Monday 12 August 2013

'Heaven and Hell' by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Review)

Last year, as some of you may remember, I was on a bit of an Icelandic kick and managed to read several great books from the small island nation.  One I didn't get around to though was a book by Jón Kalman Stefánsson, a novel which several bloggers had raved about.  With the sequel, The Sorrow of Angels, out now, I thought it might be time to correct this oversight - and luckily, the good people at MacLehose let me have a copy of both :)

Heaven and Hell (translated by Philip Roughton) is the first in Stefánsson's trilogy about a character known only as the Boy.  We begin with preparations for fishing for cod in the cold sea off the north Icelandic coast, in a team of six with his friend, Bá­­ður (a literary type who seems out of place in such a functional setting).  We're in the mid-nineteenth century, but it could really be back in the seventeenth century; life seems very basic - and harsh...

After a night of waiting and preparing, the fishing crews set off into the unwelcoming waters, and disaster (inevitably) strikes.  Sickened by the attitude of the other fishermen in the face of tragedy, the Boy sets off on a perilous journey back to a distant village, not caring if he survives the journey or not.  There he finds that in a land that doesn't appreciate outsiders, he's not quite as alone as he thinks...

Heaven and Hell is a great story with superb writing.  The first part of the book is dominated by the struggle between the fishermen and the sea.  The waters are a living entity: cruel, cold, deadly and majestic.  The poor sailors in their tiny 'sixereen' are at the mercy of something far greater than themselves, trusting their fate to 'an open coffin on the Polar Sea'.  Just returning to shore can be considered an achievement:
"And those on shore do not passively watch the boats land but instead lend a hand, there is a law beyond man-made laws because here it is a matter of life and death, and most choose the former."
p.75 (MacLehose Press, 2011)
For those who enjoy descriptions of man versus wild, this is the real thing, and the writer creates a poetic description of the battle for life.

On land, things are little better.  Near the shore, the village lies under almost perpetual snow, and the atmosphere amongst its inhabitants can be just as cold and forbidding.  There is a fixed hierarchy, where the owners of the big stores have entrapped the little people in their eternal debt, and the poor villagers live on a diet of credit, subservience, gossip and infidelity.  Outsiders are regarded with suspicion, and anyone a little different tends to drift into a certain circle, one centred upon the enigmatic Geirþúður.  Which is where the Boy comes in...

Stefánsson has a striking style, reminiscent at times of Saramago (a saga Saramago?).  His writing can be jerky, confronting and involved, with frequent rhetorical questions and addresses to the reader:
"A tidy man, that Pétur, like his brother, Guðmundur, skipper of the other boat, about ten metres between their huts but the brothers don't speak to each other, haven't done so in a good decade, no-one seems to know why." (p.16)
Another feature of the writing is superb imagery.  Stefánsson has a great eye for detail, and the reader is sucked into the pictures he creates, be they in the midst of a storm or in the snug of the local pub:
"This was in the evening, a dense cloud of cigar smoke in the room, they could barely see each other, or at least until one of them came up with the idea of opening the window onto the autumn and the sky coughed when the smoke was sucked out." (pp.118/9)
The narrator of the story occasionally switches eyes, following other characters away from what we have come to see as the 'centre' of the story.  When it leaves the Boy and accompanies another of the villagers or fishermen, it appears like a disembodied spirit (which, if we believe the narrative's frame, is exactly what it is...).

Heaven and Hell reminds me at times of a couple of the books I read last year.  In parts, particularly in its description of the hardship of life in Iceland, it is reminiscent of Halldór Laxness' Independent People.  The first section, with the focus on the importance of fishing is more akin though to a Faroese novel, Heðin Brú's The Old Man and his Sons.  Like many of the Icelandic books I've read, particularly those set in the past, it also emphasises the importance of books, stories... and coffee!  However, while coffee can cure all ills, literature is seen as the cause of disaster - poetry can be dangerous...
"Some poems take us to places where no words reach, no thought, they take you up to the core itself, life stops for one moment and becomes beautiful, it becomes clear with regret and happiness.  Some poems change the day, the night, your life.  Some poems make you forget, forget the sadness, the hopelessness, you forget your waterproof, the frost comes to you, says, got you, and you're dead." (p.85)
Please take care when reading...

Heaven and Hell is a great book, but it's hard to discuss the novel without giving it all away as very little actually happens over the course of the two-hundred pages.  Unlike many books, this one really feels like the first part of a trilogy, a set up of more to come.  Which is not a bad thing at all - I, for one, will be diving into The Sorrow of Angels very soon...

...just as soon as I've sorted out some thicker thermals ;)