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Monday 7 April 2014

The Sorrow Of Angels - Jon Kalman Stefansson (translated by Philip Roughton) - Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

As per my usual habit, I try not to read others reviews of books before I post my thoughts. I’d rather not be distracted by their views, comments or relationship with a work. Of course this can be to me detriment as at times I completely miss some of the subtle nuances, themes, sub-plots and more. So please bear with me if I’ve completely misread this novel and other (more scholarly types) have already pointed out a better version of my take on this book.

“The Sorrow of Angels” is Jon Kalman Stefansson’s second work in a trilogy, following on from “Heaven and Hell” and is a simple tale of “the boy” following Jens the postman on a journey to deliver the mail, they are “on their way to a place that constantly seems to be retreating.” Jens “flourishes nowhere but far from human habitation; far from life, in fact”, a man who broods and prefers silence. “The boy” lives in the world of words, poetry and the power of speech, "a person who holds a pen and paper has the possibility to change the world".

‘The Sorrow of Angels’ is simply angels tears which manifest as snow, snow storms, blizzards, purity, treacherous ravines, glaciers, iced tracks, cold, raging icy seas and more, and besides the boy and the postman the other main character here is the snow…the sorrow of the angels. This is a beautiful book, as delicate as a snowflake but also as treacherous, it contains the mysteries of humankind. Up numerous mountains, their journey is an arduous one. Am I right in assuming this is an Icelandic “Purgatorio” (Dante’s second work in “The Divine Comedy”)? Our two characters are travelling through the seven levels of suffering and spiritual growth? The work does have the purgatory feel, where our characters are neither in hell nor heaven, the chorus is the dead, they are led by ghosts but to their safety? 

At 300 pages plus a journey of two characters up mountains and through constant snow storms, on the surface seems like an arduous journey for the reader. There are fleeting visits to outposts, where people have shackled down for the winter, and the breaks in their journey to defrost and drink coffee (and occasionally talk of poetry, for the boy that is) are the parts where their deeper human qualities are slowly peeled back. But as soon as you’ve settled into a small, warm shack in the wilds of Iceland you’re picked up and hauled out into the raging snowstorms once again, as Jens continues his long journey to deliver the mail.

My review would seem as though this is a difficult work, but it is not, it a wonder to savour, a standout of writing and style that drags you into the territory, a world where every step can reveal a gem, for example three separate short quotes:
Yes yes, never underestimate humankind, there's extraordinarily little that it can't ruin
What is responsibility; to help others so much that it damages one's own life? But if you don't take the step towards another, your days will ring hollow. Life is only easy for the unethical; they do quite well and live in big houses.
Of what other use is poetry unless it has the power to change fate? There are books that entertain you but don’t stir your deepest thoughts. Then there are others that cause you to question, that give you hope, broaden the world and possibly introduce you to precipices. Some books are essential, others diversions.

A novel that lingers between Heaven and Hell, death and living, that laments on the dead, the missing, the holes left behind. This is a deep and all consuming work.

Death brings no contentment: if such a thing exists, you’ll find it in life. Yet there’s nothing as underestimated as life itself. You curse Mondays, rainstorms, your neighbours; you curse Tuesdays, work, the winter, but all of this will disappear in a single second. The plenitude of life will turn to nothing, to be replaced by the poverty of death. Awake and asleep, you think about the little things that lie far from the essence. How long does a person live, after all; how many moments does one have that are pure, how often does one live like electricity and light up the sky? The bird sings, the earthworm turns in the earth so that life doesn’t suffocate, but you curse Mondays, you curse Tuesdays, your opportunities decrease and the silver within you becomes stained.

SPOLIER ALERT (if you’ve read Dante’s Purgatorio, the correlation I’ve put below covers a very very broad sketch of this novel but it may detract from the plot it contains, so be warned).

Here’s my take on this being the Icelandic version of Dante’s purgatory:

Introduction – We have Jens and the boy meeting at the village, where the boy reads Hamlet and Othello to the blind sea captain. (Dante and Virgil head out to the base of the Mountain of Purgatory)
Ante-Purgatory – Jens and the boy row around the mountain of Kirkjufjall to Vetrastrond (Dante and Virgil meet a pagan Cato on the shores of Purgatory)
The Proud – Our heroes meet a farmer, his wife, three children and a cow
The Envious – They meet Jonas the Postmaster of Vetrastrond (a superior of Jens)
The Wrathful – Jens and the boy traverse the mountain with a mare simply called “The Grey” potentially falling off a precipice
The Slothful – They meet a farmer who wipes sleep from his eyes “you’re supposed to go there, and he points due north, as showing them the way to Hell.”
The covetous – The reach Reverend Kjartan (need I say more)
The gluttonous – They come across a family who feeds them seabirds, coffee, herbed prridge and more coffee and are asked to transport a coffin to the nearest consecrated ground “a dead woman who smells like smoked lamb and the spirit of Christmas”
The lustful – Their final mountain where they finally talk of love, of what is right, what Jens needs to do.

Will they “defeat the dark storm inside” them? Will the make it to the summit of humanity? The earthly paradise?

A masterful work, one that can describe a snow storm in numerous ways, but a novel that delves into the depths of humanity, of life, of afterlife and so much more. An absolute revelation for me, another Icelandic classic. Can’t wait for book three – Paradiso?

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Bellezza said...

I love this particular sentence from your review: "This is a beautiful book, as delicate as a snowflake but also as treacherous, it contains the mysteries of humankind."

What a perfect description of a book I loved.

And, you're right. Somehow, the book is not as difficult to read as one might think just from hearing the 'plot'. Of course, it's not about plot at all, but relationship. Courage. Endurance.

I want to read the first, and the last of this trilogy when it comes out.

JacquiWine said...

Wonderful review, Tony. There's something very ethereal about this world, isn't there? Almost as though the margin between life and death is very narrow and the lines between the two begin to blur.

'Sorrows...' is right up there with the best of our shortlist, I reckon. My one regret was not having the time to read 'Heaven and Hell' before starting 'Sorrows...', but I'm going to loop back and read 'H&H' asap.