‘Fish Have No Feet’ by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Review)

IMG_5483While I’ve discovered a plethora of new and exciting writers over the time Tony’s Reading List has been in existence, there are a few who stand out and whose books I await with great impatience.  Haruki Murakami, for all his faults, is one, and László Krasznahorkai is another.  In recent years, a further name has joined that list, a writer from the frozen north who has a certain way with words – and luckily for me, JKS is back with another excellent slice of life above the Arctic Circle 🙂

Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Fish Have No Feet (translated by Philip Roughton, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) introduces the reader to Ari, a middle-aged Icelander returning from a period of self-imposed exile in Denmark.  The narrator of the book is his friend, and the start of the novel finds him on the road back to Keflavík, the scene of their youthful antics in the back of beyond:

Iceland is a harsh land, it says somewhere, “and barely habitable in bad years”.  Surely there’s no truer statement: the mountains are foul-tempered, their slopes are deadly, the wind can be merciless, the chill breezes exasperating.  A harsh land, and the Icelanders were nearly wiped out twice by hardship, disease, volcanic eruptions, and Keflavík is undoubtedly the most dubious place in the entire country.
p.15 (MacLehose Press, 2016)

It’s to this harsh environment that Ari is returning.  A letter from his father has led him to believe that the old man’s health is failing, mainly due to the inclusion of a family heirloom in the envelope – a certificate awarded to Ari’s grandfather long ago…

It’s this simple piece of paper that provides the reader with a link to the past and another story, that of the life and love of Ari’s grandfather Oddur and his chosen bride, Margrét.  Far from the darkness of Ari’s troubled existence, Oddur’s story comes from a simpler time of a life split between raising children and battling with the raging seas, yet there is much the two men have in common.  As the writer takes us back and forth between three periods of recent history (the grandfather’s tale, Ari’s youth and his arrival back in Iceland), a story emerges of life, love, family and a whole lot more.

JKS is a wonderful writer, and Fish Have No Feet is another joy to read.  Stefánsson is adept at capturing the raw emotion of the struggle for survival, and the breathtaking joy of simply being alive, juxtaposing this wonder with wry, at times gallows, humour.  As in his wonderful historical trilogy (Heaven and Hell, The Sorrow of Angels, The Heart of Man), the reader is charmed by tales of times long gone.  We follow the development of the young Oddur into a charismatic, generous leader, and experience his love for Margrét, and his determination to win her back after her time in Canada.  However, it’s far from a perfect marriage, and the writer’s portrayal of life on the Icelandic coast is just as gritty and passionate as in his earlier works.

This latest book is, perhaps, a more ambitious novel than what we’ve seen from Stefánsson in English so far, running to around 400 pages and spanning almost a century.  Where the trilogy followed one character for the most part, here the reader must work through multiple strands through the decades, with Stefánsson also exploring a wider range of themes.  One of the major focuses of the novel is on relationships.  Quite apart from the romance of Oddur and Margrét, we have Ari and his wife Ðóra, whose marriage is destroyed by one angry sweep of the hand (and a few clumsy text messages), and Ari’s father, Jakob, trying to build a new family with his son and his new wife.  In all of these marriages, we sense the frustration, with the women trapped at home while the men fail in their attempts to balance the competing demands to be loving and manly.

Yet the writer also examines life on the macro scale.  In the trilogy, the theme of capitalism, the big crushing the small, was a constant background presence, and Fish Have No Feet expands upon this idea, bemoaning the passivity of the average person in the face of big business:

We do little, doubtless because we feel too well: those who have it good have little interest in fighting to change the world.  Those who wish to control our existence know this full well – the unseen, the owners of big industry, of retail chains, or whoever they might be.  Their goal is to maintain the status quo.  Or, if you prefer, to maintain the laws of the absurd. (p.209)

This is evident in the story of the town with no fish, Keflavík’s fishing quotas having been sold off to large companies, leaving us with the cruel scenario of a people of the sea who are not permitted to use it (and are physically divided from it by a wall…).  Earlier, the building of a new airport, a fresh, modern face for the country, means that the fish-drying racks by the side of the road are to be dismantled.  Traditional, they may be, but these unsightly lumps of wood might give visiting politicians and businessmen the wrong impression of the country.

Though Fish Have No Feet kept this reader spellbound for the most part, I did have a couple of minor concerns.  This is a more sprawling book than Stefánsson’s previous work in English, and it felt at times as if it wasn’t quite coming together, with the role of the narrator particularly puzzling.  While Oddur’s strand was full of the beautiful lyrical tone the writer is known for, Ari’s appearances weren’t always as successful.  In Boyd Tonkin’s The Spectator review, there is mention of the Knausgaard-like tone of the sections following the younger Ari, a feeling I also had.  Apparently, there is a sequel to the book, and it certainly feels like there’s unfinished business here, with Ari’s story not really developing as much as you’d expect over the course of the novel.

