Of what other use is poetry unless it has to 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.
What better way to introduce my seventh favourite translated work of 2014? As I read that quote I feel it should possibly be higher up on my list, but I’ve made my decisions and I’m going to stick to them. The placement of the works in order was an arduous task in fact, taking into account numerous criteria and listing this book at number seven is surely going to raise a few eyebrows. I’m sure some of my fellow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shadow Jury members will wonder why so low on the list!!
The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shadow Jury announced this work as their winner a few days before the actual Jury announced Hassan Blasim as the winner for his short story collection “The Iraqi Christ” (translated by Jonathan Wright). In fact, Jon Kalman Stefansson’s work “The Sorrow of Angels” didn’t even make the shortlist. You’ll have to stick around and read my posts for the next few weeks to see if personally I rated Blasim’s work higher than the Stefansson one.
“The Sorrow of Angels” (translated by Philip Roughton), is the angel’s tears which manifest as snow. And our novel contains quite a lot of snow, blizzards, snow storms, treacherous ravines, glaciers, iced tracks, icy seas – the snow being another character to accompany the two main characters, the boy and the postman. “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”.
As I said in my original review this is a beautiful book, as delicate as a snowflake but also as treacherous, it contains the mysteries of humankind.
There’s little that we can count on in this world; the gods have the tendency to let us down and men do so many times over, but the Earth never betrays; you can shut your eyes confidently and put your foot forward, it will receive you; I’ll take care of you, it says, and that’s why we call it “mother”. Thus it is hardly possible to comprehend the desperation that grips someone if he or she expects the earth to vanish at the next step, the snow to give way, to be replaced by air, a precipice, a fall, The boy plods along behind the mare and man, it’s so obvious that the heath cares nothing for them. Jonas was right, it cares little for company at the moment. The snow falls thickly, the wind blows it into drifts and although it’s freezing and the snowcover hardens the higher they tramp, the snow doesn’t harden quickly enough to hold up men and horse; and they sink constantly, sometimes just several centimetres, which is difficult enough and frustrating, while sometimes their legs simply vanish entirely and the men just sit there stuck, forced to use all their strength to tear themselves free, first one leg, then the other. Yet the men have little excuse; they have only two legs, and a vertical shape, as if their bodies are part of an eternal tug-of-war between Heaven and Hell;
Which leads me to my take on this second instalment of Stefansson’s trilogy, it is in fact an Icelandic version of Dante’s Puragtory.
A stunning novel, a revelation and one I’m glad the IFFP judges brought to my attention, pity those same judges demeaned a great work by saying it wasn’t in the top six translated works of the year!!!