The Discovery of Slowness
Although his name is not widely known today, especially in the United States, John Franklin was perhaps the most famous British explorer of the early nineteenth century. The extensive northernmost area of Canada is named for him, because he mapped most of the region. The purpose of his voyages was to find the much sought-after northwest passage from Europe to the Orient. On his last voyage, he proved that the passage existed, but that it was useless because it was blocked with ice all year.
Sten Nadolny’s novel follows Franklin from his childhood in England through his death in this final expedition, ice-locked in the northwest passage. While in the navy, Franklin took part in battles at Copenhagen, Trafalgar, and New Orleans. Having impressed his commanders, he was put in charge of two Arctic explorations, the second of which nearly killed him and all of his men. His popular narrative of this trip led to his being knighted. Sir John Franklin then served as governor of Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony now called Tasmania. During his final Arctic expedition in 1845, his two ships disappeared. More than ten years later, a rescue mission sent by his wife, Lady Jane, found a few documents and other evidence revealing his death and the tragic starvation of his crew.
Within this framework of what is known of Franklin’s life, German novelist Nadolny concentrates on his protagonist’s character. Franklin is slow to take in sensory data. Though he is very intelligent, he appears retarded. Nadolny interprets Franklin’s life as a struggle to take advantage of the insights his slowness provides while compensating for the weaknesses. Franklin emerges as wise in a way necessary to a period when industrialism and empire were speeding the pace of European life. Nadolny’s novel emphasizes the importance of contemplation to successful action.