Alicia Kopf - This hybrid novel―part research notes, part fictionalised diary, and part travelogue―uses the stories of polar exploration to make sense of the protagonist’s own concerns as she comes of age as an artist, a daughter, and a sister to an autistic brother

Alicia Kopf, Brother in Ice, Trans. by Mara Faye Lethem, And Other Stories, 2018.

“She thought that it was precisely when things get uncomfortable or can’t be shown that something interesting comes to light. That is the point of no return, the point that must be reached, the point you reach after crossing the border of what has already been said, what has already been seen. It’s cold out there.”

This hybrid novel―part research notes, part fictionalised diary, and part travelogue―uses the stories of polar exploration to make sense of the protagonist’s own concerns as she comes of age as an artist, a daughter, and a sister to an autistic brother. Conceptually and emotionally compelling, it advances fearlessly into the frozen emotional lacunae of difficult family relationships. Deserved winner of multiple awards upon its Catalan and Spanish publication, Brother in Ice is a richly rewarding journey into the unknown.

"In another country this book would have changed the course of its history." - Enrique Vila-Matas

"As if by sleight of hand, Kopf displays a wide range of emotions before us. Like the Poles, they are constantly shifting, and inevitably epic." - Agustín Fernández Mallo

"In an epistolic, polar update of Melville's Moby-Dick, Alicia Kopf's genre-defying book rises as clear and cold as an Arctic sea, floating with ideas that, like icebergs, are buoyed up by meaning and memory below their surface. This is an icy dissection of actuality and history, a frozen etymology of meaning. Slipping from Catalunya to the Ultima Thule, echoing a rapidly changing environment, Brother in Ice deals in personal retrieval and magical supposition in the whiteness of a disappearing world. In the process, it achieves a fugitive poetry all of its own.’ - Philip Hoare

"A unconventional look at a world that makes [Kopf] feel uncomfortable . . . a text in which the feats of polar explorers give way to a central autobiographical story about the equally harsh and arid trips through family relationships and within oneself." - El Pais

"Simultaneously serious and light, incidental and yet trascendental." - El Periodico
"A book, part essay and part autobiography, that is also a chronicle of a generation stalled in a world without horizons or certainties . . . An unusual book and the deserving winner of the Premi Documenta literary prize." - La Vanguardia

Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice (translated by Mara Faye Letham) is a very modern novel. This is not to say its intent is new: a portrait of the artist as a young woman (literally, as Kopf is perhaps best known as an artists and the novel began as a series of exhibitions). Kopf tells us in the opening chapter, as she links her artistic struggle with polar exploration, “I am also searching for something in my white, unheated iceberg studio.” Neither does its modernity lie in the casual mentions of social media, for example when the narrator considers whether to send a friend request to an ex-boyfriend she bumps into at a concert:
“The next day the question of whether or not to add him on the social networks gnaws at me.”
The novel’s modern sensibility begins with its form, a narrative in which autobiography and Google collide to create a series of factual blocks floating in a sea of individual memories. Perhaps the best example is the chapter ‘Snow Globe’ which begins with the discovery of a snow globe (the chapter titles are generally explanatory headings) “at the back of the drawer in an old dresser.” This is not, however, the regret reviving snow globe of Citizen Kane (which is, of course, name-checked) but the stimulant instead for a series of internet searches on the topic.
We see the same process on a larger scale when it comes to Kopf’s central metaphor of polar exploration. While books have been consulted according to a brief bibliography (including Fergus Fleming’s wonderful Ninety Degrees North), much of the information has been found online. (One chapter begins, “Comparing the Amundson and Scott expeditions on Wikipedia…”) The ‘Research Notes’ chapters, which are often dated, generally consist of a mix of diary entries and articles she has read online: ‘Research Notes III’, for example, is an extract from a Spanish scientist’s blog.
Neither a good or bad thing in itself, instant access to information can be a temptation to writers, leading them down search-engine rabbit-holes in pursuit of one more interesting fact. There are times when it feels as if Kopf is tumbling in this way, her fascination with polar exploration outstripping her artistic use of it. Though never dull, it does feel that a disproportionate portion of the text is a cut-and-paste of other people’s stories and that Kopf’s own life becomes the interruption.
Kopf also uses her arctic symbolism in reference to her autistic brother, though the title oversells the idea that it is about him or their relationship (I assume it also encompasses the polar explorers, whom she sees as ‘brothers’ too). True, he is occasionally mentioned (referred to in his first appearance as “a man trapped in ice”) but his story is tangential to the real purpose of the novel. In a Postscript Kopf states explicitly, “this book isn’t about your life, which is only yours.”
“I can only make only make images, fictions, only you know what you’ve lived through…”
This imaginative fatalism might go some way to explaining the preponderance of facts, and the absence of characters. Most other characters are reduced to initials, and their development is as limited; only the mother is partially visible, most suddenly when filtered through the narrator’s anger:
“I’m not asking for money. And asking for a ride to IKEA shouldn’t have to mean begging on my hands and knees.”
Such scenes of interaction are rare, however, even though the novel covers family breakdowns and broken hearts. The drama is in the portrayal:
“Doubt and loneliness are persistent. I don’t know if writing all this is worth the effort, or whether I have any right.”
It may seem I am criticising Brother in Ice for not being the novel I want it to be; in fact, my assumption is that Kopf’s has succeeded in her intention, a novel which is not so much a portrait of an artist as of an artefact. Rather than describing the narrator’s development from childhood to creator, she details the created object. In doing so she presents a modern sensibility lying somewhere between solipsism and narcissism, a shining landscape of ice, endlessly reflecting. -

Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice is subversive. At the beginning I went along with her story as I share Kopf’s evident fascination with the heady days of polar exploration, of nations racing to be first to reach an ever-moving target. I expected little more than a day or two’s immersion into a contemporary novel, of the kind I don’t read often~mostly because they offer nothing that I can’t find better developed in a novel that is tested by time=but what I found instead was an intricate study into how a modern human being constructs their idea of identity.
References to social media situate this contemporary novel but that isn’t what I mean by modernity. Children born in the late twentieth century may be brought up happily or unhappily, closer or more disconnected from their families, but the way they interpret and define themselves will be different from children in nineteenth century novels. What is clever and modern about Kopf’s novel is her feeling for how relationships with parents, the balance between selfishness and altruism that sets the tone for inter family dynamics, has shifted in secular, post-Freudian Europe.
If evidence of post-modernity can be discerned in the conflicts and compromises of family life, it is the degree to which modern human beings construct their identity from the terms of their private lives. The relationships in Kopf’s story, hopeful and tragic, are built from the substrate of exponentially increasing levels of narcissism and self-interest. In the end, Kopf’s family saga disguised as an account of a study of polar exploration, looks beyond the despair addressed at length by contemporary writers like Michel Houellebecq and offers the possibility that we can use language and, by extension, thought to see beyond our crisis of narcissism,

Alicia Kopf was interviewed at BOMB.