Heðin Brú's The Old Man and his Sons (translated by John F. West) is a novella set in the Faroe Islands some time during the first half of the twentieth century. It starts with a communal whale hunt in the bay of one of the islands, and Ketil and Kálvur, an aged father and his half-wit son, walk across their island to join in.
After the whales have been caught, the villagers auction off the surplus catch, and Ketil (after a drop or two of something a little harder than water) gets a mite carried away. While he is pleased with the deal he has made, Kálvur is a little concerned:
"But when he came up to the stretch of grass where his son was, he blanched to see how staggered Kálvur was. 'Father', said Kálvur, 'a thirty-six hundredweight whale at seven and a half kroner a hundredweight - doesn't it come to a frightful lot of money all told?'The debt Ketil runs up in his attempt to stock up on whale meat is the force behind the rest of the narrative. The hard-working (and proud) Ketil spends the rest of the story trying different ways to save up enough money to pay the debt before the bill comes in... While it may sound a little melodramatic though, The Old Man and his Sons is anything but. Ketil soon recovers his composure and sets off to work out how to scrape together a little money, and as for Kálvur, well he's a wuss and is always crying anyway ;)
'Yes, yes, it does...'. The old man's head fell to his chest. He lacked the strength to reckon up just how much it was. Kálvur began to weep, and held his hands in front of his face so that folk would not see. Ketil was completely sobered up by the enormity of what he had done."
p.27 (Telegram Books, 2011)
The book is an examination of a society in change, where the old values of hard work and an antipathy to debt are being edged aside in favour of a life of more ease and leisure. Ketil is scornful of the fisherman who stand around doing nothing in the months when they are stuck on land, setting an example of the various ways they could be earning a crust while waiting for the fish to return. The old man (with the occasional help of the reluctant Kálvur) scours the beaches for driftwood, takes his small, home-made boat fishing in the shallows and hunts birds with a net on the cliff tops. He is a very busy man.
However, despite Ketil's hard-working nature, Brú is clever enough to show the reader that new is not always necessarily wrong - and that the old can be every bit as headstrong and stupid as the younger generations. The older characters in the story struggle to come to terms with the change in their society and the breakdown of traditions and customs. One character even flees his family as he believes they are planning to send him to the poor house; in fact, they just wanted him to fill out some forms to apply for a government pension...
Ketil is not immune to this, and when he tries to gut some fish, sending innards all over the floor of his house as he does so, his oldest son intervenes and gives him a lecture about hygiene. Ketil sighs and says:
'I don't know how it all is. Perhaps we're so foolish that we can't discuss these things properly.'Anyone who has read the great Icelandic novel Independent People will see many similarities in Brú's work. In a harsh climate, the natives are forced to work hard in brutal conditions to scrape out an existence. It's a life-long struggle, one which often ends in death rather than success. You could be forgiven for thinking that the underlying feeling of the work is one of sadness.
'I don't know whether you're foolish or wise, but you are old. So much has happened since you were young, that you hardly know where you stand - and then you go around prophesying hunger and ruination. Stop it; nothing's out of order - it's just a swing of the tide. Your tide has ebbed; now ours is flowing.' p.96
However, while there are many similarities with the much longer Independent People, one advantage The Old Man and his Sons has over its Icelandic counterpart is an ever-present sense of humour. Whether it's the trials of Ketil's neighbour Klávus, a man who has found God (but more frequently property belonging to other people), or the courtship and romps between Kálvur and Klávus' daughter, laughter is never far from the surface. The villager's (wildly mistaken) reactions to Ketil's latest schemes also bring a chuckle or two.
In the end though, The Old Man and his Sons performs a fine balancing act between humour and pathos, old and new, success and failure. It was voted the Faroe Islands' book of the twentieth century, and it's easy to see why. Brú's novella is a work that should be more widely read - hopefully my little review is just another step towards its getting the recognition it deserves :)