Book of the Month
Himnaríki og helvíti / Heaven and hell
Heaven and Hell (Himnaríki og helvíti) is Jón Kalman Stefánsson's sixth novel. It received universal praise from critics on its publication before Christmas 2007, and it has already been translated into Swedish, Danish, German and French; and Maclehose Press recently acquired the English translation rights. The book is a leading title at Reclam publishers in Germany in the spring of 2009.
The book leads the reader into a small fishing village in the West Fjords of Iceland about a hundred years ago: seamen, who have never learned to swim, row out to sea at the mercy of Iceland's harsh elements. At the centre of the narrative is a young man who remains anonymous, known only as “the lad,” along with his friend Bárður. The two friends are fishermen on a six-oared boat. The friends differ from the rest of the villagers in their love of books; they forget their daily toil through reading. “The lad” longs for something more than the hard life of a fisherman: his mind wanders far and wide, and his desire to read books, to learn languages and widen his horizons, is overwhelming.
Like Jón Kalman's earlier works, Heaven and Hell is about a lost world: an Icelandic reality which has gradually grown more remote. Yet, unlike the trilogy of rural life comprising Ditches in the Rain (Skurðir í rigningu, 1996), Summer behind the Hillside (Sumarið bakvið brekkuna, 1997) and Light in the Mountains (Birtan á fjöllunum, 1999), this latest book does not have a humorous tone. This story, which focuses on the fundamental opposites, life and death, is told in all seriousness.
Heaven and Hell is not just a story about a forgotten way of life. The book deals with high and intangible ideas, with the material world, and everything in between. Language plays an important role, as witness the lyrical style for which Jón Kalman is well known. Free of all ostentation, his text transports the reader into the world he has created.