Sunday, December 6, 2009

NYRB Challenge #13: Another Christmas Tale. . .

Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter, translated by Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Mayer, is a perfect little gem of a holiday tale, unsentimental, and with no mention of Santa Claus. It is thus a book for all ages and even the most grinchly and cynical of readers.

On Christmas Eve two children, Conrad and Sanna, are travelling back from their grandparent's house when a sudden snowstorm hits, a blinding whiteness that "drew its ever narrowing circle about them, paling beyond into fog that came down in waves, devouring and shrouding everything till there was nothing but the voracious snow". They quickly get lost in the mountains but manage to find shelter for the night among some rocks. They stay awake - and thus alive - by drinking the strong coffee extract their grandmother had packed. The next day they are found by rescuers from both their own and their grandparents' villages.

It's a simple story but very beautifully told. Sifter has some wonderful descriptive passages, particularly of the glacier that the children end up crossing. It is unknown terrain that is equal parts magical (the children hear it moving and groaning in the night), and threatening with its hidden crevices lying below the snow. Its spectacular caverns of blue, "deeper and finer than the vault of heaven itself", co-exist with dangerous walls of jagged ice, "cracked and fissured, with innumerable meandering blue veins". The children remain optimistic but they go round in circles and simply can't find a way off the mountain in the storm. If you've ever been lost on a hike, you'll relate to the mixture of bravado and fear that Conrad feels as he tries to keep his younger sister safe. This is also a lovely tale of two isolated communities who view each other as strangers, until they come together to help find the missing children.

Read it now before global warming melts the glaciers into the stuff of fairytales.

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