Review: The Old Man And His Sons

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May 8, 2011 by markstani


Heoin Bru’s ‘The Old Man And His Sons’ is a beautiful, gripping chronicle of the daily struggle for survival on the Faroe Islands, a huddle of storm-ravaged specks of rock in the north Atlantic.

First published in Faroese in 1940, the book was translated into English by New York publishers Eriksson in 1970, and has been unearthed and re-published this year, to their tremendous credit, by translation experts Telegram.

Like the book itself, it’s a venture worthy of great praise. This is a stunning and strangely comforting book, best read tucked up warm while the wind howls outside and a pot of whale meat blubbers away on the stove downstairs (okay, maybe not the last bit).

It tells of the growing inter-generational conflicts between the elderly Ketil and his wife, and their sons and daughters-in-law – who have “been to Torshavn, and picked up daft notions” – and who resist the traditional fishing, scavenging and seabird-catching slog of their forebears.

“I don’t know how the world’s got this way,” bemoans Ketil’s wife as she prepares to leave her home village for the first time in forty years to attend a funeral. “The older folk scraped and struggled every day, and tried to get good value out of every penny, and there was nothing to spare. You were reckoned to have done well if you gave every man his due. But now! The young folk spend their working days the whole year round in idle amusement. But they seem to get by somehow.”

The central plot strand of the novel pursues Ketil’s struggle to repay a hefty debt accrued after the community’s annual whale kill, which is regaled in all its bloody, frothy glory in the opening chapter.

Ketil’s stubborn pride does not permit debt, so, with the help of his last remaining home-bound son Kalv – who has preoccupations of his own with the daughter of the local con-man and sometime suicidal preacher – he sets out on a series of increasingly risky escapades to bring in the money before the District Sheriff seeks to settle his books.

But it is the struggle – Faroese style – between change and tradition which forms the books’ main narrative. When a storm threatens to blow the turf roof off Ketil’s home, the old men of the village spend the whole night lying across it to prevent it being ripped away by the squalls.

His sons are annoyed. “Are you running around after your roof again? Put corrugated iron on your roof and then we’ll all get a bit of peace at night! Fancy having a damn roof that you have to sit and hold onto, every time there’s a real use for it!”

But the old men are unrepentant: ‘”For all that, a turf roof’s the best roof,” was the first thing they said when they had got warm again and recovered their powers of speech.’

This is a beautiful book which recalls the savage glory of a simple life by now (we presume) long extinct. It’s enough to send you out for a bracing cliff-top walk, to gaze at the sky-line and wonder how many other treasures those rugged north Atlantic rocks might still hold.

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