The Old Man And His Sons
by Heðin Brú
translated by John F. West
It's pronounced Hay-in Broo before you ask (or something close to that anyway) and if you ever get asked, in a pub quiz or during a lull in conversation with a particular kind of bibliophile, 'What author's novel was chosen by the Faroese as their Book of the 20th Century?' you'll be able to answer with confidence (and for a bonus point you can say it was actually the pen name of Hans Jacob Jacobson. And if you really want to be a smart arse you can add that he translated into Faroese works as diverse as Hamlet, The Tempest, Hedda Gabler, The Brothers Karamazov, Wuthering Heights, and the tales of the Brothers Grimm). Publishers Telegram are the marvellous folks that brought Sjon into English translation (whose two books I would recommend to anyone looking for a literary shot of something a little different) and so I couldn't resist when they sent me this novel originally published in Faroese in 1940 and finally translated into English thirty years later. It is this same translation by John F. West which we can read today, a further forty years later, and it stands up remarkably well. It may be describing a way of life that was slowly being eclipsed 70 years ago but the wit and verve of Brú's observations come through loud and clear and in our current economic climate, a perilous one brought about through a reliance on debt (both personal and state-owned), this novel actually couldn't be more relevant. You may not think that a novel about the fishing community on a small island halfway between Scotland and Iceland in the inter-war years had anything to say to you beyond its only local interests but you'd be wrong.
The novel begins with a fabulous opening scene as a school of two or three hundred small whales swim around in Seyrvags Fjord and the village descends, 'a vast, bustling throng of whale hunters.'
Over here, you can see sturdy old men clad from head to foot in their thick homespun, their heavy whaling knives at their belts. These are men who grew up at the oar, and trod out the mountain paths. For them, all journeys were long journeys and risky ones. They are all keyed up to meet any problems, and they take life very seriously. These men stride onwards with ponderous footsteps - strong men of few words.
We follow the 70-year old Ketil and his youngest son Kalvur as they make their way to be amongst the kill, Kalvur joining a boat on the water whilst his father joins the many onlookers on the shore. It is a frantic scene in which Kalvur is dragged down with his boat when a whale rears up and lands on its stern. Luckily he doesn't drown, escaping with a dislocated shoulder and wounded pride, but it's a measure of the frenzied atmosphere that his father initially misses the whole episode, being so caught up in the kill itself. This atmosphere is important because in the ensuing auction of the whales Ketil finds himself giddy with excitement and bidding way beyond his means, landing himself with a huge amount of whale meat but the burden of a hefty bill to come. Pride won't allow him to go back and admit he can't pay and so we follow the consequences of this moment of hot-headedness.
Ketil is a father to several son's who now have wives and families of their own (only the simple-minded Kalvur remains a burden), all of them more upwardly mobile than their father and through these relationships Brú is able to point up the different attitudes that separate the generations. The turf roof that adorns Ketil's house for example and which is in peril during every storm causes barks of frustration from one son who wants him to replace it with one of corrugated iron - 'Fancy having a damn roof that you have to ask folk to sit and hold onto, every time there's a real use for it!' After the frenzy of the whale hunt and the re-location of Kalvur's shoulder by the doctor Ketil makes an offering to him of a whale kidney. It is through the eyes of the doctor's wife that we see the contrast between old world and new.
He stood there in his home-made skin shoes, his loose breeches and long jacket. His blood-flecked beard hung down towards his belt, and on this hung a double sheath with a pair of white-handled knives, one above the other. And he was extending his earthy hands - holding up that bloody thing.There are a couple of more humorous examples of the changing times, one occurring when Ketil and the extraordinary character of Klavus are disturbed first thing in the morning as they urinate outdoors by the slightly more progressive Tummas as he finds his way with a torch. It falls on Tummas to lets them know that folk don't do that sort of thing in public anymore, 'No, I suppose not - everything's got to be so classy nowadays' comes the reply. One person who feels the full effect of Ketil's impulsive moment is of course his wife and it is the shame of debt that worries her most, it being the one thing that worries her most about the next generation.
'I don't know,' she replied. 'Young people nowadays are never satisfied; they always want more and more. They want everything that folk have overseas...you all demand so much from life - you're never satisfied. In the old days, a poor man was content if he had something to eat and a roof over his head. Nowadays everything has to be so high-and-mighty. Everything you set your minds on, you have to have, whether you can afford it or not...And everyone's up to their eyebrows in debt...A fat lot of use it is having schools and books and I don't know what! In the old days we used to be a lot more reasonable.'
Above all this is the confusion that 'the folk who are in debt hold their heads as high as everyone else.' And that's one of the more interesting aspects for the modern reader, to consider when it was that everyone decided that credit was fine and the ability to pay it back almost secondary. Brú's keen sense of the shift between these two generations means that this novel manages to poke fun at both sides and that whilst the detail is entirely specific to a certain type of people in a certain place at a certain time he manages to say something to us today about the dangers of excess, of living beyond your means and where the true measure of self-worth and pride might be made.