The Heart of Man by Jon Kalman Stefansson and Philip Roughton (translator)

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The Heart of Man by Jon Kalman Stefansson and Philip Roughton (translator)

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Third parts of trilogies are seldom easy to recommend in isolation – this one more than most.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 368 Date: February 2016
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 9781848662360

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What could be better than an existentialist book from rural Iceland, full of gnomic comments about how close life and death are, that has as its core a journey taken by, amongst others, a naïve and hormonal teenaged lad and a full coffin? Why, I hear you cry, a trilogy concerning the same. Yes, it's the obvious answer, really – why else would we come to this third part, where the survivors of the expedition rest up, note the women giving them help, and see how eminently close the circle of life is to the figure of a snake swallowing its tail through, among other things, dogs rutting in a church below the coffin's bier?

If you haven't read any of this trilogy before now, you will have to either start at the beginning, or brace yourself – either way, that latter option is worth considering. We still never learn the boy's name, we face endless questionable statements courtesy of the narrative voice, which sometimes reaches the plural, and plot is still not really the priority. Let's face it, the middle book was pretty much all about the walk over some mountains in a storm.

Those statements can be quite quotable, as can at times the innate poetic force of the words here – surely not the easiest of books to translate. I find, however, the most pertinent quote this one – there are very few things that man needs: to love, to be happy, to eat; and then he dies. It's not the only sentence that imbues these pages with some kind of Beckettian fatalism. The book certainly gears itself up to concerning just that, the force of life and that of death, as seen in rural, pre-industrial Iceland. And that certainly becomes a problem as you close on the end of this third book. You feel more and more the need for a lift – latching on to the remarkable flavour you oh so rarely get of Iceland (more often than not, an unspecified seabird to eat). You hope for what does strike you, the chance of a warmly appreciated look at the boy's burgeoning romantic strife. Instead he arrives home, only for awkwardly conveyed poetry lessons, an overview of a merchant's problems, and too much regarding the other people.

You might get a lot more out of the look at the whole community than I – I know I was in a minority to struggle with Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, which concerns Hungary. You may see more appeal in the inexorable drawing close of the inevitable, as so many people in this book face. Certainly the flavour of this book – as indeed of the whole series – is one you will seldom find elsewhere. But for me I did find this too much like hard work – and as I suggest, I was already braced for what I was to face. Dialogue is unaccredited, and switches speaker not only within paragraphs but within sentences; the voice is veering almost absurdly between the charmingly poetic and rich and the blatantly truth universally acknowledged style; and yes – too much is dark, even in the setting of the Icelandic summer. I found this too stern and sturdy a read, even when based on a mobile, living island. I can only hope it takes flight with you.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The series started here. I would definitely recommend The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, Torbjorn Stoverud and Michael Barnes (translators) for a look at someone stuck in rural northern lands, but only appearing to be young in one regard.

Buy The Heart of Man by Jon Kalman Stefansson and Philip Roughton (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Heart of Man by Jon Kalman Stefansson and Philip Roughton (translator) at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Heart of Man by Jon Kalman Stefansson and Philip Roughton (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Heart of Man by Jon Kalman Stefansson and Philip Roughton (translator) at Amazon.com.


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