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The Sorrow of Angels by Jon Kalman Stefánsson - book review
Epic tale of survival set among Iceland's unforgiving fjords
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Tuesday 10 December 2013
When I talked to the Icelandic novelist Jon Kalman Stefánsson at this year's Reykjavik Literary Festival, he described his first visit to the ruggedly sublime landscapes of the country's West Fjords. "It was like a punch in the solar plexus," he remembered. "The mountains seemed to be saying, 'Why aren't you writing about us?'"
So he did – and about the fishing and sheep-farming folk who have battled to survive in a place where "life is just a thread that becomes brittle and fragile in the cold". Set at the close of the 19th century, among people whose eerie stories and myths temper a life of scarcely imaginable harshness, his West Fjords trilogy began with Heaven and Hell. It introduced the orphaned "boy", sent him out on the fatal fishing trip that led to the death of his beloved friend Bardur, "the only thing that was absolutely good", and saw him taken in by the headstrong and resourceful women of the Village. That seaside warren of gossip, scandal and local legend could almost be twinned with Dylan Thomas's Llaregub.
This second novel promptly pushes the boy out of his new-found matriarchal warmth. A malevolent bigwig, the doctor Sigurdur, insists that postman Jens undertake a high-risk itinerary over stormy fjord, snowbound peak and windswept glacier in the teeth of April gales. Jens takes the boy with him, and the pair embarks on a perilous expedition that in its elemental terrors and existential challenges recalls a Nordic version of one of Cormac McCarthy's journeys. This is "the stuff of epic… two men in search of themselves". Through storm and blizzard, they trudge from one lonely farmstead to another, as the Icelanders' laconic stoicism yields in extremity to moments of surpassing tenderness and intimacy.
The boy, who lost family and soul-mate to "the dark, salt empire of the sea", has come to love literature, even though "poetry and salt-fish are irreconcilable, and no one eats his own dreams". The idea of poetry and story as "the world behind the world" grips the near-frozen voyager. It offers him a means to redeem "the incessant, destructive" toil in snow and wind which "rips people apart well before their time". Beautifully rendered by translator Philip Roughton, the icy journey chills and thrills. Meanwhile, the shivering encounters of postman and helper with farmers and their womenfolk focus a series of rapt meditations on life, love and death in a terrain magically close to both "despair and divinity". Devour this book with a hot drink in a warm room; you will never feel more grateful for shelter and society.
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