Exactly what kind of person is John Franklin, met at the age of ten in the opening words of Sten Nadolny's willfully strange novel?

Sten Nadolny
translated by Ralf Freedman
356 pp

John is at play with other children in the village of Spilsby in Lincolnshire in what we have to guess is a year late in the eighteenth century. But although healthy and intelligent, he is entirely without skill, speed or motivation in the games his friends enjoy. He can read, but prefers "to steep himself in the spirit of single letters."

John is given to gazing endlessly at life from the high fork of a tree. He absorbs himself in trying to steady the blips of vision caused by the blood vessels in his eyes. Above all he is slow, often frustratingly, but when infinite patience is required, helpfully so. Is he what once would have been called the village idiot? Or perhaps a version of Dostoevsky's Idiot. Or some other sort of wise fool?

In fact he is none of these. Clues are dropped that John is fascinated by ships and navigation. When his attempt to run away to sea with a shilling fails, we feel sure that later he will achieve his ambition.

If Sten Nadolny's readers have not already consulted his Author's Note or their encyclopaedias, but have faint (or strong) recall of an early nineteenth century explorer, they are right. This is indeed the John Franklin who made two expeditions to the seas of the far north, and died on a third having been recalled from governorship of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) when his enlightened policies made enemies.

Nadolny takes the liberty of basing on this real Franklin an elaborate speculative fantasy about his character, exploits and achievements. That much is no more than usual in historical fiction. Where The Discovery of Slowness is — hazardously — original is in ascribing to its hero a unique perspective on time and human action which develops into 'Franklin's System'.

This is a procedure whereby any decision, small or momentous, requiring long-term or immediate implementation, is given very slow, intuitive moral consideration. He has a profound faith in his talent, almost genius, for patient slowness; and the story proceeds at Franklin's own snail's pace. It's hard not to think in the long early stretches that the book must be about one third too long.

The opening chapters follow John through his schooldays, modulate cunningly (if confusingly) from his imagined sea journeys into his real ones, and describe, with quantities of technical information, his shipboard training, travels, and battle experience: Lisbon, Copenhagen, the Cape, Trafalgar. Everything is naturally a slow, deliberate learning process, which Nadolny renders in cold, depersonalised detail (sometimes fashionably nasty) eschewing the development of any character beyond name and basic function. Family, friendships, a first marriage are only cursorily covered. The theme of slowness is all; the novel begins to seem beyond rescue as a narrative.

Then, about half way, we reach the expedition (author's italics), Franklin's first 'voyage into the ice' of the polar seas; and, having fully demonstrated his hero's slowness, Nadolny himself discovers subtle narrative pace. In these icy regions, "slowness became honourable, speed the servant" for the sailors, and the hauntingly rendered extremities of the situation finally compel attention.

Proceeding by sea or land involves negotiating with either dignified or terrified, but always poor and desperate, indigenous peoples, to enter a terrain without food or shelter, only the cold. Those who remain loyal to Franklin survive on nauseous lichen scraped from the arctic rocks, or by boiling their own boots; others resort to cannibalism. Suddenly the novel is a page-turner.

Neither voyage confirms the existence of a sea route across the North Pole to the Pacific; nor does the well-equipped third expedition, on which the brave but ageing Franklin dies of a stroke. Before that comes his years as governor of the penal colony that becomes Tasmania.

Franklin is by now married a second time (more happily) and his 'system' has evolved into a variety of firm, rational decency in dealing with conspiratorial officials and exploitative settlers. Throughout, as a character, he has been — such is Nadolnys own system — little more than a shadowy proponent of a method of understanding and using time; but now again ordinary narrative interest asserts itself and saves the day.

So in the end, the author's point is effectively, even movingly, made. But reaching it has involved a too long journey through a novel almost fatally determined to emulate an exemplary slowness in its hero.

The Discovery of Slowness is available from Amazon (UK).