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I came into possession of a copy of “Touching the Void” in much the same way I found the music of Matchbox Twenty for the first time. I saw a copy of the book on sale, vaguely recalled reading positive things about either it of the film that was made from it and figured I’d take a chance. Again, in much the same way as finding Matchbox Twenty, I couldn’t locate the positive comments I thought I’d seen and worried it might not be as good as I was expecting.
This is where the comparison ends. Whereas Matchbox Twenty turned me into a fan very quickly, “Touching the Void” doesn’t have enough about it to achieve the same effect.
It’s the story of young mountaineer Joe Simpson. Along with his friend Simon Yates, he is attempting to climb a mountain in Peru, Siula Grande by a route that had never been climbed before. During their time in the mountains, however, disaster strikes. First a fall leaves Joe with a serious injury and while they are trying to get back down the mountain, another fall results in Simon having to cut the rope joining them together to save his own life and effectively condemning Joe to die on Siula Grande.
This is where the real point of the story begins. We follow Simon as he returns to their camp, hampered by frostbite and burdened with the guilt of what he has done, believing that he has effectively murdered his friend and wondering how to break the new to their other friend, who didn’t climb with them. We also follow Joe, battling to get down the mountain before the mountain gets him down, battling against the elements as well as a badly injured leg and being barely able to stand, yet alone walk.
This splits the book into two distinct parts. The first is the mountaineering part, where it’s two men against a mountain. The second is the descent, where there are two individual stories of men battling the circumstances as well as the elements. As the author and, in fairness, the one with the larger obstacles, the majority of this second part of the book focuses on Joe Simpson as his battle for survival against the odds.
Unfortunately, although it’s an amazing story, it’s not one that’s terribly well told. The first section is full of technical language, used to describe the hazards of the mountain and the tools they use in their attempts to defeat it. If you’re not used to climbing mountains, this section is likely to leave you largely confused, as it did me. I had no idea what a cornice or a spindrift was before reading the book and only the vaguest idea of what a crampon does and my knowledge has not been improved in the slightest by reading it.
It is clear that climbing mountains is a dangerous business, but Joe Simpson fails to express this in terms of how dangerous it could really be. I also have little doubt from the photos in the book that climbing can put you in a position to see beautiful sights and scenery lost to most of us, but his descriptions didn’t once leave me feeling that it was something I wanted to see. It feels as if this book might have been a chance to bring mountaineering to a wider audience, but it is an opportunity missed as the language used could be beyond the understanding of that audience, much as it was beyond mine.
The second part, the descent, is better in terms of the language, but the emotional distance I felt from the events described was greater. This part should have been a moving story of Joe’s battle against everything to get down the mountain, in agony from a broken leg and feeling that he was about to die at any moment. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel any of this. The way Joe describes his battle for survival seemed dry and mechanical. He frequently reminds us of the agony he is in thanks to his injured leg, but I didn’t feel able to share that pain with him. He may have been close to death on any number of fronts, but in many ways he sounded like a machine recounting the story. Where I was expecting to be sucked into a tale of danger and wondering if he would survive, I felt more like a detached observer, completely uninvolved and having no great desire to become so. Similarly, I felt unable to share the guilt which we are told was Simon’s constant companion on his descent back to their base camp.
It’s a great pity, as I have little doubt that this is a great survival story. My mind tells me that Joe was in great pain and in great danger. My mind tells me that Simon was suffering emotionally from loss and the consequences of his actions. But no matter how often my mind tells me this, I am still unable to become emotionally involved in the events described. Sadly, this makes the whole experience feel like a badly told story, rather than an actual experience that the author went through.
If you’re a mountaineer yourself, I suspect you’ll get a lot more out of the book than I did. You’ll know exactly what Joe is talking about with all the technical terms he uses in the first part of the book. If you’ve been in any kind of danger or injured on a mountain, you’ll have much more of an idea of what both men were feeling in the second part. If you’re likely top get something from the book, it’s available at Amazon for £5.59, Green Metropolis for £3.75, or from the Amazon Marketplace and eBay from £2.40 and 99p respectively.
For those of us who can’t instinctively understand what’s going on, even the latter of these prices may be a step too far. My copy cost 99p from a charity shop and only knowing that my money is likely to be used for some good that fills me with any emotion at all. Whilst no reader usually needs to be told what they should be feeling at any given point, it’s generally helpful to know what the characters are feeling to get the most from the story. Ultimately, “Touching the Void” failed miserably at expressing those emotions and the end result was like a field after a snowstorm; although you know that underneath the surface there may be something more meaningful, all you can see is the unbroken surface, bland and featureless.
I've not read the Book, but thought the film was brilliant indeed............Roy.....
Tadders 25.07.2005 13:13
Good review. I actually really liked the technical aspects of this book because it's a real life story and therefore written by someone who is a survivor rather than a writer, but I can see your point in terms of confusion. I'd suggest watching the documentary style film. It's harrowing, but helps clarify the complex parts which non-climbers will be unfamiliar with. I never ceased to be amazed about the fact that this bloke survived to write this book.
l-m-n-o-p 23.06.2005 11:38
Maybe you should see the film, it is really good. I haven't read the book, and even though I wouldn't anyway after seeing the film, your review is still helpful. Pete.