In Heaven and Hell (2007), Jón Kalman Stefánsson takes his readers back to a time in the lives of the residents of a fishing village in the West Fjords in the early 20th century with his poetic and effortless descriptions.
You’re provided with a bird’s eye perspective of the village and delicately, like a snowflake, you glide down from the heavens, pass from one person to the next and catch a glimpse of their reality—such a harsh reality that one garment separates life from death, heaven from hell.
The book is dedicated to two sisters who have passed away and, although they aren’t mentioned by name in the story, it seems that the story is theirs.
In the prologue, two anonymous voices reach out to the readers from beyond the grave to narrate the story of people who are long gone but shouldn’t be forgotten.
And so we descend into the story of heaven and hell to the moment in time where the boy, the story’s main character who remains nameless throughout, and his good friend Bárdur are treading through snow, headed away from the village to a cluster of fishermen’s huts to work.
They’re young and bright. Both have discovered the joy of reading and would probably have made excellent students. However, life is unfair and for boys who are poor, fishing is the only way to make a living, even if they’re sensitive, get seasick and aren’t cut out to be fishermen.
At the fishermen’s huts you learn about the reality of the life there in such a vivid manner that it feels as if you’re sitting right there. You can feel the cold, hear the waves crash against the rocks on the beach, smell the salt in the air and the body odor of the dirty men huddled together to stay warm.
It’s dark and you’re tired, but still you have to get up and prepare for an entire day of toiling on the boat. Fish is life and without it you die. You feel anxiety rise inside you. Will it be safe to row today? Will the sea stay calm? Will the wind remain still?
Fishing is a dangerous way to make a living. The rough and merciless seas regularly claim the lives of innocent boys and hardy men alike. The weather is unpredictable and the waves can easily flip a feeble rowboat and drown the men onboard, most of whom don’t even know how to swim.
There are so many ways to die. Life is like a delicate straw blowing in the wind. If you don’t stay focused, if you forget to bring your watertight jacket onboard because your mind was elsewhere, thinking about words from a book that is the only thing that makes life bearable, you might just freeze to death.
Then you’re suddenly taken back to the village and get to know the residents a little better. Suddenly the boy stops being the center of attention and you feel a little betrayed because you want to know what happens to him.
Instead, you drift from one person to the next, learn about their friends and families. They reveal their deepest fears and longings to you unintentionally because, in the village, people don’t discuss their emotions with anyone.
But you are invisible, like a ghost, while observing the life of the village. It all feels so real that it is almost as though you are trespassing.
And because you’re invisible, you can’t influence the life there and you can’t control the narrative. It’s just a short space in time that you get to watch and then the story just ends—without a real ending.
Stefánsson’s Heaven and Hell is a heavenly slice of history. It’s an enriching read about a harsh reality that leaves you with thoughts of friendship, hostility, poverty, prosperity, life, death, heaven and hell, and it helps you understand Iceland a little bit better.
Heaven and Hell was originally published as Himnaríki og helvíti by Bjartur in 2007. It is currently being translated into English. The publishing rights to the English translation are held by MacLehose Press and it will be published in the fall of 2010.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir