The Old Man and His Sons by Heðin Brú
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
What a strange reaction I'm having to this book.
"Tragicomical" is the first word that comes to mind as I flail around for an explanation. If The Old Man and His Sons does anything, it makes the reader uncomfortable. I didn't know whether to laugh or cringe as I read the book. As I approached the end, I thought that my feelings might resolve themselves, but now, in the post-reading pondering, I'm still baffled. Was the novel supposed to elicit pity for the pathetic characters or some kind of quaint longing for a simpler life?
While the setting of the work is important, for the sake of providing context, geography did little to influence the plot (such as it was) outside of the opening scene wherein the old man Ketil and his idiotic son Kalvur participate in a whale hunt. After the whale hunt, Ketil foolishly incurs debt for a large portion of whale meat.
This indebtedness serves to accentuate the decline of traditional Faroese culture, as contrasted to the rise of more modern culture. A lack of skills, unwillingness to travel, and a deeply ingrained fear of public shame, all of which seem to be part and parcel of old Faroese culture, push Ketil, his wife, and Kalvur into a tighter and tighter economic pinch. It's a clear case of the poorer getting poorer, and while darkly comical, the "one step forward, two steps back" progression of the family's fortunes is painful to see.
Now, I've never been in as bad a set of circumstances as this family, but I have known poverty and how difficult, seemingly impossible, at times, it is to climb out of the hole of deep indebtedness. Maybe that's why I couldn't enjoy the work as much as I would have liked, because it brought back memories of some times in my life that I'd like to forget. I suppose that if I had been raised on a silver spoon, as they say, I would have been rolling on the floor laughing watching these ignorant people fumble their way around in the dark, blinded by stubbornness and cultural assumptions that they don't even understand.
The simple prose of the book reflects the simplicity of the characters. The slow, meandering plot reflects the unsteady and aimless trajectory of the lives of Ketil and his family. Even the subject matter of their dialogue is banal, focused on immediate gains and longer-term fears.
Despite all of this, there is a certain sophistication of feeling that affects the reader. By seeing the characters so helpless and, frankly, stupid in their extremities, one feels something akin to pity, but a sort of pity wrapped in warmth. While I feel sorry for the characters, I don't grieve for them. And while I enjoy their well-meaning banter, I have to shake my head at their foolishness.
This pull between emotions, though, is not extreme in either direction, leaving me a bit ambivalent about the book as a whole. It's "a good book, well written," as the saying goes, but lacked the punch that I had hoped I would find. Not a bad way to spend time reading, and maybe my opinion will change as I have more time to reflect on it. But for now, I'm left, like the old Faroese, aimless and wandering, searching for some kind of resolution.
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