Heaven and Hell

Jón Kalman Stefánsson

First Sentence:  The mountains tower above life and death and these houses huddling together on the Spit.

Life and death is what it’s all about in this magnificent novel. I’d never heard of Jón Kalman Stefánsson before and just picked this up on a whim. After reading Sjón’s wonderful From the Mouth of the Whale I was in search of more Icelandic goodness and I’m happy to say this didn’t disappoint. It is set in a remote fishing village and follows Bárður and ‘the boy’ as they go out fishing  one morning. When tragedy strikes at sea, the boy is left bereft and decides to abandon the village to return a book to a blind old sea-captain who lives over the mountains. When he reaches this new village he realises he is not alone in suffering and begins to see the world as a slightly less harsh place. Make no mistake though, it is an extremely harsh existence the boy has, his mother, father, brothers and sister have all died and from beginning to end his trials are depicted through the most glorious prose-poetry by Stefánsson . The whole story puts me in mind of Halldór Laxness with its emphasis on solitude and independence and the constant struggle for survival. When I finished this book I put it down and just sat for a while. I think a passage towards the end of the book would indicate that this is a good thing:

Silence after a long narrative indicates whether it has mattered or was told for nothing, indicates whether the narrative had entered and touched something or just shortened the hours and nothing more.

This book does a lot more than just shorten the hours. (Keep reading for more quotes.)

* * * *

Last Sentence:  The boy sits motionless, angels’ wings hover outside, he watches Bárður dissipate slowly and turn into chilling air.

Last sentence explained:   The “angels’ wings” mentioned in this final sentence are snowflakes. A perfect example of the poetry coursing through this book. Ever since Bárður died at sea, the boy has been deciding whether or not to go on living. He keeps on thinking about the final lines of poetry he heard him speak. “Nothing is sweet to me without thee.” By the end though, he has decided to stay with his new friends in the village for two weeks, and then see how he feels about suicide. In the very last scene he has a vision of Bárður who says he is lonely, but then vanishes. It seems even the dead can feel alone in this book. There is a lot of isolation and despair in this book and I think this quote highlights it well:

Once there was a woman who wrote a letter about the moon, once there was a little girl who was proud of having older brothers, once there was a man to whom it was possible to tell everything and he told everything in return, and now they’re all dead, except for the moon, and that is just a clod in space, of stone-dead rock and meteorites that have shattered on its surface.

And this one:

People are alive, have their moments, their kisses, laughter, their embraces, words of endearment, their joys and sorrows, each life is a universe that then collapses and leaves nothing behind but a few objects that acquire attractive power through the deaths of their owners, become important, sometimes sacred, as if pieces of the life that has left us have been transferred to the coffee cup, the saw, the hairbrush, the scarf. But everything fades in the end, memories are wiped out after a time and everything dies. Where once was life and light are darkness and oblivion.

Not exactly cheery, but incredibly powerful stuff.

Sample quotes from the book:

“Most Icelandic settlements were built of cod bones, they are the pillars beneath the arched roof of dreams.”

“Dreams sometimes free us from life. They are the sunshine behind the world.”

“April comes to us with a first-aid kit and tries to heal the wounds of winter.”

“The stone-grey eyes run slowly, very slowly, down his body. Eyes are invisible hands that stroke, feel, touch, find.”

“Hell is a library and you’re blind.”

“The heaven of coffee.”

“[…] men seem generally inclined towards the coarser things this world, whatever unveils itself in a rush, entirely, while women desire whatever needs to be chased, whatever reveals itself slowly.”

“Hell is having arms but no-one to embrace.”


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