September 9, 2011 by markstani
Heoin Bru’s ‘The Old Man And His Sons’ is a gripping chronicle of the daily struggle for survival on the remote Faroe Islands. 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, by translation experts Telegram, the translation imprint of Saqi Books. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. You can read my review here.
Here’s an extended opening excerpt:
A school of blackfish is in Seyrvágs Fjord – two or three hundred small whales, swimming silently round in little groups, and longing to be back in the broad ocean again, for this is not the way they intended to go. Man has turned them aside from deep-sea voyaging, to pen them into these narrow waters.
In Seyrvágur everyone is on the move. Tooting cars, packed with men from the other side of the island, come nosing their way in through the village streets. Fully manned boats come thrashing through the fjord to set folk ashore. Every mountain track is alive with men hurrying down to Seyrvágur. And so people flock in from every direction, crowding the village. Every courtyard is packed. The crowd surges through the street, down to the quayside and into the boats – a vast, bustling throng of whale hunters.
Over here, you can see sturdy old men clad from head to foot in their thick homespun, their heavy whaling knives at their belts. These are the men who grew up at the oar, and trod out the mountain paths. For them, all journeys were long journeys and risky ones. They are all keyed up to meet any problem, and they take life very seriously. These men stride onwards with ponderous footsteps – strong men of few words.
And over here, you can see the young fellows dressed in their sweaters and overalls, with their cloth caps on their heads. They have simply come along as they were, because they were only going whale driving in Seyrvágs Fjord. These are the men who built the roads and the landing stages, who learned to deck in their fishing boats and install motors in them. They measure time and distance differently from the older folk. Journeys are shorter for them, and time is not such a serious matter. These men are lighter-footed, lighter-hearted, and more lively-spirited than the older people.
In Seyrvágur village every door is flung wide open, and friendly, smiling villagers stand on their stairways inviting everyone inside. ‘Don’t stand out there, now, come along in and have a bite to eat!’ they say. And the limited house-room is soon full, though there is still plenty of room in their friendly hearts.
That morning, when the alarm was given summoning everyone to the whale drive, Ketil and his son Kálvur were mowing their hay in the meadow near the village. The instant they heard the shouting, they threw down their scythes and hurried home. Taxis were already starting up, and the motorboats were throbbing away at the quayside. But Ketil thought they ought to walk. ‘We don’t save up our money to go joy-riding,’ he said. Kálvur didn’t care to walk over the mountains, but Ketil tried to talk him around into it. ‘It’s stupid, wanting to spend your money on taxis.’ He measured down his leg with his hand, and then stretched his hands out sideways. ‘If we keep the money and buy whale meat with it,’ he said, ‘we’d get a piece as big as that!’ This convinced Kálvur, and he agreed to walk.
They fully equipped themselves. They took along a whalehook, a harpoon, a length of rope, a casting-stone and a whalespear, and set off.
‘Look how fast the taxis are driving, Father,’ said Kálvur enviously, trudging along, bent under his burden.
‘Just think of that big piece of meat, my lad, and don’t grumble. We’ll get to Seyrvágur soon enough. Dogged does it. Now, take it easy up the hill as far as the pass. There’s no hurry. No need to go twenty to the dozen on the way to a Seyrvágur whale drive.’
Kálvur stubbed his toes on a stone. ‘Wouldn’t it be better to go along the road, Father?’ he asked.
But Ketil did not care to do that. ‘The old fell-track has been good enough all my lifetime, so it’ll be good enough today.’
Kálvur did not reply, and they trudged determinedly onwards. Ketil panted, and moaned, ‘God grant we make a whale-killing, that’s all I pray! Now I can’t move another inch – not a step – I’m swimming in sweat! But if only we get them ashore! Ah, well, this’ll be my last whale hunt, I think.’
And the old man struggled on, moaning as he clambered over the fellside, but determined to win through.
They reached Seyrvágur and walked down to the quay, where a boat was just ready to cast off. ‘Can we come along with you?’ asked the old man.
‘Of course, come aboard.’
So they slung their gear into the boat and began to lend a hand.
Just as they stepped into the boat, there was a flurry of activity and a babble of voices back in the village. An excited crowd came down to the boat-houses, led by one of the hunt foremen, a handsome, broad-shouldered fellow from Seyrvágur. In one hand he held a harpoon, and in the other a leg of dried mutton. He walked with long, swift strides – a man of much responsibility, now entering on his task. Now he had to show what he was capable of, both as a hunt foreman and as a Seyrvágur man. So he leapt into his boat and hurriedly pushed off. ‘Off we go, then!’ he called out.
