Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Book review
4.10.2010
Words by Marc Vincenz
Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s first work in English translation, ‘Heaven and Hell’ (‘Himnaríki og helvíti’, Bjartur, October 2007), was released on September 2 by MacLehose Press (an imprint of Quercus). This is a rough gem of a novel which reads almost as fluid and poetic as the very ocean on which it unfolds. Set sometime at the turn of the last century in a Westfjords’ fishing village, Heaven and Hell chronicles three comingof- age days and nights in an unnamed boy’s life. Yet, this is certainly no young man’s average journey into adulthood; Jón Kalman is addressing the very nature of existence. The sea as a metaphor for the transience of life is almost expected in Icelandic literature—and certainly plentiful among the old classics of world literature (Melville and Hemingway come to mind)—yet, somehow, Jón Kalman pulls it off with his own unique voice: rugged, folklore-imbued, but with a poet’s sensitive touch. Stern has called the German translation an absolute treasure of a book. Die Welt said, “Upon reading the last sentence in this unexpected, beautiful novel, the reader will be struck in silent awe.”

The novel is not driven by plot, but by the sheer will of Jón Kalman’s poetic prose. It may take the reader a while to find the rhythm of the work, with its unusual punctuation and unexpected switching of tenses, yet slowly but surely one gets drawn into this simple and surprising world:

“They had seen every crack and crevice in the mountains many kilometres from the boat and the sky arched over them like the roof of a church, the roof that protects us. The six men had been silent, humble and thankful of their existence. But it isn’t natural for a person to feel thankful or humble for too long: some had started thinking about tobacco and forgotten eternal life.”

The story opens with the boy and his friend Bárður returning to the isolated fishermen’s huts on the coast where they wait for calm weather to head out for the catch. Bárður passes his time enrapt in a translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost. He and the boy are the two youngest and least experienced of their six-man, six-oared crew; but by the time the men are four hours from the shore and setting their fishing lines, the wind has picked up and it begins to snow. Bárður suddenly realises that he has forgotten his waterproof. What seems at first seems a mere inconvenience becomes the only thing between life and death. Ice begins to form on the sails and Bárður is soaked through to the skin. Despite the boy’s desperate efforts to save his friend, Bárður is doomed.

Back on land, incensed by the indifference of the other fisherman (who appear more concerned with salting and gutting the catch), the boy sets out for the village in the middle of the snowstorm. His goal is to return Bárður’s book to its rightful owner. For the boy, it is the poetry of John Milton that has killed his friend. It is almost as if until he returns this book, Bárður’s spirit cannot rest. The boy soon begins questioning his own existence and resolves to join his friend in the afterlife, only to come to realise that there may well be other things worth living for:

“It is easy to let oneself be covered in snow, easy to die, but let’s not forget that the night and the snowfall deceive, the boy thinks he lies down far from all human habitation, in the wilderness, but is then perhaps on a slope above a little farm…”

Although mostly written in the third person, there is a strange, yet compelling Other, a group of omniscient narrators—possibly gods or the spirits of the ancestors—who call themselves “We Are Nearly Darkness”. These voices intermittently interject with philosophical comments and reflections on the boy’s actions. As a narrative device this might well have pushed the credibility of the novel over the edge, but here it works well; in fact, it lends the work a whiff of ancient Icelandic magic.

Jón Kalman, who won the Icelandic Prize for Literature in 2005 for his short story collection, ‘Sumarljós og svo kemur nóttin’ (‘Summer Light, Enter Night’), is strongly influenced by poetics. Not surprisingly, before turning his hand to fiction, he published three poetry collections. Originally planned as a stand-alone novel, ‘Heaven And Hell’ is now part of a trilogy, the second of which, ‘Harmur englanna’ (‘The Sorrow of Angels’), was released last year in Icelandic and has already met with praise.

‘Heaven And Hell’ is a universal tale of man’s fragility amidst the gargantuan power of nature, about the enduring strength of friendship and the individual will to survive. This is a moving, timeless, intense novel deserving of all the attention it gets.

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