Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (translated by Philip Roughton, Man Booker International Prize long list 2017)

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I have rarely reviewed the books I hold the most dearly on this blog. I am afraid that my words will tarnish them, that my words and their author’s words have no business being on the same page.

So it is with Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. If I tell you that I read breathlessly, turning the pages without being aware of the paper, or the light, or the time, or my chair, you might say, “I’ve heard all that before.”

You might even be unconvinced of its power if I told you there was a line on nearly every page that I wanted to record in my commonplace book, write down to record exactly what Jon said so that I can read it again and again at my leisure.

Even though he writes a family history with some of the hopelessness of a secular viewpoint, he brings to mind questions that I often battle, feelings which I claim to have owned. A few examples:

“Question: What travels faster than the speed of light?

Answer: Time itself.

It whizzes like an arrow straight through us. First the sharp point penetrates the flesh, organs and bones, that’s life, followed shortly by the feathers, that’s death.” p. 51

“…how is it possible to make it through life relatively undamaged when so much wears out-when passions fade, kisses cool, and so little goes in the direction we choose?” p. 73

“Memories are heavy stones that I drag behind me. Is it heavy to remember? asked Ari. No, only what you regret or long to forget – regret is the heaviest stone.” p. 86

“Nothing but eternity matches up to God’s terrible implacability.” p. 91

“…we constantly try to suppress the feeling, the certainty, the fact, that humanity is ephemeral, our lives birds’ songs, seagull’s cries, then silence.” p. 84

“At some point, this thought assails us all. Why have I lived? Why am I living? Because if we never ask, never doubt, and pass our days and nights thoughtlessly, or dash through them so quickly that little stays with us but the newest mobile phone, the most popular song, it’s not unlikely that sooner or later, we’ll run into a wall.” p. 107

“It’s impossible to measure longing, nor is it possible to understand it, describe it, explain it, those who miss someone always have something dark in their hearts, a string of sorrow that time plays, strums, plucks.” p. 312

And the title? Fish have no feet, what does that mean?!

“The silly girl neither stops nor hesitates but steps into the sea, despite no-one having been able to walk on water since Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee two thousand years ago to charm a few fishermen. The girl from the north steps down from the rocks and one foot immediately enters the sea, as does the other a nano-second later. No-one, you see, can walk on water, and that’s why fish have no feet.” p. 331

Have you ever searched for something and then perhaps compromised, making do with what comes close enough to what you had in mind? And then have you ever had the rare experience of knowing, as surely as anything you ever knew, that you have found what you were looking for?

That is me holding this book right now. I’m not saying it will win the Man Booker International Prize 2017, or even that my fellow shadow jury panelists will feel that it should.

But I know, in my heart of hearts, that no book on the long list will surpass this one for me.

Find another review at Tony’s Reading List.

Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Translated by Philip Routman
Published on August 25, 2016 by Quercus
384 pages

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21 thoughts on “Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (translated by Philip Roughton, Man Booker International Prize long list 2017)”

  1. Perhaps the author never has seen the walking catfish of south Florida crossing a highway. They’re endemic to parts of Asia, I believe, but they’ve been introduced here in one way or another, and they’re quite a sight to see. My first thought on reading the title, was, “They may not have human feet, but some fish do walk,” and they can move with alacrity. It’s an interesting reminder of the power of a title.

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    1. An interesting point, Linda.

      If I was going to hazard a guess at what Stefansson was saying it would be this: Christ is the only one who has been able to walk on water. Fish, the rest of us, must swim within it, for we do not have His powers.

      I would like to talk with him about his title, about all of his book. So much of it deals with family, relationships, but there is also quite a bit about fishing, the ocean, living in Iceland.

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  2. M, I am the same when it comes to my very favorite books – I will not review them. I just can’t writing about books that have touched me so deeply. I don’t want to ruin the experience by trying to write about them. So, I don’t. I think its wonderful that you connected so much with this book – your passion for it shows through with your post.

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  3. A number of arthropods walk on water. The word “why” in that quotation is hilarious. Now I want that character to tell me why monkeys have tails and apes do not.

    Which of those quotations has something you did not know?

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    1. Monkeys and apes do not have the connection between Christ and humans which I believe the author is making. I don’t find the word “why” hilarious as much as an explanation from his point of view.

      None of the quotes have something I didn’t know. They only reiterate what I often have felt, or thought, and don’t find in my every day reading.

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    2. Ah, give the character’s creativity some credit. If she can come up with that one, she’s got to have more Just-So stories. She could come up with a connection.

      Although now you say “the author.” Is it the author or a character speaking?

      I would never have guessed that this is the same novel Tony reviewed. You should have a good discussion when jury time comes!

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      1. Just-so stories, now that’s hilarious!

        It is the character speaking, but the author speaking through him to me. You know how I personalize what I read.

        As for Tony and I…he is bold and objective like you. Often he and I agree on what we’ve read, such as Kalmon Stefansson’s Sorrow of Angels, or last year’s​ Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe. But I doubt very much he will find this book as meaningful as I do. He has already questioned my loathing for Explosion Chronicles by Liang.

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      2. Now, now – that’s giving a slightly false impression 😉 While I certainly had my reservations about some aspects of the book, I was overwhelmingly positive, and I’m looking forward to the sequel whenever it arrives.

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        1. You were overwhelmingly positive, to be sure! I wasn’t aware there was a sequel, so now I’m even more excited.

          When I read Tom’s comment, I felt I had been overly enthusiastic, perhaps, but I am sticking with my great admiration and fondness for this book. Even though last night I started Compass, and wow…what a book that is.

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          1. Right, my comment had nothing to do with “positive” or “negative.” It literally took me a a long time and Googling to figure out that I had already read about this book. One piece does not give a hint about the pop spirituality koans, and the other piece says the book is nothing but!

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  4. I’ve never heard of this title and yet every single bit you shared has resonated with me in some way. And it’s a translation too! Sometimes translations don’t read as well as the original.

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    1. I think that is what I was trying to say in my response to Tom above; this book resonates with me. I found it quite powerful.Perhapa it is in part because the age of this author and I are only two years apart, and while he is Icelandic​ and I am American, he writes of universal themes. All of us have family. All of us have questions, I think. And yes, the translator must be quite skilled.

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  5. Excellent post, Bellezza! The quotations are wonderful because they express what is so difficult to put into words. I’m glad that this book resonated so much with you. I’ll keep it in mind now.

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    1. Jon Kalman Stefansson has never disappointed me! I read this one right after The Unseen which took place in Norway, and truly, I’ve felt like I took a virtual Spring Break in Scandinavia. What wonderful authors, and books, these are!

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