Book review: The Heart of Man

The Heart of Man
Jón Kalman Stefánsson
MacLehose Press; €23.60

A nameless boy survives a blizzard which almost cost him his life. He is taken in by a doctor and his family in a fishing village on the northern coast of Iceland.

Yet these otherworldly rescuers are as much a mystery to the newcomer as the boy is to the local inhabitants. Thus the scene is set for an awakening to the profundities of love and desire as the boy seeks to master his fate and rationalise the cruelties of the wilderness life.

Set in Iceland in the 19th century, The Heart of Man is the third part of a trilogy which began with Heaven and Hell (2007) and was continued by The Sorrow of Angels (2009). While it is true that readers who have followed the boy’s travails in those novels will derive more from the conclusion of his journey, The Heart of Man nonetheless functions well as a standalone work. It is a satisfying showcase of an author critically- acclaimed across Scandinavia.

Stefánsson — who in interviews is fond of quoting the Icelandic saying that “you can never escape your hometown” here builds his story around those elements of the boy’s prior life which the character carries with him: his guilt from the first novel along with the relationships and responsibilities he accrued in the second.

For instance, the boy had believed his heart belonged to the daughter of a wealthy merchant but now he awakens in the presence of a girl with “hair so red that it can hardly be true” and this new infatuation is painfully at odds with the fact that he must inevitably return home.

There is a striking immersive quality to Stefánsson’s writing, everything from the rough-cut beams of isolated houses and churches to the Icelandic cold itself.

The author frequently portrays the cold as another character. Yet unlike the violent, overbearing bully — nay, murderer — of the blizzard which so haunts the boy, the cold in The Heart of Man is neighbourly by nature. It is simply part of the village, throwing snowballs with local children and informing people’s daily decisions in ordinary ways.

This use of the cold underlines how the notion of community in The Heart of Man is one predicated on co-operation; not just on a wary alliance with the climate but on support between individuals and a widespread acknowledgement of histories.

Ably translated by Philip Roughton (who shepherded the previous volumes of the trilogy into English), this version of The Heart of Man preserves the lyrical tendencies which Stefánsson has been keen to stress as crucial elements of his prose.

“There is almost no difference between fiction and poetry”, he has said, and certainly this meditative, allusive novel seems to prove his point.

“Once we were all children, the summers warmer, longer, the world was endlessly wide, incomprehensible and full of promise. Once. I lived once. You loved me once. Once upon a time. Is there a sadder phrase than this: once upon a time? Once upon a time but not any longer.” he writes.


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