I was scanning a book shop shelf for Lolita’s predecessor The Enchanter when I caught sight of a book so slim I almost skimmed right over it. Vladimir Nabokov’s collection Terra Incognita is far from the tomb that is Ada or Ardor: the three short stories come in at under a hundred pages and the title short story Terra Incognita is a tiny fourteen.
Having read Nabokov’s mastery of characterisation in his longer works, I wanted to see what he could do with a shorter medium. None of Nabokov’s intensity is lost in Terra Incognita. The story follows the delirious Valliere (the narrator) and his longtime friend Gregson as they catch insects on their journey from Zonraki to the Gurano Hills.
Accompanied by the Badonians and their translator Cook, the group travel further and further into the forest, with their view of the Gurano Hills being blighted by an overhanging mist. Nabokov’s depiction of delirium is well executed: he maintains the narrator’s voice and progresses the plot whilst also showing that the group’s situation is steadily worsening.
‘I kept telling myself that my head was heavy from the long march, the heat, the medley of colors, and the forest din, but secretly I knew that I was ill.’
As they continue on, Cook and the natives ‘vanished noiselessly’ into the surrounding trees. Nabokov creates a sense of growing terror as it becomes clear that Valliere has little control over the situation: the forest is a life form of its own, complete with ‘monkeys’ that ‘snapped and chattered, while a comet-like bird flashed like Bengal light, crying out in its small, shrill voice’ which adds to the narrator’s disorientation.
The fact that the plot remains a tangible thread throughout the story while the narrator is suffering from hallucinations is a credit to Nabokov’s ability to handle plot constraints. Cook returns, minus the natives, and ‘began to swear that the natives had lead him away by force and had wanted to eat him.’
Valliere, Gregson, and Cook journey on together.
‘I was tormented by strange hallucinations.’
At one point Valliere grows so weak that Gregson insists that he and Cook will carry him the rest of the way. The narrator’s hallucinations convey his desire to transport himself from the forest into Western comfort: at one point ‘A large armchair rose, as if supported from below, out of the swamp.’
Nabokov maintains the dream like qualities of the story until the very end when, having seen Cook and Gregson murder each other, Valliere emerges from his thick film of delirium to see the natural world as it is. The line ‘For the last time I saw all this distinctly, consciously, with the seal of authenticity on everything- their skinned knees, the bright flies circling over them, the females of those flies already seeking a spot for ovulation.’ There is a strange tranquility to Valliere’s death, it is as if he is detatched from the situation and can view the scene like one would view a picture in a book.
Ofcourse, nature triumphs. In the end, Valliere is just a mammal in the forest. Nabokov emphasises the insignificance of man among nature through his depiction of weather such as the overhanging mist which clouds the travelers’ thoughts and disrupts their journey. He shows that humans are ill equipped to deal with the reality that is the thriving forest through the motif of furniture: as Valliere’s health declines he hallucinates armchairs, wallpaper, and the four walls to the imaginary room which symbolises his desire for a more manageable situation.
In the denouement, Valliere is physically unable to escape from the untameable entity that is the forest, and the reader assumes that the flies that crowd Gregson and Cook’s corpses are waiting for Valliere’s, too.