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Heaven and Hellby Jon Kalman Stefansson
Synopses & Reviews
This was during the years when we were surely still alive. The month of March and the world white with snow, although not purely white, here it is never purely white, no matter how much snow falls, even though sky and sea freeze together and the cold penetrates deep into the heart where dreams have their home, the colour white never wins. The cliff-belts on the mountains rip it off as soon as it falls and jut out, black as coal, into the white world. They jut out black over the boy and Bárur as they walk away from the Village, our origin and end, the centre of the world. The centre of the world is laughable and proud. They walk easily, young legs, fire that burns, but they are also racing against the darkness, which is perhaps fitting since human life is a constant race against the darkness of the world, the treachery, the cruelty, the cowardice, a race that often seems so hopeless, yet we still run and, as we do, hope lives on. Bárur and the boy, however, intend only to overtake the darkness or twilight of the air, beat it to the huts, the fishing huts, walk sometimes side by side, which is by far the best because tracks that lie side by side are a sign of solidarity, then life is not quite so lonely. The path, however, is often not more than a single track that winds like a frozen snake in the snow and then the boy has to look at the backs of Bárur’s shoes, at the skin bag he carries on his back, at the black tangled hair and the head that sits securely on the broad shoulders. Sometimes they walk across stony beaches, tread risky paths on cliff faces, it is worst on the Impassable, a cable fastened to the rock face, a sheer mountainside above, a sheer stone wall below and the surging green sea, a thirty-metre fall, the mountainside rises nearly six hundred metres into the air and the peak is covered in clouds. The sea on one side, steep and lofty mountains on the other; therein lies our whole story. The authorities, merchants, might rule our destitute days, but the mountains and the sea rule life, they are our fate, or that’s the way we think sometimes, and that’s the way you certainly would feel if you had awakened and slept for decades beneath the same mountains, if your chest had risen and fallen with the breath of the sea on our cockleshells. There is hardly anything as beautiful as the sea on good days, or clear nights, when it dreams and the gleam of the moon is its dream. But the sea is not a bit beautiful, and we hate it more than anything else when the waves rise dozens of metres above the boat, when the sea breaks over it and, no matter how much we wave our hands, invoke God and Jesus, it drowns us like wretched whelps. Then all are equal. Rotten bastards and good men, giants and laggards, the happy and the sad. 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. The ocean is cold-blue and never still, a gigantic creature that breathes, most often tolerates us, but sometimes not and then we drown; the history of humankind is not terribly complicated.
I’m sure we’ll row tonight, said Bárur.
They have just crossed over the Impassable, the cable did not break, the mountain did not kill them by pelting them with rocks. They both look out over the sea and up into the sky, whence the darkness comes, its blue no longer completely blue, a hint of evening in the air, the beach opposite has become harder to see, as if it has retreated, were sinking into the distance; this beach is almost perfectly white from foreshore to dune, reflecting its wintry name.
It’s about time, the boy answers, a bit winded after the hike. Two hours since they set out. They finished their coffee and cakes in the German Bakery, made three stops and then plodded out of the Village, a two-hour trudge through deep snow. Their feet are wet, of course they are wet, we were always wet those years, death will dry them, the old folk said when someone complained; sometimes the old folk know less than nothing. The boy adjusts his bag, heavy from what we cannot do without, Bárur adjusts nothing, he just stands and watches, whistles a bit of a blurred melody, appears not to be tired at all, dammit, says the boy, I’m panting like an old dog but it’s as if you haven’t taken a single step today. Bárur looks at him with those brown, austral eyes of his and grins. Some of us have brown eyes, fishermen come here from distant places and have done so for hundreds of years because the sea is a treasure chest. They come from France, Spain, many of them with brown eyes, and some leave the colour of their eyes behind with a woman, sail away, return home or drown.