Still, this is JKS, and he’s a wonderful writer.  Great thanks are due to Roughton as he brings the usual mix of achingly beautiful prose and dry humour, with an eye for the unusual:

I return to my car, know that folk here distrust people without cars, who frequently turn out to be Communists and destitute drunks. (p.21)

I check the time on my phone; one thing that Ari and I have in common, among many others, is that we never wear watches, finding them uncomfortable on our wrists, like being handcuffed by time. (p.62)

Again and again, the writer(s) play with the reader’s mood, swinging between poignancy and farce.  Exhibit A here must surely be the beautiful description of Ari’s tears on seeing his native land appear through the clouds, followed by the rather rude (and uncomfortable) welcome he receives once he’s landed…

All of this far outweighs any minor flaws in what is an excellent novel, a welcome addition to my collection.  I’m already keen to see how the story continues, so I hope Roughton is hard at work.  From what I’ve read, life in Iceland isn’t always easy, but the uneasy balance between a poetic soul and a physical struggle against the elements somehow manages to inspire some wonderful writing.  I’m unlikely to make it to Reykjavik any time soon, but this certainly won’t be my last Icelandic literary journey 🙂

18 thoughts on “‘Fish Have No Feet’ by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Review)

  1. This is now top of my to read pile.

    Stefánsson would also join Murakami and Krasnahorkai in those whose books I await with great impatience, alongside Marias, Ōe, Pamuk, Makine, Rushdie, Petterson and Ishiguro.

    But my discovery of Stefánsson was due to this website. so many thanks.


    1. Paul – Glad I could help 🙂 I have had confirmation that there is a sequel, and it will be coming out from MacLehose at some point, so good news there!


      1. 15 pages in, and I’m not as struck as I was by the Heaven and Hell Trilogy.

        It seems to be getting into territory (growing up in the Nordics in the 1970s/80s) that Knausgaard and Lars Saaybe Christensen have already claimed, and they, particularly the latter, set a tough benchmark.

        I’ve also encountered 5 metaphorical screams so far: a residue of lava “at first is an old scream”, “a cliff jutting into the unsettled sea like a giant fist or scream”, Ari’s hand “swept like a scream across the kitchen table” ending his marriage (this last repeated) and “a car screamed through the night.” Not sure if this is lazy writing/translation or deliberate, but even if the latter feels a little clunky.

        Still, average Kalman Stefansson is still well above average for most novels.


        1. Paul – I don’t think it’s as good as the trilogy, and there’s definitely a Knausgaardian feel to the 1980s sections. JKS does his best work out in the wilds, whether on land or at sea, and I’m not sure the youthful sections work as well as they might. Having said that, I’m still very keen to see the next installment 🙂


          1. Having finished this now – I’m genuinely a bit baffled as to who exactly is the narrator.

            He is a relative of Ari’s as they have, at least, a cousin in common. And he moved to Keflavík at the same time (but not to the same house as that was just Ari, his father and stepmother we’re told). They are also the same age.

            At times the narrator seems to be absent from the story, at other times he seems to he Ari’s constant sidekick (we never hear of his own independent story) and at times he clearly exists as a separate person (e.g. in the present day, he goes to Keflavik to meet Ari).

            So e.g. Asmundur tells Ari, on his first day in Keflavik, to wait outside and Asmundur will pick him (singular) up, to go raiding the lorries going to the US airbase. But when Asmunder comes he picks up Ari and the narrator (us).

            Does the narrator even exist – is he Ari’s alter ego?

            Or will this be clearer in the 2nd book?


            1. Paul – You’re not the only one 😉 I think this is deliberate – it was certainly confusing -, and I suspect that this will become clearer in the second book. There was one point (where one of the men talked about their mother), where I simply couldn’t see how the timelines worked – weren’t they supposed to be on the coast, not in the city? This may well be a series that only makes sense once you’ve read it all…


      1. Grant – I’m sure JKS would do just as well writing about angles as about angels 😉 Anyway, I’d definitely recommend you give ‘Heaven and Hell’ a try.


  2. This was my first JKS, and it won’t be my last. It was a real delight to discover his writing – and have the chance to meet him and discuss the book. We did a short bilingual reading (him in Icelandic and then I read from the English – to a mostly French-speaking audience – it was fun!) and then we talked about the book. I had many questions about the wonderfully elusive narrator (I have my theories!) and the tension between the poetic and the practical in his work. He was a gracious interviewee and a delight to listen to.

    It’s intriguing to me to hear you say you felt the Ari story was less finished. I felt this as well, and am curious to see the sequel. I like that he can develop a longer story out over several books – I feel this is often “less allowed” in English-language fiction where everything has to be so contained and polished in each volume.


    1. Michelle – You’re very lucky – I’d love to meet him 🙂 If you haven’t tried the first trilogy yet, then you’re in for a treat, three wonderful books!


  3. Thank you for this review, especially I’m into Icelancic literature. I heard about Stefánsson, but for me this autor is a new discovery.



    1. Dorte – He’s a wonderful find, and one whose books I’m hoping will continue to flow into English. Sjón has a similar kind of style, but I probably prefer JKS 🙂


  4. I am so crazy about this book. You wrote a wonderfully thorough review, whereas I just highlighted favorite passages. Tom suspects we may disagree when it comes to putting this on the shortlist. Do you think it belongs there as I do?


    1. Bellezza – To be honest, this isn’t as good as the trilogy for me, although it’s still an excellent read, of course. If pushed, I’d say this may well miss out – however, with six to go, I may just change my mind 😉


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