A nameless man of military persuasion is in pursuit of a silvery-haired girl; tracking her across an unearthly white snowscape, he is intent on possessing her in more ways than one. We will never learn his name, the girl’s name, or even their location. In the 1967 dystopian classic, Ice by Anna Kavan, we’re taken to a frigid, blanched world that is being engulfed by avalanches of ice and snow, the cause of which appears to be unknown. As society breaks down under the weight of misinformation, fuel and food shortages and the inexorable advance of icy doom, the girl keeps running and the man keeps pursuing.
Kavan’s dreamlike and cryptic tale begins with the man (a delusional anti-hero with a touch of James Bond about him). He has just arrived in the country, telling us that he’s been sent to investigate the mysterious goings on. It’s evidently a country he’s previously lived in, and where he once had a relationship with the girl, who left him for another man. As he drives towards the heavy snow clouds, he reflects on their time together and confesses that he is obsessed with finding her. Unfortunately, his lost love proves to be both singularly elusive and under the control of a menacing gentleman he comes to know as ‘the warden.’
A Kafkaesque head trip of a read, Ice constantly wrongfoots the reader. Initial impressions that Kavan is portraying the aftermath of nuclear war are never confirmed. We’re told that this is a time of emergency and aggression but also informed that our narrator is self-admittedly unreliable.
‘Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.’
On prescription drugs which produce horrible dreams and waking delusions, the ‘deplorable side effect’ is that he has come to relish them.
In this manner we accompany him as he tracks the girl down to the fortress-like home she shares with the warden, his first encounter with them unsettling and voyeuristic, as he apparently witnesses a sadistic sexual assault, perpetrated against the girl by her brutal new partner. ‘I saw it happen,’ he tells us, recovering his equilibrium before being introduced to the warden himself. A high-ranking official of some sort, the warden has political uses for our narrator, who sees an opportunity to rescue his beloved, confident that she’ll welcome him as her saviour. So follows a disturbing triangular cat-and-mouse affair, between the beleaguered girl and two damaged men, who begin to increasingly resemble each other.
A symbol of oppressed womanhood, the girl as victim and siren is ultimately unknowable. She is a constantly vanishing sylph-like creature, as fragile as Venetian glass and insubstantial as a willo-the-wisp. Kavan captures this beautifully.
‘Her albino hair illuminated my dreams, shining brighter than moonlight. I saw the dead moon dance over the icebergs, as it would at the end of the world, while she watched from the tent of her glittering hair.’
In a novel laden with metaphor, the ice keeps rising along with the paranoia, and for those of us who love strange, hallucinatory fiction, it’s a mesmerising read.
Ice by Anna Kavan is published by Penguin Classic, 192 pages.