Is the investment worth it?
Despite the initial circumlocution and its rather drawn-out conclusion — the book could be shorter — it pays to persevere as one is sucked into its narrative.
We have to buy into the idea that the young priest Morten Falck, as part of his preparation for his mission to Greenland in 1787 to attempt to convert the Inuit to the Danish church, has to experience first-hand all the vagaries of sex, including an encounter with a hermaphrodite.
One of Falck’s texts interestingly is Moll Flanders, which he bizarrely gives as an enlightening read to the colony keeper’s wife in Greenland, whose confessor he becomes.
But Falck is more than a mere priest: he is a healer, a counsellor, a comforter and, as Magister, is invited to become the chronicler of these supposedly heathen people.
Despite the occasional verbose lapses, Leine’s descriptions are brilliant and the account of the fog as the priest’s ship berths is reminiscent of Dickens’ Bleak House:
“A person can sit and watch it come creeping in the evening and lay itself upon the water from shore to shore, pearly and lustrous, and so dense one feels able almost to step upon it and cross the fjord on foot.”
Falck is a restless individual at odds with the colonial authorities and sympathetic towards the rebellious Greenlanders of Eternal Fjord who appear to practise a truer type of Christianity than what he has been instructed to preach.
He has a fondness for quoting Rousseau: Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains, which acts as a running motif throughout the novel, and Danish conflict with the French means his borrowed French uniform renders him in danger of being arrested for espionage.
But it is with the people of Eternal Fjord that he feels at home.
He had left behind a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle in Copenhagen and an impressionable young fiancée, Miss Abelone Schultz.
However, when he returns from his mission 11 years later, he is racked with guilt on discovering that she has gone mad.
The conflagration at the climax of the novel, although based on the great fire of Copenhagen of 1795, is symbolic here.
The burning of the ancient gothic church where so many Danish births and deaths and baptisms were recorded for hundreds of years suggests the breakdown of Christianity.
“The church cannot be saved,” the people shout.
The fire also clears the Missionskollegium’s records on Falck, including his nude drawings to which he had a propensity, and the discovery of which he feared could have prevented his reappointment to Greenland.
As well as capturing superbly the harsh environment of the near-Arctic wastes, Leine also conjures up the atmosphere of 18th century Copenhagen very well.
The picture he paints is so clear, the reader feels he is there in the heart of the old throbbing city.
One senses the immediacy of life when “a careening carriage comes clattering at speed along Gammel strand” as the consuming fire threatens to destroy the city “dry as straw”.
And one can feel the quickening pulse in ‘people lugging chairs, chests, hatboxes, dressmaking dummies clad in finery, busts, cats, clocks, porcelain bowls.’
In contrast with the innocence of children chasing barrel hoops across the cobblestones.
This is a great, original novel with a rich polyphony of memorable places and events and resonating characters.
A work that will endure.
- James Lawless is a poet and novelist; www.jameslawless.net