If you created a map of Europe on which the countries were represented by their historical 'mass' rather than their square kilometers, Netherlands would be as large as France or Germany. Likewise a map displaying scientific and technological achievement. There's a sense of such wry self-awareness about this Dutch novel, read by far more people in translation than ever in the original language. The narrator, Alfred Issendorf, journeys from his small flatland, the most densely populated nation in the world, to the emptiness of northern Norway, Ultima Thule for him in every way. The comedy of manners that he portrays -- his fumbling communication via English and German with his Norwegian companions, no one being able to express what he feels or thinks coherently -- makes for one layer of social/historical meaning in this many-layered novel. That's how it goes for Small-landers in a world ruled by the languages of Big-landers.
Alfred is a bit of a nerd. A nebbish, a mama's boy, a navel-gazer. He fumbles badly in planning his grand scientific expedition. He is ridiculously under-equipped and hopelessly inexperienced in wilderness lore. He lacks the physical conditioning of an outdoorsman. As he slowly recognizes, he also lacks the intuition of an observer-scientist. He's the wrong guy in the wrong field for the wrong reasons, and he's way outside his safety zone, completely overmatched by the harshness of the tundra. Of course, everything goes from sorry ineptitude to serious danger, but the surprise is that Alfred finds the resources in himself to survive, a heroic effort really but one that he has to mock: mere survival is hardly greatness.
"Beyond Sleep" begins with a muddle of miscommunication, Alfred's hapless efforts to secure the maps that he needs to find evidence of his thesis, and ends with another muddle, Alfred's lame encounters with two beautiful females, one too young, one too old for him. The muddle and the inconsequentiality of experience is not just loose plotting of the novel; it's the whole story. Meanwhile, squeezed between these goofy episodes, there's an 'existential' novel of considerable suspense and emotional power, the tale of Alfred versus both Nature and his own nature.
There's another level of writing in "Beyond Sleep", the dubious pleasure of vicarious misery. Alfred IS miserable out there on the tundra. He's carrying a pack much heavier than he is ready for. He has the wrong shoes, the wrong sleeping gear, and preposterously little food for such a trip. It rains constantly. He falls in the river fords and soaks his gear, and then he falls and scrapes his leg badly enough to make gangrene a threat. Two of his three companions, arrogantly well-prepared and seasoned hikers, abandon him, while the third is as bonkers as he is, and as quixotic. Worst of all, the mosquitoes! I've done a lot of back-country camping in the far North; I read this novel, in fact, while hiking in the Laurentides mountains of Quebec, where mosquitoes are not unknown. The mosquitoes in "Beyond Sleep" are so accurately described, so horribly itchy on the page, that I fear I'll wake up scratching for months after I get home. Alfred's suffering is at the same time laughable and pitiable, and no doubt "existential." What a thing is Man, driven by his ego to feed swarms of bugs with his life-blood! Let me tell you, mosquitoes don't share our perceptions of futility.
Other reviewers have complained that "Beyond Sleep" is disorganized and anti-climactic. If you're looking for a straight-ahead adventure story, you may agree with them. But this is a novel about the equivalence of success and failure. Alfred's goal out there on the tundra is to find a meteor, to prove his thesis that meteor impacts have shaped the landscape there. He finds nothing to support his idea. However, as he is escaping with his life if not his self-esteem, a veritable meteor impact occurs precisely where he had been searching. Alas, Alfred is too self-absorbed to recognize the impact for what it is. His thesis can be proven after all, but he won't get the credit for it.