Amundsen’s Secret Diary
Any author goes through countless versions of a book before the final, definitive text is sent to be published. Dead Men was no different. There were three different endings, several different time lines, and some characters who appeared in the early drafts but were excised by the time of the final draft.
What fascinated me about Roald Amundsen, beside his obvious single-mindedness and ruthlessness in achieving his goals, were his destructive relationships with women, and the way those relationships were subjugated to his ambition rather than being the inspiration for his quest for the North and South Poles. One relationship I found particularly intriguing was the one with Bess Magids, a woman he had met in Seattle, and whom, in the end, he promised to marry. The rest, as they say, is history.
As far as Amundsen’s polar journey is concerned, one thing that baffled me as I was doing my research was that his language, in The South Pole and in his diaries, is always very unemotional, very spare, cold and reserved, especially when compared to Scott’s style of writing. Although Norwegian is a very functional language, shaped by the weather and the environment, it is capable of emotion (see Rolf Jacobsen’s poems for wonderful examples of this), so Amundsen’s approach to language was very puzzling.
This is where I began to set out a scenario where Amundsen would have kept an alternative polar diary, one in which he recorded, without self-editing, his fears, his hopes, his rages, his true self. This idea was precipitated by the false start of Amundsen’s polar party to the South Pole on 8thSeptember 1911, a trip on which Amundsen and his men came close to death, a journey which is glossed over by many pro-Amundsen historians, a journey which split the Norwegian party into two factions, raised issues regarding Amundsen’s leadership, and can be said to have directly caused the suicide of one of Amundsen’s men.
Just to reiterate, what is contained in Amundsen’s Secret Diary is a fictionalised account of a real part of Amundsen’s life, and the diary entries below are entirely made up (and were, in the final version of Dead Men, condensed into a letter which plays a fairly significant part in the story). I am a great admirer of Amundsen’s achievement and courage, and of his capabilities as an explorer. However, writers explore the light and the dark, both in themselves and in other people, and most of all, in what they write.
One final word – what you are about to read are rough notes, words excised from the final text of Dead Men because, at the time, I deemed them not to be of sufficient relevance to the final narrative.
Richard Pierce, Stradbroke, 12thNovember 2012