Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

In a remote part of Iceland, a young man joins a boat to fish for cod, but when a tragedy occurs at sea he is appalled by his fellow fishermen’s cruel indifference. Lost and broken, he leaves the settlement in secret, his only purpose to return a book to a blind old sea captain beyond the mountains. Once in the town he finds he is not alone in his solitude: welcomed into a warm circle of outcasts, he begins to see the world with new eyes.

My Icelandic friend credits this book with getting him back into reading again. To celebrate, he bought a copy of it in English and has been handing it out to colleagues to read for about a year now. The Romanian had it for six months, and then I had it for another six months, so it’s going pretty well, really! He was worried we’d all find it too Icelandic and poetic. Fortunately, I am quite positive towards most things Icelandic. It’s tough not to be really: 

– They don’t have proper surnames. When discussing the author, the Icelandics refer to him as Jón Kalman, as if he’s their mate. If you’re wondering, they take the name of their father and add a -son or -dottir to the end of it, depending on whether they’re a son or daughter. 

– They have a website which I like to call the fuckbook. I don’t know what its real name is. You type in two names, and it tells you how distantly you’re related, and shows you your family trees up until they combine. It’s an important part of the dating process – you don’t want to end up shagging your niece, do you? Note: maybe if people had the same surname, it would be easier to avoid this happening. 

– There is a penis museum in Reykjavik. It used to be in Húsavík, but the owner died and his son wanted to live in the capital, so he moved his museum there. There used to be a penis statue on a roundabout in Húsavík, but that seems to have disappeared and nobody has told me where. 

We might not need words to survive; on the other hand, we do need words to live. 

Back to the book. It’s very Icelandic and very poetic, but this is no bad thing. I put off reading it for six months because it looked like it would be heavy going, and it seemed like a winter book. It is definitely a winter book. However, although kind of heavy, it’s still very readable. 

The giant Gvendur so lucky to have his own bed yet it’s too small for him, you’re two sizes too big for the world, Bárður said once, and Gvendur became so sad that he needed to step away for a moment. 

There is a strong sense of community within the book, which is helped along not just by the writing, but also by the use of first names only, and the narration in the plural. In other books this can feel pretentious and irritating, but it works beautifully here. I presume the ‘we’ in question is the the other outsiders in the village, but this is never fully cleared up. 

The cod have no interest in words, not even adjectives such as splendid.

This is the first part of a trilogy, and, to be frank, there is no sense of closure at the end. It leaves you wanting more of what is at heart, a very simple story. 

She has a high forehead and there is something in her expression that we can’t grasp. Toughness or coldness, arrogance or distance, derision or mistrust, maybe a touch of all of these, and her freckles confuse us a bit as well. 

If I can enjoy a book about Icelandic fishermen and cod, then it’s truly a sign of how beautifully it’s written. I’m ashamed that such a wonderful book has sat on my bookshelf for so long. Once I’ve finished the other 70something books on my shelf, I will get hold of the other books in the series. 

Bárður and the boy had leaned back a bit and looked at the sparkling sky that makes us humble and powerful at once and seems sometimes to speak to us. 

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