Reading List: Survival Literature

From the brutalities of life in the gulag to crossing the Pacific on a raft, Avaunt guides you through the precipitous terrain of survival literature’s great classics.

  • Photography: Benedict Tufnell

Shadows on the Tundra
by Dalia Grinkeviciute
‘We are surrounded by grandeur: the immense tundra, as ruthless and infinite as the sea; the vast Lena estuary backed up with ice; the colossal, 100-metre-pillar caves on the shores of Stolby; and the aurora borealis. Against a background of such majesty, we are the pitiful things here – starved and infested like dogs, and nearly done in, rotting in our befouled and stinking ice-caves.’ In taut, unsparingly truthful prose, Dalia Grinkeviciute describes her life after she was deported with her mother and brother at the age of 14 from Lithuania to the Siberian gulag. Her account is as extraordinary for its gutsy optimism as for the horrors it describes. She would escape the gulag in 1948, aged 21, write her story on scraps of paper and hide them from the KGB by burying them in the family garden in Lithuania. It was finally dug up in 1991, four years after she died. Peirene Press published it in English this year.

by JM Coetzee
‘In a world of chance is there a better and a worse? We yield to a stranger’s embrace or give ourselves to the waves; for the blink of an eyelid our vigilance relaxes; we are asleep; and when we awake, we have lost the direction of our lives.’ JM Coetzee’s much-lauded 1986 novel creates a beguiling narrative dance around the original plot of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. This metafiction is told from the perspective of Susan Barton who – while on a ship to track down her daughter who has been taken to the New World – gets caught up in a mutiny. Cast adrift, she washes up on the island where Robinson Crusoe (here called Cruso) and Friday (who is tongueless) are still living. Eventually they are all rescued and – determined to write her story – Barton goes to the novelist ‘Daniel Foe’ to ask him for help. The narrative wrestles with concepts of language and power, a central theme in Coetzee’s work.

by Thor Heyerdahl
‘Some people believe in fate, others don’t. I do, and I don’t. It may seem at times as if invisible fingers move us about like puppets on strings. But for sure, we are not born to be dragged along. We can grab the strings ourselves and adjust our course at every crossroad, or take off at any little trail into the unknown.’ On April 28, 1947, the Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl, set off on a raft with five companions to trace the route he believed had been made by people from South America to the Polynesian islands in the pre-Columbian era. He had challenged himself only to use the materials and technologies that were available at that time – the raft itself was made out of balsa logs. The journey took a full one hundred and one days, and the crew crossed 4,300 miles of open ocean. Heyerdahl’s book about the experience was published to great acclaim in Norwegian in 1948, and in English in 1950.

The SAS Survival Handbook
by John Wiseman
‘To survive, you need survival skills – but skills alone will not save you. You need attitude, and it has to be the right attitude. All the knowledge in the world will count for nothing unless you also have the will to survive.’ John ‘Lofty’ Wiseman marked himself out in 1959 by becoming the youngest person ever to be selected for the SAS. At his retirement in 1985, his commanding officer declared that ‘Lofty is a legend in his regiment’. Retirement was clearly far too comfortable for Wiseman, and in 1986 he published this guide on how to survive in any wilderness or disaster situation. Top tips include how to track and kill animals and prepare them to eat, how to avoid poisonous plants, how to survive disasters ranging from avalanches to nuclear aftermaths, and how to survive afloat in open water. Four years ago a third edition of the book was published, with an additional section on ‘Urban Survival’.

The Rime Of the Ancient Mariner
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
‘All in a hot and copper sky/The bloody Sun, at noon/Right up above the mast did stand/No bigger than the Moon/Day after day, day after day/We stuck, nor breath nor motion/As idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted ocean.’ Coleridge’s great friend William Wordsworth relates how this infamous lyrical ballad, written in 1797-98, may well have been inspired by a conversation the two poets and Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, had about a book by Captain George Shelvocke. The book, A Voyage Round the World By Way of The Great South Sea, featured a depressed sailor who shoots an albatross. Others believe he had his imagination sparked by James Cook’s second voyage (Cook’s astronomer was Coleridge’s tutor), still others believe he took his ideas from the journey of Thomas James into the Arctic. Whatever the inspiration, this remains one of our greatest works about guilt, survival and the search for redemption.

Through the Dark Continent
by Henry Morton Stanley
‘The responsibility of leading a half-starved expedition – as ours now certainly was – through a dense bush, without knowing whither or for how many days, was great… [We] came to a large tree to the top of which I requested the guide to ascend, to try if he could recognise any familiar feature in the dreary landscape. After a short examination, he declared he saw a ridge that he knew… This news stimulated our exertions, and… we travelled briskly until 5 pm, when we arrived at the third pool.’ The explorer who wrote this book, Henry Morton Stanley, is probably most famous for a line he may never even have said. ‘Dr Livingstone I presume?’ is one of the great misquotes of our time, though it is true that Stanley did track down the lost explorer in Ujiji near Lake Taganyika. This book is an account of a later trek to Africa to trace its central lakes and rivers and locate the source of the Nile.

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Further Reading

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AI Killed the Radio Star?

Last year Francois Pachet was poached by Spotify as one of the world’s foremost pioneers in applying AI to music. As he pushes computers closer to the Holy Grail of composing their own works, should musicians fear or celebrate him?

Remembering Havel

A philosopher president who did more than any other individual to translate the anarchic avant-garde spirit of ’68 into political reality.

This Robotic Claw Gently Captures Sea Life Without Harming Them

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Laos: Escaping Mordor

Richard Waters on risking his life to chase the story of the Hmong people, persecuted since their fight against communism in the Secret War.
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