’s motion picture adaptation but that I was unable to process that horrible situation as anything other than something truly horrifying. There was no room for interpreting the narrative in terms of man vs. nature. It was more just, “Holy hell, I will never go anywhere if there is snow involved!” And that was enough to put a sour taste in my mouth for London’s work from that point forward. When our class in junior high was reading Call of the Wild, I skipped it. When the White Fang movie came out in high school, I skipped it. When I had the opportunity to see Sea Wolf on the big screen in repertory, I skipped it. Even though I was on a Gregory Peck kick at the time.
So it’s a good thing I didn’t know how indebted to London this collection of Taniguchi’s shorts would be, because otherwise I might have missed out on a truly wonderful set of stories.
The Ice Wanderer is one of those rare anthologies that include not a single weakness. Certainly some stories are better conceived than others but it’s more a question of whether a story will be Good or Great rather than the more common Good, Okay, or Bad. The book is themed around the idea of man vs. nature (and sometimes man with nature), with only a single inclusion straying from that tonal direction. I had fortunately already gotten past my No Survival Fiction hurdle months earlier almost through trickery. I had been reading Taniguchi’s Inu o Kau, a story of a couple taking care of their dog in its old age, and the final chapter attached (“Promised Land”) was completely unrelated— the story of a man’s attempt to scale Annapurna massif in Nepal. I was already pages into it when I realized what I was reading, so I continued and it was very good and very much worth my time. Despite my hesitations.
The same can be said for pretty much every story included in The Ice Wanderer. Worth your time and very good. Taniguchi has a unique ability to convey nature (and its nature) through his art. I first encountered him in The Walking Man and was impressed with the virtuosity with which he approaches his landscapes. His pen is very fine-lined and he baptizes his landscapes in a kind of detail that makes Arthur Adams look minimalistic. That attentive detail is very much present in The Ice Wanderer and after I devoured his stories, I enjoyed sitting back and simply admiring the art he pours into each page.
In The Ice Wanderer's first story, Taniguchi tells a perhaps bio-apocryphal story of Jack London’s days in the Klondike during the gold-hunting years. It’s a sober reminder of the power of nature and its wrath upon those who fail to respect it. It’s well done and intrigued me enough that I actually looked up London’s biographical sketch on Wikipedia. Did you know that when London was 13, “he borrowed money from his black foster mother Virginia Prentiss, bought the sloop Razzle-Dazzle from an oyster pirate named French Frank, and became an oyster pirate” and that “in his memoir, he claims to have stolen French Frank’s mistress Mamie.” A thirteen-year-old oyster pirate and Lothario. The mind reels.
The next story, one of my favourites of the collection, is apparently an adaptation of the first part of London’s White Fang. I may have known this had I seen the movie when I was in high school. The story of two men hauling a third one, a corpse, through the frigid wilderness to civilization while being stalked by merciless wolves is tense and built on excitement. As members of the dog team slowly succumb to nightly raids, it becomes questionable whether any of these men—live or dead—will meet their destination. I found the story thrilling and ultimately satisfying. Still not enough to convince me to pick up White Fang, but I’m glad to see there’s gold to be mined from London’s works.
The next two stories are the two best of the show. The first pits an old man against the renegade bear that killed his son years earlier. (I know, right!) It’s a hard story, watching a man possibly throw away everything that matters in a bid for revenge. Apart from the question of the man’s own survival, Taniguchi asks whether the price for such action is too high in the end. The next tale pits a young boy against his own weak and cowardly nature and an older girl against her own perhaps too-strong nature—all while both strive against nature as a storm sweeps their small boat to sea. Each of these stories concern the dangers always present in the natural world, but are still more cognizant of the struggles that take place even within our own hearts.
The fifth story, concerning a struggling mangaka, is good but out of place. Its inclusion seems as abrupt as the inclusion of the mountain-climbing story did in Inu o Kau. The sixth story, about a man seeking a humpback’s sacred burial ground, is tender in its way and seems almost prototype for Daisuke Igarashi’s wonderful Children of the Sea.
The Ice Wanderer is a fascinating book for how its particulars explore on the surface the struggle between man and nature—but use this setting to sound out more interesting ideas. Taniguchi, as he’s shown in both The Walking Man and Inu o Kau, sees the human relationship with the natural realm less as confrontation and more as symbiosis. Certainly he sees nature’s present boundaries, which will threaten to destroy the man or woman foolish enough to transgress those lines, but at the same time Taniguchi presents a beautiful, awe-striking world in which humanity does harbour some chance at living not at odds with but alongside the natural realm.
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