Monday 16 September 2013

'The Sorrow of Angels' by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Review)

After enjoying the excellent Heaven and Hell recently, I was eager to dive into the next instalment of Jón Kalman Stefánsson's trilogy set in the wilds of Iceland.  It's a bit risky sometimes, reading a sequel of a book you really liked, as the possibility of being disappointed is always at the back of your mind.  Luckily then, I have very good news for those of you who liked the first book - this one is better :)

The Sorrow of Angels (translated again by Philip Roughton, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) picks up very shortly after the end of its predecessor, with the boy settling in to his new home in the cold, isolated village.  Taken in by the beautiful Geirþúður, he is beginning to enjoy a more comfortable life, his days spent helping housemaid Helga with domestic tasks and reading translations of Shakespeare to the blind sea captain, Kolbeinn - that is, when he's not flirting with the beautiful young Ragnheiður.

However, this semi-civilised existence is interrupted one day by the arrival of the local postman, an arrival which is both comical and serious at the same time:
"Helga looks down at Jens and the horses, all three nearly unrecognisable, white and icy.  Why don't you come in, man? she asks, somewhat sharply.  Jens looks up at her and says apologetically: To tell the truth, I'm frozen to the horse."
p.17 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
Once the burly postman has recovered from his ordeal, he decides to set off on another long trek, deputising for a sick colleague.  With a long, arduous journey ahead of him, some of which will involve rowing across treacherous fjords, it is decided that Jens will need a companion this time if he is to make it back in one piece - and so the boy sets off into the wilderness once more...

From the very start, The Sorrow of Angels grabs the reader's attention and doesn't let go for the next three-hundred odd pages, sweeping them up and taking them on a guided tour of the writer's creation.  The first part of the book is set in the village, and as well as meeting familiar faces and hanging around inside old haunts, the reader is introduced to a few new people as Stefánsson widens the circle of our experience.  One highlight is getting to visit the local hotel and restaurant, drinking with the local intelligentsia (the schoolmaster, the watchmaker) while the local big-wigs (including Ragnheiður's father...) dine in another section.

As interesting as this is though, we soon sense that this is merely the introduction, and that the restless Jens will soon be setting out again into a hostile landscape - and if you thought the boy had problems in the first book, think again.  Compared to the journey he undertakes in The Sorrow of Angels, his first trip through the mountains was a walk in the park...

The false comfort of the village gives way to the reality of life outside the small settlements people have created to protect themselves from the elements.  This is Iceland in the nineteenth century, and the reality is that many people live far away from company, isolated (literally) in their sturdy cottages, buried beneath the snow for the extent of the winter.  How long is the winter?  Well, it's hard to say.  In some places, it's difficult to know if spring ever comes at all.

When Jens and the boy stumble across these outposts of civilisation, islands of warmth in a sea of endless snow and driving winds, they become the centre of attraction, sources of news and novelty, people to talk to (often, the first company in months).  In an age of instant gratification, with digital downloads and online grocery shopping, it's confronting to see people thirsty both for letters and books, and for coffee - using the last of their precious grounds to warm up the unknown visitors...

...and they certainly need warming up.  Much of the novel takes place on the heaths, with Jens and the boy lugging the postbags from farm to farm, a task made more difficult by the constant snow storms and the ever-present threat of freezing to death.  The titular 'sorrow' refers to snow, but while it certainly brings sorrow, at times it also entices, invites, the weary traveller to sink into its embrace.  It is little wonder that the further the two wanderers get from civilisation, the greater the feeling they have of not being alone in the storm - out on the wiley, windy moors, indeed...

Bleak?  Unreadable?  Not at all.  The Sorrow of Angels is a beautiful book, one you need to savour - a novel to read over a good few days.  It's certainly one I enjoyed reading and coming back to after a break.  Once again, Stefánsson's writing is wonderful (and if that's the case, it's also important to acknowledge Philip Roughton's immense contribution in bringing it into English).  He has a wonderful, light touch with words, and most pages had something I was tempted to mark for inclusion in my post:
"Stars and moon vanish and soon day comes flooding in, this blue water of the sky.  The delightful light that helps us navigate the world.  Yet the light is not expansive, extending from the surface of the Earth only several kilometres into the sky, where the night of the universe takes over.  It's most likely the same way with life, this blue lake, behind which waits the ocean of death." (p.24)
It's a beautiful idea, and one which sums up the themes of the novel.

Which isn't to say that Stefánsson isn't equally adept at changing the mood and tone, adding a wry aside for the reader's enjoyment.  As mentioned in my review of Heaven and Hell, there's a touch of Saramago in his style, and the book is full of witty one-liners:
"Kjartan would curse roundly if he dared, but God is, despite all else, higher than all storms and men; he hears everything, forgets nothing and collects his dues from us on the final day for every thought, every word, every touch, every detail.  It can be tedious and downright depressing to have such a God hanging over one; we'll likely exchange him as soon as something better is available." (p.188)
Or how about:
"The dead are egoists, making the living toil for them, as well as filling them with guilt for not doing so well enough." (p.287)
There are plenty more where those came from...

Alas, while Stefánsson is a master of his game, I am but a poor scribbler, out of my depth when describing books like The Sorrow of Angels, so I'll leave it there with just a few more words to help emphasise my feelings about the book.  To the publisher: please submit this for next year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  To next year's IFFP panel: please shortlist this book.  To the wider audience out there: please read the book - it's great :)