Heaven and Hell
Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Translated by Philip Roughton
Maclehose Press, £12
ANYONE familiar with a small fishing community will immediately feel at home with Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s riveting novel, set in the early 20th century on the wild, mountainous coast of northwest Iceland.
As the story opens, Bárdur, a strikingly handsome young man with brown eyes, and the boy are walking home from the village. They are the youngest of the crew, fishing for cod from a six-oared open boat, and better educated than their shipmates. The boy writes letters home for his companions, and both are keen readers. It is March, and the weather is bad; the walk is “a two-hour trudge through the snow”.
Part of their route skirts a cliff edge on a narrow track beside a cable fastened to the rock face, sheer mountainside above, and a sheer stone wall and the surging sea below. Once they pass this without the cable breaking, or an avalanche from above killing them, they near home: a huddle of remote fishermen’s huts. The fishing crews have been ashore for two weeks due to storms so bad that some days they could not even walk from one hut to the other. But by the look of the calm evening sky, Bárdur, the elder of the two, reckons they will be rowing out that night in pursuit of cod.
The men sleep in a loft above the room where they bait the lines and later gut their catch, looked after by Andrea who cooks, cleans and tends the wood-burning stove. She is the wife of the skipper, Pétur, a tidy man, who has spent the whole day cleaning his waterproofs and rubbing them with fresh skate liver. His hut is only 10 metres from his brother’s hut, but the two have not spoken for 10 years, and no one knows why.
While in the village, Bárdur borrowed a copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost in Icelandic translation. He is immersed in the poetry, learning lines by heart, all during the meal before embarking, and their final preparations for going to sea.
The author has a lyrical, poetic style, often commenting knowingly on events even as he describes them, and making large, generalised observations which imbue the book with a kind of folk wisdom like some ancient fable, as when he comments on Bárdur’s brown eyes: “Some of us have brown eyes, fishermen come here from distant places and have done so for hundreds of years because the sea is a treasure chest. They come from France, Spain, many of them with brown eyes, and some leave the colour of their eyes behind with a woman, sail away, return home or drown.”
Yet the action unfolds vividly and dramatically, and the reader feels part of the scene. The combination creates an unusually intense reading experience.
Jón Kalman Stefánsson told me in an interview that when researching a novel, “I read sources until I can feel the time I’m writing about in my blood.” The reader experiences a similar effect.
After launching the boat at 2am the men row down the fjord and out to sea for four hours to the skipper’s chosen fishing ground where they set the baited lines, one for each man aboard. It is only now, in the stationary boat, that Bárdur, whose head has been full of Paradise Lost, notices that he has forgotten his waterproof. The men rowed out in thick sweaters, but now need protection from the Arctic wind. Snow starts to fall and ice forms on the sail, heralding an unexpected storm that threatens the heavily-laden boat. Without a waterproof, Bárdur is under a death sentence. In spite of the best efforts of the boy he succumbs to the extreme cold and freezes to death.
On arriving back at the hut, Bárdur’s corpse is laid out on the baiting table, while the stunned survivors revive themselves with coffee. But life must go on, and they move the corpse to carry on with the next phase of their work, gutting and salting the catch. Pétur wants to explain to the boy that work is good, it helps, it cures all illness, but Andrea advises him to leave the distraught child alone.
The boy, indifferent as to whether he lives or dies, decides to walk back to the village to return Paradise Lost to the blind sea captain and tell him that its poetry killed his friend. And so he sets off to make the treacherous journey once again, hampered by exhaustion as well as stormy weather.
The boy survives, and the second part of this extraordinary novel describes his reception in the village, and his eventual “adoption” by an unlikely trio of housemates.
Jón Kalman Stefánsson, who was born in Reyjkjavik in 1963, published three collections of poetry before turning to fiction.
He explained: “Poetry has influenced me a lot. I breathe through poetry and I try to use a poetic technique in my writing, to expand the novel with poetry.” His favourite poets include the Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska, and her compatriot Adam Zagajewski; Fernando Pessoa and César Vallejo.
Stefánsson writes intuitively: “I never know what direction my novels are going to take. I have a vague feeling about it, and maybe some plans, but most of my plans go up in smoke when I start writing. For example, I hadn’t the slightest idea when I started to write Heaven and Hell, that I was writing a trilogy. The second part, The Sorrow of Angels, was published in Iceland last year. To write a novel is, for me, a kind of journey, with lots of surprises. And that is the way it should it be. The core of fiction, and poetry, is the feeling: sensation, intuition.”
In 2005 Stefánsson won the Icelandic Prize for Literature, and his work is selling well in German and French translations. This novel, his debut in English, deserves to win him many more admirers.
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