The mass of boats moved forward. Motors throbbed, oarlocks creaked, and sails swelled to the breeze. And the whole fleet set out to the hunt.
Ketil and Kálvur were aboard a medium-sized row-boat called The Troll. The old man was quite out of breath after the walk, and asked the crew to excuse him from rowing. They gladly agreed. Then he sat in the stern, and spat out over the water towards the next boat. He added, ‘You’d better put me ashore when we come to Tindhólmur. I’m not very much use in a whale hunt any more. But if a whale comes my way on the shore, I expect I should be able to deal with it.’
‘Yes, we’ll put you ashore there,’ said the men. One of them asked him for a chew of tobacco.
‘Of course, of course,’ he replied, rummaging in his waistcoat pocket. ‘On a whale hunt, the tobacco always goes round, that goes without saying.’
The men were discussing the prospects of making a kill. Kálvur simply sat listening to what was said, but he did not join in. If he was spoken to, he would mumble a reply, hang his head, and blush. He very much wanted to know just where the whales were, but he did not dare to ask, for fear of looking foolish. For perhaps it was a thing everyone ought to know in advance, or perhaps it was silly to ask where they were, as if they weren’t in the same place every time. No, it was better to be careful and say nothing in front of strangers, for if he asked anything silly, they might make fun of him. He could just imagine how they would answer him.
‘The whales are in Seyrvágs Fjord,’ they would say.
‘I know that, but whereabouts in Seyrvágs Fjord?’
‘In the water!’ And then they would all have a good old laugh at him. Or someone might answer, ‘Oh, no, they’re up in the village. The biggest one’s taking it easy in an armchair by the boathouses near Ólavsstova!’
And Kálvur was horrified at the idea that he, a stranger, might be so treated. ‘I would rather they had not let me in their boat at all. Then I might have joined up with someone better than this rascally crowd,’ he thought.
The whales were swimming quietly around, some way off Selvík, when the boats approached them. The District Sheriff now sailed out to these people he was commanding for the day, then turned about, and all the boats drew up in a crescent to begin the drive.
The whales would lie quiet for a time, side by side, with their black heads sticking straight up out of the water. Then they would sink for a bit, come up to blow, and sink once again. It was like this the whole time. Sometimes they would shake themselves a little, and rub one against another. Then their skins would squeak together, and the old men would turn their heads, striving to catch the promising sound from this great harvest that had come to them from the ever bountiful sea.
Slowly, the hunters pulled up toward the whales. In every man’s hand was a casting-stone – a simple implement consisting of a stone three or four inches across, firmly secured to a length of fishing-line. As soon as they were near enough, the hunters splashed the water vigorously. The whales swerved round, threw up their tail fins and dived. The boats paused. No one knew exactly where the whales would reappear. But then they came in sight again, right out toward Múli headland, still moving. The boats were left far behind, as the whales carried on with the same speed right toward the little bay at Tindhólmur, so fast that no one could keep up with them. When the whales realised that land was ahead of them, they veered slowly around again. But now the boats were ahead of them, barring their way. So they turned and swam right along past the low cliff of the island. The people on the shore stood gazing at them. It was magnificent to see how splendidly the whales came streaking forward, the whole school tight together, with a single course and a single velocity.
Now their heads would appear, and you would hear the whales blowing; their dorsal fins would cleave the surface of the water, and you would see the full length of their bodies.
Then, with a bubbling noise, the water would surge around their heads, and they would be lost to sight, all except the light blue streaks left by their side fins. So sure was their course that it seemed as though they had forgotten the narrow space into which they were confined, and unhindered were once again shaping their course through the vastness of the ocean. But now they came to the rocks by the coast, so they would have to turn westward, past the skerries. But here, too, there were boats, and the whales turned around and went back once again.
Now one boat went forward to the whale flock, to begin the kill. A man stood up in it, making his way to the prow. He raised his whalespear, and plunged it down into the water.
