When I was planning my way through the literatures of Denmark and Iceland I did not remember the Faroe Islands. Now I have read a book from the Faroe Islands, the book, even, whatever that means, The Old Man and His Sons (1940) by Heðin Brú, translated from the Faroese by John F. West in 1970. The author’s name, his penname, since his birth name is boringly Danish, is “pronounced (approximately) as Hay-in Broo,” West tells me (p. 165).
The novel begins with a long chapter describing a whale hunt:
A school of blackfish 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. (Ch. 1, 7)
I just noticed we begin from the point of view of the whales, poor things. People from all over the island descend on the village to kill whales. Two of them are the old man Ketil and his idiot son Kálvur, eager to get their share of whale meat. Brú’s novel is recognizably set in what we now call the developing world. Most of the characters spend much of their time worrying about getting enough calories. They are not starving by any means, not even hungry, but they are on the edge. The plot of the book is driven by the otherwise sensible Ketil becoming, in a moment of temptation, too greedy for calories.
This first chapter is immensely interesting. The whale hunt is a collective operation. People share their boats, equipment, and labor, working as they think useful. A central authority gathers and distributes the harvested meat, not according to need but to effort and expense, before auctioning off the bulk of it. Ketil, a man of tradition, is bamboozled by the increasingly monetized economy. Ah, I make the book sound so dull. But that is the background, global economic modernism washing up in even this poor, distant place, confusing relations with neighbors and with the sons in the title.
Globalization can be played for comedy. Ketil wants to give a gift to a Danish doctor who helped out his son. He brings the doctor a gift:
Ketil was puzzled at their reaction. ‘Whatever’s the matter with them?’ he thought to himself. ‘You needn’t be afraid of it,’ he assured them. ‘This is a fresh whale kidney I’ve brought you, a really fine, big, fresh kidney. You needn’t be afraid of stomach troubles when you eat this one – I’ll show you.’… The doctor’s wife turned a little faint, and sat down on a chair. (Ch. 1, 23, ellipses mine)
I wonder if the novel is read mostly by readers who have vowed to read a novel from every country in the world. It’s quite a bit better than that, varied in incident and humorously ironic, but it is also a good choice for a literary world tour. For me, certainly, I started with knowing nothing, or almost nothing, about how people live or lived on the Faroe Islands, and soon knew how they fished, how they buried their dead, how they thought about all things profound and trivial. How these particular fictional people thought, at least.