Yes, it’s about time, Bárur agrees. It’s been half a month since their last fishing voyage. First a storm raged from the south-east, it rained, the ground became spotted and dark where it emerged from the snow, then the wind changed and came from the north, lashing its snowstorm whip for days on end. Storm, rain and snow for fourteen days, not a boat on the sea and the fish safe from humans for the time being, down in the deep stillness of the sea, where storms cannot reach; men seen there are drowned. One can say various things about drowned men but at least they don’t catch fish, they actually don’t catch anything except the gleam of the moon on the surface. Two weeks and sometimes one couldn’t move from one hut to another because of the weather, the howling storm wiped out the entire landscape in all directions, the sky, the horizon, even time itself, long since finished fixing what needed to be fixed, tied on the cod hooks, untangled the line, untangled all snarls except those related to the heart and the sex drive. A man or two struggled along the beaches, searching for mussels for bait, some used the time to make things, mended the waterproofs, but days spent tied to the shore can be long, they can stretch intoendlessness. It’s easiest to endure the wait with card games, play and play and never stand up except to attend to bodily functions, trudge out into the storm and relieve oneself among rocks on the beach, some, however, so lazy, or perhaps not so beautiful inside, don’t bother going down to the beach and instead shit right up near the huts, then say to the Superintendent as they’re coming back in, a project for you, pal! The boy is the hut’s super and thus has to clean up around it, he is the youngest, the weakest, could beat no-one in a wrestling match, and he was assigned the Superintendent’s post, that’s how life frequently is, those who aren’t strong enough have to clean up others’ shit. Two long weeks and when the weather finally settled it looked quite as if the world had returned, look, there’s the sky, so it’s true, it exists, and the horizon is a fact! Yesterday the storm’s fury had slackened so much that they could clear rocks from the landing, clambered down there, twelve in number from both huts, two crews, toiled away moving huge stones tossed by the sea onto the landing, mere pebbles beneath which they lost their footing, scratched and bloodied themselves, six hours of labour on the slippery fore-shore. This morning a wind blew from the west, rather weakly, but when it blows from the west the breakers frequently make voyages impossible, it’s a crying shame, almost vilifying, to see this foaming obstruction and the sea beyond it more or less calm enough for sailing. One’s temper is soothed, however, by knowing that cod shy away in the western wind, simply vanish, and besides, it provides an excellent opportunity to make a trip into town. Men left the main huts in groups, the beaches teeming and the mountainsides crawling with fishermen.
Bárur and the boy sometimes catch a glimpse of the group ahead of them and modify their pace in such a way that they draw farther apart rather than closer together, the two of them travel by themselves, it’s best that way, so much that needs to be said intended for just the two of them, about poetry, about dreams and the things that cause us sleepless nights.
They have just crossed over the Impassable. From here it is approximately a half-hour’s walk home to the hut, for the most part along the stony beach where the sea snaps at them. They stand high up on the slope, put off the descent, look out over more than ten kilometres of cold blue sea that tosses and turns as if impatient at the head of the fjord, and at the white beach opposite. The snow never fully leaves it, no summer manages to melt the snow completely, and still folk live wherever there is even a trace of a bay. Wherever the sea is fairly accessible there stands a farm, and at midsummer the little home-field surrounding it turns green, pale green areas of tussocky ground stretch up the mountainside and yellow dandelions kindle in the grass, but even further away, to the north-east, they see more mountains rise into the grey winter sky: these are the Strands, where the world ends. Bárur removes his bag, takes out a bottle ofbrennivín, they both take a gulp. Bárur sighs, looks off to the left, looks at the ocean itself, deep and dark, he doesn’t think at all about the end of the world and the eternal cold, but instead about long, dark hair, how it blew in her face in early January and how the most precious hand in the world brushed it aside, her name is Sigríur, and Bárur trembles a bit inside when he speaks the name to himself. The boy follows his friend’s glance and sighs as well. He wants to accomplish something in life, learn languages, see the world, read a thousand books, he wants to discover the core, whatever that might be, he wants to discover whether there is any core, but sometimes it’s hard to think and read when one is stiff and sore after a difficult fishing voyage, wet and cold after twelve hours’ working in the meadows, when his thoughts can be so heavy that he can hardly lift them, then it’s a long way to the core.
The west wind blows and the sky slowly darkens above their heads.
Dammit, the boy blurts out, because he is standing there alone with his thoughts, Bárur has set off down the slope, the wind is blowing, the sea churns and Bárur is thinking about dark hair, about warm laughter, about big eyes bluer than the sky on a clear June night. They have come down to the beach. They clamber over large rocks, the afternoon continues to darken and press in on them, they keep going and hurry the final minutes, and are a hair’s breadth ahead of the twilight to the huts.
Jon Kalman Stefansson is the winner of the Icelandic Prize for Literature and has been nominated three times for the Nordic Council Prize for Literature. Heaven and Hell, is a perfectly formed, vivid and timeless story, lyrical in style, and as intense a reading experience as the forces of the Icelandic landscape themselves. Der Spiegel said it was "like an oyster--a glinting treasure in a rough shell."
In a remote part of Iceland, a boy and his friend Barour join a boat to fish for cod. A winter storm surprises them out at sea and Barour, absorbed in "Paradise Lost", succumbs to the ferocious cold and dies. Distraught from the murky circumstances of Barour's death, the boy leaves the village, intending to return the book to its original owner. The extreme hardship and danger of the journey is of little consequence to him--he has already resolved to join his friend in death. But once in the town he immerses himself in the stories and lives of its inhabitants, and decides that he cannot be with his friend just yet.
About the Author
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jon Kalman Stefansson was born in Reykjavik in 1963. His novels have been nominated three times for the Nordic Council Prize for Literature (2001, 2004, 2007) and his novel Summer Light, and then Comes the Night received the Icelandic Prize for Literature in 2005.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Phil Roughton is the translator of, among others, the works of Halldor Laxness and The Islander, a biography of Laxness by Halldor Gudmundsson (MacLehose Press, 2008). He lives and works in Reykjavik.
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