Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s intensely immersive novel Heaven and Hell (translator: Philip Roughton; MacLehose Press, 2010) tells of a nameless boy’s confrontation with death in an Icelandic fishing station and of his subsequent perilous journey overland to convey the news to the nearest village – and to return the book responsible, in part, for that death. Stefánsson divides his novel into two sections, each framed by a brief address from the dead that places the novel’s events some 100 years in the past. Heaven and Hell has an almost inevitable intensity; an isolated fishing community wedged between sheer cliffs and dangerous seas, tiny boats on an immense, icy polar ocean, and a sudden, howling storm are hardly elements that could fail to produce drama (nor does the book’s title suggest subtlety, for that matter). But if one expects only a stereotypically epic tale of human struggles against the sea, one might look elsewhere. Despite its dramatic elements, Heaven and Hell proves a surprisingly quiet, understated novel, in which even the transition from life to death comes as often as not with a whimper, not a bang. As in many winter novels, ice, snow and isolation conspire to crystallize and concentrate the action, and the novel has an intimacy and muffled resonance like the sound of one’s own footsteps walking through fresh snow. While technically the story unfolds during April, its setting - Iceland's wild Western Fjords region – still remains frozen and at the mercy of winter’s harsh vestiges, and the boy’s encounter with these elements is no less an envelopment in blinding winter than that of the children lost in the blizzard in Adalbert Stifter’s Rock Crystal.
As a meditation on death (without any intention on my part, this is the second such work I’ve read this month, following Laurent Gaudé’s La Porte des Enfers, making me wonder if this is the kind of book one to which one is subconsciously drawn when one reaches fifty), Heaven and Hell seems not so much a gesture of remembrance of specific persons, but a call to keep alive in memory the sacrifices made by a people on whose efforts an entire country was raised, whole human settlements made possible by an economy largely built on “the bones of cod.” It’s an acknowledgement, beyond the mere stone markers of the graveyard, of a people’s labor to find a place in the world and establish a community in the face of calamitous forces of nature.
As I read Heaven and Hell I kept flashing on several other works, including Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, in which the living and dead of a small town co-exist in close proximity and in which the transitory nature of life is backdropped by both the ever-present possibility of death and an acute, overarching awareness of deep time on a scale extending far into the past. This snapshot sense of a community carrying on a way of life and death through generations is also enhanced by Stefánsson’s presenting the characters encountered by the boy at the story’s center in a manner that emphasizes passage and succession. Characters who appear in the beginning of the novel slip into the past or into death, fall away as ghosts or memories, while new characters emerge to join those with whom the boy, an orphan on the cusp of adulthood, has crossed paths - for the most part glancingly - in his brief life.
I found myself reading Heaven and Hell with the kind of concentrated attention to individual words and to syntax that the demands of poetry, more often than prose, put upon a reader. What marks the language in Heaven and Hell is not only its intense lyricism – and certain passages are starkly beautiful – but the compressive complexity of Stefánsson’s sentences, which can achieve a sort of concentrated, vertical integration of the present and past, interior thought and exterior observation, a juxtaposition of day-to-day physical artifacts with unrelenting existential questions that irrepressibly well up in the mind – sometimes all within a single sentence. Around what is essentially a simple story of a young person coming face-to-face with death and his having to decide whether or not continuing into adulthood is worthwhile, the novel manages to compress so much - layers and layers grafted onto brief scenes that evoke a whole culture, a sociology of human interactions, a history of a métier, of a fishing community’s relationships with one another, with their country, their god, their history, their deaths - that one scarcely notices that the action of the novel has unfolded over a mere three days.
The clearly delineated central story that threads its way through Stefánsson’s multi-faceted prose gives Heaven and Hell something of the aspect of a folk tale, and brought to mind Halldór Laxness’ Independent People (the sole Laxness novel I’ve read), obviously because of the Icelandic setting but also due to a similarity with Laxness’ quality of appearing to be making new tracks in an old road, of reinventing a popular history consciously rooted in the Icelandic sagas. Reading Heaven and Hell provided a great excuse for getting out my Penguin copy of The Sagas of Icelanders (any excuse for hauling out this book is a good one). Opening it at random I came across a passage that might easily have come from Heaven and Hell: “When they were ready to put to sea, high tide was in the afternoon, and since they had to wait for it they did not set out until late in the evening. A wild southwesterly gale got up, against the current of the tide, and the sea grew very rough in the fjord, as often happens. In the end their ship sank beneath them, and they were all lost at sea.” For all their complexity and frequent poignancy, Stefánsson’s sentences and style often echo the reportorial, matter of fact tone of a passage such as this.
But just as Laxness’ novel stands in a modernist relation to the sagas, Stefánsson’s novel stands in a contemporary relation to Laxness. As in many contemporary novels, Heaven and Hell contains a self-conscious meditation on language and literature, in this case on its power to console, enlighten, distract, perhaps alter the course of one’s life – even lead to death. This gently meta-fictional aspect is exemplified by the central role played by John Milton’s “Paradise Lost;” a finely bound edition of an Icelandic translation of the poem, in fact, helps propel the novel’s plot. The narrative also contains repeated moments in which the efforts to communicate through the word - from a few lines snatched from a great poem, to dictated love letters, to the final words of a dying mother and down to the most tentative, fragmented scribbles - stand out like heroic, miraculous assertions of the fact that one is alive, challenges issued to the threatening, savage caprices of the natural world through the human capacity to utter or scratch onto paper an affirmation, however humble, of both existence and of the human bonds that hold people together. But Stefánsson hardly romanticizes this capacity. Literature, writing, speech can alter the world, yes; and that, of this constitutive human ability, is about all one can say for sure.
The cod have no interest in any words, and yet have swum nearly unchanged through the seas for 120 million years. Does this tell us something about language? We might not need words to survive; on the other hand, we do need words to live.
In one scene, the boy can only seem to make sense of the newness of the world in which he finds himself by experiencing the awestruck, abrupt thought, “I’m inside a novel!” - which, of course, he is – and in which, of course, we are, immersed in our reading of it, our seeking in it some new way of structuring the world, finding in it, perhaps, intimations of the sublime or at least a deepened appreciation for what words may accomplish. And if in Stefánsson’s novel the smallest tatters of language can impact, alter, and even take or give a life, then the cumulative effect of the splendid language of Heaven and Hell makes for a powerful, affecting, and memorable book indeed.