Sunday, February 9, 2014

Book 142, Faroe Islands: "The Kingdom of the Earth" by William Heinesen

It's frankly kind of crazy that it's taken me a month to finish this book. It's really not that long - finished a third of it over breakfast today. But what with my university reading and travel and ADD and sudden Seasonal Affectivity Disorder (with attendant writers' block!) kicking in, I've had a bunch of trouble hunkering down with a book I can call my own.

But I suppose a preamble is in order, regarding why the Faroes should be regarded as a country, when it's under the Danish crown and most of us have never even heard of it before. Fact is, Wikipedia says it's a self-governing country, and it happens to have an established literary figure who's enjoying something of a comeback on Goodreads. Why not?


Initially, I was going to do one of Heinesen's better-known works - the National Library in Singapore has a copy of Laterna Magica, and the UEA Library has The Black Cauldron. But when I picked up The Kingdom of the Earth (the original title, seen above, translates to "Mother Pleiades"), it spoke in such mythic language of absolute wonderment that I decided, yes, this *must* be the book I read, because that is precisely what I'm trying to achieve in my fiction: a sense of wonder.

The story's set in a small town based on T├│rshavn, which is now actually the capital of the Faroes - but we're in the 1910s, in the years leading up to and during the Great War, so it really is a minor seaside outpost still, far from anywhere, where the young passionate people can't wait to run away to America or England or Denmark. We start with the birth of a young, unnamed boy, then we draw out to see the society he's growing up in (among all the brutish Nordic fishermen, there's an Italian pastry chef called Chamisso, oddly enough), and the passionate loves of his grandfather Jacob Sif and mother Antonia and everyone else, which ultimately come to nothing amidst misunderstanding and death by disease or being lost at sea...

As he's born out of wedlock (there's a ne'er-do-well called Eggersten, amongst others, who absconds to the States), he's brought up by Trine with the Eyes, his grandfather's former housekeeper. And she's a hardline pious Baptist or Millenist or something, who tells him that his dead mother isn't in the Kingdom of Heaven at the right-hand side of God's throne, but on a bench by the door of Heaven, watching as more worthy souls pass through before her.

And she tries to exorcise all the lovely visions of Egyptian gods and vaetter and make-believe creatures who populate his imagination (not least because one of his childhood friends, Rita, the corpse-bearer's daughter, was honest-to-goodness mad and had to be locked up in an asylum).

But in the end... but I shouldn't spoil the ending, should I? The truth is, the story doesn't quite end: the boy's still a boy by the last pages, and the fate of his imaginative world is uncertain. It feels like the first part of a novel, though it's in fact a novel in four parts, with all these divergent strands woven together. And it's "an ode to the imagination", according to (once again) Wikipedia, subtitled "A Story From the Beginning of Time". Set in the mortal world, but through a child's eyes, conveying the strangeness and magic of it all: fireworks, baby seals who are really mermaids, magic lanterns, glass eyeballs found washed up on the beach: look closer and you'll see a cross in the pupil, look still closer and you'll see naked Christ on the cross, holding a candelabrum, no, a reed.

Worth it, basically. I should've brought this into class on Wednesday, when Margaret Atwood (yes, THE Margaret Atwood) was giving us a masterclass on first chapters and we were all supposed to bring in some work of contemporary fiction we liked. I was patriotic and brought in Rawa, only to realise that it may have a beautiful first chapter, but its foreword is weak, and when you confess a book is by your friend and fellow countryman, no-one's necessarily going to believe it's that good.


View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Here's the opening:

Representative quote:
In the beginning heaven and earth and tangible things did not exist. There was only an immoderate yearning for warmth, nourishment, and sleep. Life was showered upon you in great torrents. Storms of tenderness filled your primeval darkness- wild floods of milk and cleansing water, uncasing fountains of good and pleasant sounds that had not yet become words. And by and by your eyes gained their first soul, and you perceived the shadowy outline of the great giver of life, the source of all things, the one who creates and upholds - the Everlasting One.

Yes, long before you knew the sun and the day, the light within you was lit - in the hour when you met the human eyes of the Everlasting One.

Next book: Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, from Norway.

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