One of the main joys of reading fiction in translation is stumbling across a wonderful writer, an author whose work deserves to be read as widely as possible, and one of my favourite ‘discoveries’ of the past few years has been Jón Kalman Stefánsson, a well-regarded Icelandic novelist whose work is only slowly appearing in English. Both Heaven and Hell and its sequel, The Sorrow of Angels, were well received, and with the final book in the trilogy about to appear, here’s hoping that more readers will discover his work :) A word of warning before I begin – being a review of the third part of a trilogy, this post will undoubtedly reveal details from the first two books that you may not wish to know, If that’s the case, then look away now.
The Heart of Man (translated by Philip Roughton, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) takes up the story a matter of hours after the dramatic denouement of The Sorrow of Angels. The boy awakens to find himself safe and sound in a warm bed, with no lasting effects from the unexpected slide down the mountainside – Jens, while not quite as fortunate, also comes through the experience relatively unscathed (which is more than can be said for their poor companion…). Never one to remain quiet for long, the boy sets off to explore the household and the surrounding area, soon encountering those things he always seems destined to find – poetry and a beautiful young woman.
This opening passage is merely an interlude, however, and the boy and the burly postman soon set sail for the village, returning as the first tentative signs of spring are beginning to make themselves felt. With the return of the sun, life’s pace begins to quicken, and not always in a good way. The economic leaders of the village once more turn their attention to the boy’s patron, Geirþrúður, working out how to put the woman in her place, once and for all. As for the boy, he has a choice to make – having been captivated by the red hair and green eyes of Álfheiður, will he succumb once more to the haughty charms of the high-born Ragnheiður? The heart of man is a complex thing, indeed.
Right from the start, it’s a pleasure to be back in the hands of JKS, a writer with an eye for words and a translator who knows how to put them into English:
“Sorry, says the boy, still startled by her arrival, good day, he adds. Are you certain it’s so good? says the woman, stepping out from behind the counter…”
p.40 (MacLehose Press, 2015)
Just as is the case in the first two books in the trilogy, The Heart of Man is full of cutting observations, dry one-liners and unexpected metaphors, stopping the reader from drifting along lazily. It’s almost as if the boy’s passion for reading has left him unable to see the world in an ordinary fashion:
“Again the boy gets up carefully from the bed, his legs carry him, but they’re in poor shape, have aged considerably, the right one by a few decades probably.” (p.14)
In a land of taciturn, hard-working folk, the quick-minded boy lights up everyone he meets. It’s a pleasure for the reader to slip back into the sparkling prose encountered in the previous books.
One way in which The Heart of Man differs from the first two books in the series, though, is that it is far more expansive in terms of plot and scope. Where Heaven and Hell merely set up the premise, introducing the boy and the misfits of the village, and The Sorrow of Angels was one long battle between man and nature, the third part of the trilogy takes place over the space of several months and brings together the various themes and ideas introduced previously.
The main strand running through the book is the struggle Geirþrúður is forced to wage against the rich businessmen in control of this area of the country. Having developed a quasi-monopoly on both business and moral behaviour, the behaviour of a very independent woman threatens them financially, but also sets what they consider to be a bad example for the drones they rely on as the basis of their fortunes. This is a harsh land, one where pleasure is fleeting:
How is it possible to survive in a country where the redeeming spring kills the vulnerable? Where the dark, long winter lies like a dead weight on people’s dispositions and the brilliant summer so often brings disappointment; who survives such things? Durable people, assiduous, sometimes soft with self-pity and given to selfishness, but to strong dreams, as well? (pp.46/7)
The region’s de facto rulers believe in a harsh, strict life, with no room for frivolity (for the workers, at least…). As we learned in Heaven and Hell, distraction may have very serious consequences.
Yet human nature will always reveal itself, and the boy is the catalyst who will bring forth the green shoots of humanity from the ordinary people in the village. As the spring tentatively emerges from the long, cold winter, the villagers begin to want more, and this is the second main theme of The Heart of Man – the heart itself. Part of the advantage of the wider scope of the novel is that it allows the writer to introduce more characters and to follow their fumbling, often inept, attempts at finding a partner to share those dreary winter nights. Jens the postman, Helga the Amazonian waitress, Andrea the fisherman’s wife, Oddur the snow sweeper and harbour hand – all of them have a special someone out there just waiting for them.
As always, the boy is at the centre of it all, and he has his own amorous dilemmas. Once back in the village, the flirtation with the rich (and most definitely out of bounds) Ragnheiður continues, but he’s unable to forget the quirky, unreadable Álfheiður:
“It’s a fact that the human heart has two chambers, which is why it’s possible to love two people at the same time. Biology makes it possible, demands it, some would say, but our consciences, consciousness, tell us a different story, which can make everyday life unbearably burdensome.” (p.77)
This is the origin of the title, the (supposed) biological make-up of the most vital of organs, throwing human minds and emotions into disarray. The boy has a decision to make, unless, that is, someone else makes it for him.
Once again, Stefánsson has used his creation, the boy (whose name we are never permitted to know) to examine the big picture of human life and emotions, to explore the importance of love, life, poetry and coffee(!) in a world where some are determined to reduce everything to the level of economics and moral duty. Despite the fate of the poor fisherman in Heaven and Hell, the writer continually points to the importance of words in helping to change people’s lives, with books, letters and even blank pieces of paper bringing joy to all who stumble across them. It’s tempting, whether correct or not, to draw parallels with Iceland’s recent history. You have to wonder whether Stefánsson’s ghostly narrators are frowning at the country’s banking-led collapse during the Global Financial Crisis – and whether Geirþrúður is a representative of the more human, ‘female’ approach that led the Icelanders out of it.
If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, I’d advise you to do so, but that doesn’t mean that The Heart of Man can’t be read on its own. It’s just that the book has many layers which will only really be accessible to those who have accompanied the boy over sea and land (and through miles and miles of snow). I loved it, and I’m very happy that JKS, MacLehose and, of course, the wonderful Philip Roughton, saw fit to allow us Anglophones to experience the boy’s adventures. And speaking of translations, let’s allow the writer to have the last word, on that very subject:
“Translations, Gísli had said, it’s hardly possible to describe their importance. They enrich and broaden us, help us to understand the world better, understand ourselves. A nation that translates little, focusing only on its own thoughts, is constricted, and if it boasts a large population it becomes dangerous to others, as well, because most things are alien to it except for its own thoughts and customs. Translations broaden people and thereby the world.” (p.163)