Heaven and Hell is a ghost story. No, that’s not true. Heaven and Hell, by Icelandic novelist Jón Kalman Stefánsson, is merely narrated by ghosts, a tragic chorus of post-mortal souls belonging to an isolated fishing village, who bear witness to one boy’s tragic loss of his only friend.
Heaven and Hell is a quiet, internal novel about a few crucial days in the life of a lonely boy who loses his only friend. No, that’s not true. In Heaven and Hell, translated by Philip Roughton, the boy’s friend, Bárður, makes a fatal mistake while preoccupied with the words in a borrowed book, and the boy risks his own life to return the copy of Paradise Lost. These are only the events in the book.
Heaven and Hell, like the book that killed Bárður, is an epic poem revolving around the very central questions of existence: Why bother living, when it is so hard? Why should we who live be allowed to do so when so many others are dead? Is it even possible to be truly alive when we are truly alone?
When there is a choice between life and death, most choose life.
This much is certain. But almost nothing else is.
At first I had a hard time reading Heaven and Hell, because I thought it was a novel and it eschews almost all punctuation but the comma. But when I slowed down and read it gently like a poem, I stopped stumbling on its awkward sentences. Its words lapped gently as waves against a moored boat and I floated in their rhythm.
For days after Bárður dies, the boy teeters on the fulcrum between choosing life and giving up. Although he is never given a name, he is too representative of humanity for that, he does have a specific story, and there is too much pain and tragedy in it. The poor boy has lost everything before he can even be called a man and he had precious little to begin with. There is nothing of value in his life except words.
Letters from his mother sustained him when he was forced too early to make his own way in the world. Books helped him grow in his friendship with Bárður after her death. But can words sustain him when he is at last truly alone in the world?
Nothing is sweet to me without thee.
Just what is the strength of words? Jón Kalman Stefánsson is as interested in the power of words as Andri Snær Magnason is in the power of ideas.
But for all the questions of heaven and hell, and reflections of Paradise Lost, and eccentric punctuation, Heaven and Hell is also both profoundly and banally observant of real life. Pages are devoted to weather and fish, the two forces that have dominated life in Iceland for centuries. The spirits who relate the boy’s story are full of village gossip, examples to support the wisdom of their pronouncements about life. I had to resist the urge to transcribe the book on Twitter, they said so many wise things.
The boy’s character is so lovingly drawn. He makes such naïve and clumsy mistakes; even as he contemplates suicide, he feels nervousness over appearing in a fine house in rough clothes; his head goes blank when he is asked questions, then without thinking words rush out of him, but never the words he would choose to say. He asks inappropriate questions without knowing why they are inappropriate. Yet he shines with an inner light so pure that it makes me hopeful for myself, who can identify with his foolish errors all too easily.
The boy is a poet surrounded by fishermen. But in Iceland, even in a tiny fishing village, there are enough outsiders and misfits to feed a poet’s soul. These folk are drawn in outlines as spare as the landscape they live in, but their beauty shines through:
There’s just one other thing: you can expect to be sullied if you decide to live here with us; it’s my fault, but you have to be able to take it.
I’ve always liked ravens, said the boy…
The book ends in uncertainty, because as long as there is life there is uncertainty. But it is not the abrupt cheat of The Pets or 60s movies, it’s the uncertainty of life. You have an idea what might happen next, and hopes for the future after that. And like so much of life, the ending was bittersweet. Even though I was sitting on the bus when I finished it, I couldn’t stop from crying. But I’m not sure if I was crying because it was sad, or because it was over.