Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

heaven and hell

Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Icelandic fiction

Original title Himnaríki og helvíti

Translator – Philip Roughton

Source review copy

Down dropped the breeze, the sails dropped down,
‘Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!

From the rim of the ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge .

Now this is a book I have read three times in the last year and it wasn’t till the last rereading this last weekend I finally got what I felt  Jón Kalman Stefánsson was trying to get across . Jón Kalman Stefánsson is an Icelandic writer ,that studied Literature but then didn’t pass his final exams ,so drifted into teaching ,then became a librarian in Denmark ,before deciding to become a writer which he now does full-time .Heaven and Hell is the first in a trilogy of novels ,tomorrow I’ll be reviewing the second book Sorrow of angels ,but too this book now .

The sea is cold and sometimes dark it is a gigantic creature that never rests , and here no-one can swim except for Jonas who works in the summers at the Norwegian whaling station , the Norwegians taught him how to swim , he is called either the Cod or the Sea-wolf the later more fitting considering his appearance .

I loved the image I got here of Jonas .

Heaven and Hell is the story of a boy ,a boat ,the crew of the boat ,a good man losing his life .But it’s more than that its a feeling a world gone the voices in the book are from the past telling of a world that was a world where Fishermen would read Paradise lost .The crew now have to head out further to get the cod one Crew man Barður whom was the one that was reading Milton ,left some of his gear behind and thus dies of the cold  and wet minus his waterproof gear ,this is a harsh world the rest of the crew seem unbothered by this event apart from one the Boy whom is  the other main character of this book we don’t know his name but he sets of with Barður book across the Island to return this book to its original owner a Blind sea-captain .Along the way he meets a bunch of almost surreal characters .A quest to return the book .

Hell is not knowing whether we are alive of dead

I live ,she lives ,they live ,he dies

This rough conjunction stuck us like a mace on the head ,because the story about the boy ,the snow ,the huts ,almost made us forget our own deaths .

I finally grew to love passages like this .

Now the reason I struggled with this book ,I feel is the style of writing is a style I’m not readily use to a collective voice ,but also I like to get a foothold in a story rather like a climb that little slither of rock I can balance and see what is ahead and in the first two reading I didn’t get that and I feel part of that was wanting to compare this to the few other Icelandic novels I have read ,which it really is very different ,so on this last reading I sat and just like a boat set sail in his prose and Got it and actually went Dam Tony whom I know loves this and the follow-up book was right  .How did I make this break it was using my own life and remember a visit to a fishing museum(s) in Fife ,looking after a lady twenty years ago that followed the Herring fleet up the north coast of England and Scotland during the 20s and 30s ,the small fishing huts I passed once a week in Northumberland all shot into my mind as I turned the pages for a third time and I just went why (but that is the beauty of books and rereading  it took me to try to see the beauty and sometimes we need to break something down and just let it drift over us ) .The world you are drawn into is one of hard men , the cruel sea and a boy looking beyond this world and making more of it .Milton maybe this is the world of Paradise lost in the flesh these fishermen are the cast out souls of Paradise lost .I was remind also in this last reread of Under Milkwood ,how much was I had seen it a week earlier but it evokes the same world feel that dark, tough but very real world that Thomas did in his verse poem .

.Fisherman's_hut_by_the_Ouse_with_view_of_Lindisfarne_Castle._-_geograph.org.uk_-_286907

The hut I remember from Northumberland very like the world in this book picture by Attribution: Jonathan Billinger

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jacquiwine
    May 12, 2014 @ 16:27:11

    A lovely post, Stu, and I’m so glad you clicked with it this time around. Stefansson’s prose is quite lyrical and it took me a little while to catch its rhythm.

    This book, and the sequel, are very much about the harsh adversities of life, I think. I’m very much looking forward to reading your review of ‘Sorrows’.

    Reply

  2. 1streading
    May 12, 2014 @ 20:14:28

    I admire you reading it three times – but it sounds like it was worth it. Although I had quite liked the second novel I hadn’t decided to read the first – you may have changed my mind! (Also nice to see Fife get a mention!)

    Reply

  3. Trackback: The sorrow of angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson | Winstonsdad's Blog
  4. Tony
    May 13, 2014 @ 12:45:20

    It’s a great introduction to the series, and the first part on the sea, in particular, is wonderful writing. Ah, the dangers of poetry😉

    Reply

  5. Trackback: Winston’s books of the year | Winstonsdad's Blog

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