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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The Sorrow of Angels by Jon Kalman Stefansson

The Sorrow of Angels

The novel is described as depicting the struggle between man and nature. And, it is that. But, it is also about the struggle between man and himself, the way we wrestle with who we are, and really, is there any honorable thing inside of us that we can hang on to? It is one of the most important books I’ve read all year.

I am incredibly moved by the writing.

I am incredibly moved by the relationship between the postman and the boy, whom he accuses of talking too much, when the man speaks little if at all.

He is too busy with his thoughts, with his intention to survive the snow covered mountains of Iceland and his intention to figure out who he is. What he’ll do with the woman he’d die for, if only his body wouldn’t betray him.

We challenge ourselves against so many things that seem intent to get us down: cruel weather, life’s monotony, the fear of what we are against, or what we might become if left unchecked.

The Sorrow of Angels closes with Jens, the postman, and the boy flung headlong into space as they traverse back down the mountain. They have had to leave their important task behind, a dead woman whom they are transporting to consecrated ground, and we know not what will happen to them as we turn the last page.

But, we are secure in knowing that they have each other. They have a dauntless spirit. And they have what they learned while carrying the post to the southernmost tip of Iceland.

This is a book I will never forget. I loved it with all my heart.

Find Tony’s review here.