‘Heaven and Hell’ by Jón Kalman Stefánsson


Fiction – paperback;  Maclehose Press; 215 pages; 2011. Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Heaven and Hell, which is set in Iceland at the turn of the 19th century, explores the fragility of friendship amid the dangers posed by the ocean. A quote on the front cover  describes the book as “an unusually intense reading experience”. I would add that it is heart-breaking and utterly beguiling, too.

Sea-faring drama

The story brings to life a small fishing community at the “far end of the world” — sandwiched between “the sea on one side, steep and lofty mountains on the other” — and is, essentially, a novel of two halves: the first explores a treacherous overnight fishing trip in which one man dies from the ice-cold temperatures; and the second recounts the impact of his death on his closest friend, who is known throughout the narrative as “the boy”.

The first 100 or so pages are among the most exciting — and eloquent — that I have ever read. It is written in the present tense, so the prose is immediate and often electrifying as it draws you into a foreign world full of life-or-death moments. It feels like an adventure story — and brims with heart-hammering drama.
As a portrait of fishermen putting their lives in danger every time they go out on the water it is intimate and fascinating. We learn how much they hate the ocean (“cold-blue and never still, a gigantic creature that breathes”), the great leveller which does not choose whom to drown and everyone — “rotten bastards and good men, giants and laggards, the happy and sad” — is made equal.

There are shouts, a few frantic gestures, and then it’s as if we were never here, the dead body sinks, the blood within it cools, memories turn to nothing, fish come and nibble the lips that were kissed yesterday and spoke the words that meant everything, nibble the shoulders that carried the youngest child piggyback, and the eyes see no longer, they are at the bottom of the ocean.

We learn how important religion is to them — they make the sign of the cross over everything and hell is all around, for instance, “hell is having arms but no one to embrace” and “hell is being seasick in a sixareen out on the open sea, needing to work and many hours from shore” — and how dependent they are on the weather, which is often stormy and ominous.

But we also learn how their difficult and often lonely lives are made bearable by small pleasures: letters from their wives and children living on the other side of the mountains, dry socks, newspapers, coffee, brennivín, tobacco, rock candy and books. One particular book — Milton’s Paradise Lost — has special significance in the story, not least because lines of poetry fill the heads of “the boy” and his best friend, Bárđur, who later dies at sea.

A grieving boy

The second half of the story — entitled “The Boy, the Village and the Profane Trinity” — is set on the other side of the mountains, as far from the ocean as the bereaved boy can get. There is a substantial drop in narrative pace, but nonetheless it is a beautiful portrait of small town life, albeit in a 19th century Icelandic village, and of coming to terms with great personal loss.

Jón Kalman Stefánsson is a masterful storyteller. His prose style switches from fable-like simplicity to long, rhythmic, beguiling sentences, and back again. Perhaps it is a strength of Phillip Roughton’s translation that everything flows seamlessly — nothing jars, nothing is out of place. It’s the kind of novel I want to read again, if only to recount the joy of the beautifully crafted sentences, ripe with meaning and metaphor, and to revel in the language Kalmann uses.

Heaven and Hell is a powerful story about friendship, redemption, despair and the ocean. It was an unexpected delight to read it and certainly the most enchanting book I have read this year. It deserves a wide audience.

Update: The publisher has alerted me to a wonderful interview with the author on the Maclehose website. It explains that the book is part of a trilogy (the second volume is due for English translation next summer) and that the author is also a poet (hence the poetic nature of his writing and the references to Milton). I also like his references to brennivín, an Icelandic schnapps, which I can verify as a rather deadly drink having once brought back a bottle from Reykjavík!

15 thoughts on “‘Heaven and Hell’ by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

  1. Thanks, Kim. Found it on amazon’s Kindle site. (I happen to have one of those e-beasties.) I look forward to reading it. I spent some time in Iceland years ago and was utterly smitten with the place.


  2. I’m currently dipping my toes into Icelandic literature (see last week’s posts), and this sounds like another one to look out for 🙂


  3. Yes, I remember seeing your review of The Blue Fox, Tony. Sadly, I often have problems commenting on blogger blogs, so that’s why I rarely leave them on yours. I read that book earlier this year and found it fascinating. Most of my Icelandic reading, however, features around the crime genre: I’m a big fan of Indriðason.


  4. Completely agree, totally overlooked, spellbinding piece of work that deserves a much wider audience. I wasn’t aware it was #1 of a trilogy: fantastic news.


  5. I have really fond memories of reading this book, Lee. That first half, in particular, is just magical. Im not sure what motivated me to pick this one up, actually, as it had been sitting on my shelf for a good long while, but Im so glad I did.
    And yes, it is such a shame that is seems to have been overlooked by so many. But at least there are two more opportunities to push it — when the second and third parts of the trilogy are published in English.


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