The hindmost whale leapt forward, wounded, and, trailing a thick stream of blood, pressed sharply into the back of the flock. This made the other whales panic, and they rushed in toward the land. But around the coast of Tindhólmur there is no sand onto which the whales can be beached. There are rocks by the shore, and the whales turned back to sea again. So all the boats now came forward, and their crews made free with their spears.
Meanwhile, Ketil was sitting on a mound looking on. He was in a high state of excitement – his eyes were bulging and he was waving his arms about. Every time the whales moved toward the bay, he took heart. ‘Yes, yes, the Lord is going to be bountiful to us! Strike, now, strike! Where’s The Troll? Why aren’t they coming forward to help the kill, when it’s all going so well?’ Just at this moment, the first blow was struck. ‘Get at them now! Every man with his spear!’ he shouted, waving his arms excitedly and stamping his feet. When he saw the blood stream out, he called out, ‘Well done, well done! Those fellows are nearly all from Vestmannahavn,’ he added. ‘They should always send in the Vestmannahavn men first, because they know how to handle their spears better than anyone else.’ And he became so excited that he threw himself down on the sward and started pulling up bits of turf. But if the whales should turn toward the sea for a moment, he would start to lose courage, and pray every good power for help, lest the whales should slip away back to sea and this rich harvest of meat be lost.
The whales swam around in ever-diminishing circles among the boats, while more and more of them were speared and trailed thick streams of blood behind them. By degrees, the water reddened, and the sand and mud were stirred up from the sea bed, so that before long the whales had lost all sense of direction, and were swimming aimlessly hither and thither, each one his own way. The hunters were soaked in sweat, but still they struck at the whales. The more blood there was in the sea, the more frantically they worked, striking as far as they could reach with their spears, and when a whale came close to the boat, they would give it a deep stab before pulling out the spear again. A few whales were so badly wounded that they quickly died, but most of them fought hard for life. They would be speared and would dive, surface, and be speared again, and between one boat and another, would get fearfully cut up. There were whales whose strength gradually ebbed away until they sank without a struggle. Other whales struggled forward, dragging their intestines behind them, their bodies waterlogged, swimming deep and snorting painfully, blood welling out of their numerous stab wounds. When a whale of this sort approached, the hunters would be filled with pity. ‘Better finish this one off,’ they would say, and they would gather around it to shorten its agony.
The people on the shore had now fallen silent, for though they rejoiced in the hunt, they were a little abashed at the slaughter, sobered to see the whales so mutilated and dying – those same whales that a little before had been swimming briskly and beautifully, with all the gleam and pride of the mighty ocean upon them. Yet other whales thrashed frantically among the boats, shooting half out of the water and charging forward regardless of obstacles, whipping up a foamy wake as they passed. These were the wild ones, a danger alike to boat and to man.
As the killing progressed, only a few of these whales continued to thrash about. Every time they approached a boat, they would be speared and thrust under the water. But suddenly, a whale reared right up by the gunwales of The Troll, and fell, dead, across her stern. All the crew leaped out and made their way to other boats. Kálvur, however, was too slow, and was dragged down with the boat.
This was too much for the people on the shore. The women buried their faces and wept, while the men, trying to take the incident with composure, could only stand speechless and stare.
Ketil, just at that moment, was sitting and scolding a young man who was trying to cut the spine of a stranded whale, but was cutting too low down, and meeting with little success.
This irritated the old man. He was not worried about his son, who would find some way of freeing himself and coming up again after he had struck bottom. ‘What a butter-fingers you are!’ he said to the man who was cutting the spine. ‘You carry a knife, and you can’t even cut a whale. You’re hacking at it like a booby.’ Ketil had become so excited by the hunt, that he couldn’t bear to see a stranded whale incompetently killed. He crawled down through the grass and out between the rocks on the shore. ‘Get away from that whale, you bungler, and let me cut it,’ he said. But the old man was over-eager, and not quite dextrous enough, for his knife slipped from his grasp, and fell against a rock. ‘Oh, hell and damnation, now I’m ruining my knife,’ he said.
‘All the same, don’t swear about it,’ said a lay preacher who was standing nearby.
‘Don’t swear about it!’ repeated Ketil, staring back at him. ‘I ought to swear a good deal more than that. What else could any proper whale hunter do when he can hardly heave himself about? Sit still quietly, I suppose, while these butter-fingered boobies slash God’s gifts in pieces? And now I’ve ruined my knife as well – the edge is bent right over.’ But all the same, he finished off the whale.