Faroe Islands: “The Old Man and His Sons” by Heðin Brú #TTWIB

7456138Brú, Heðin. The Old Man and His Sons (trans. John F. West). Telegram Books, 2013. Kindle edition. (Original work published 1940, English translation 1970)

The Faroe Islands, situated in the North Atlantic halfway between Scotland and Iceland, still have a bit of the exotic about them. They are an archipelago of 18 volcanic islands with only narrow channels and fjords between them and stormy inlets to access them. From glacial activity, the islands often have steep cliffs, where abundant sea birds nest; the ground perched above these cliffs is covered by green turf on which sheep may graze. But the nearness of the sea at every point on these islands dominates Faroese life. We can get a beautiful picture of this fact from Heðin Brú’s tale of the old fisherman Ketil, his youngest son Kálvur, and his other sons. I was delighted to discover this book, so highly regarded by the Faroese themselves, in The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by M. A. Orthofer, who called it “the best introduction to the Faroes.” The Faroese voted The Old Man and His Sons the best book of the 20th century. I will tell a bit of the story of Ketil and his sons, and then return to discuss further the Faroe Islands themselves and their premier author, Heðin Brú.

Ketil and his wife live outside the village of Sørvágur on the island of Vágar, the westernmost island except for tiny, picturesque Mykines. The old couple had 11 children, all of whom had married and left home, but for Kálvur, the youngest, who was a bit of an awkward and apprehensive lad. But being the only son left at home, he reluctantly followed his father and helped as best he could when there was work to be done. As the story opened, Ketil and Kálvur were mowing hay, when the alarm signaling a whale sighting in the fjord led the villagers to drop what they were doing and head to the sea. Ketil and his son “fully equipped themselves. They took along a whale-hook, a harpoon, a length of rope, a casting-stone and a whalespear, and set off.” Although taxis were loading to drive people over the mountains down to the shore, and his son wished to hire one, the old man preferred to walk over the rough terrain directly and save the money.  So they trudged along, sweating and straining with their gear, and arrived as the pod of pilot whales was being driven into the fjord. They found a boat that would take them on and joined the hunt. It was a gruesome (and now highly controversial) business, this way of eking out a living from the sea and providing food that might keep starvation at bay.  It came with an ambivalence that the villagers, even after many seasons of whale hunts, were still quite capable of feeling.

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.

As they surveyed the scene, a whale breached and landed across the boat carrying Ketil and his son. All jumped out in time except Kálvur who went under with the boat but came out all right, with only an injured arm and his own acute embarrassment.

Each man who participated in the hunt received a whale ticket which entitled him to participate in the auction of the whale meat. Ketil met one of his friends, old Lias Berint, who gave him some liquor to drink. With his judgment clouded and his own spirits too high, Ketil bid for and won 36 hundredweight of whale meat–3600 pounds!  Ketil’s son looked on in disbelief knowing that the cost of this much meat was much more than his poor parents could afford.  The bill for this summer escapade would come due the following March to the District Sheriff, who would sell off the household goods of unfortunate debtors who failed to pay up. Ketil’s wife was only too aware of this possible fate, which she had seen befall some of her neighbors in years past.

The rest of the story is driven by Ketil’s attempts, along with his wife, to raise the money through strenuous work. Ketil and his son went out fishing numerous times, hoping to make a profit, but often something or someone foiled their efforts.  His older sons refused to help more often than not, because they had their own problems or because of the feud between Ketil’s wife and her daughters-in-law. Their neighbor Klávus, who begged and stole food, rather than work for it, was no help either; what’s more, Kálvur kept on giving away meat and fish to Klávus’s daughter, whom he was courting (he was not at all shy with her!).  Ketil and his wife bought great loads of wool at the market and spun it into yarn, which Ketil’s wife knitted into sweaters. Although these were sold for a good price, none of these efforts yielded enough to make up for the debt they owed. Ketil rejected his wife’s urging to sell off some of the whale meat, since he feared this would be the last meat he could get for them.  Sadly and reluctantly, they sold their only cow to make their payment; the cow had just given birth to a calf but it would be two years at least before she would be grown enough to give the old couple milk. On that forlorn and abrupt note, the story ends.

The main theme of The Old Man and His Sons is the generational divide. It’s as if the old men are still living in the saga days, doing things the way they had been done for centuries, whereas the sons had joined the modern age in both their thinking and their practice. The old men expected backbreaking work and preferred walking to riding in cars, rowing to steering a motorboat, and traditional sources of income to business in the larger towns. After fishing, Ketil and Lias, who were spending the night at the shore guarding their catch until daybreak, settled down to warm themselves and chat:

While the water was heating up, they took off their shoes, hung their stockings up to dry, and toasted their feet on the hearthstones. Then they leaned right back against the wall of the shelter, chuckled to one another, and lit up their pipes.”The sea–it’s a real blessing to us, the way it gives us catch after catch. One day you’ve not got a mouthful left, the next day your storehouse is overflowing.” They talked on in this fashion. …

Then Lias Berint said, “Many’s the time we’ve felt the pinch, but taking it all around, would you and I want to change places with anyone else?”

“No,” said Ketil, “it’s good as it is. I’m an old man now, with one foot in the grave, but this I can say, we’ve never gone short of food in our house, God be praised, though it’s often looked pretty bleak, I must admit.”

The older generation preferred their plain houses with turf roofs, while the younger folks built fancier, more modern homes closer to town. One time when a squall came up, Ketil’s turf roof started to come off in pieces. He ran to get his middlemost son to help hold it down, but he refused, saying they should just replace it with corrugated iron and save all the bother. Instead, the hardy old men assembled and literally laid their bodies across the turf to keep the roof from peeling away in the wind. It was just expected that they would help each other in this way.

It’s not that Ketil’s sons would never help out: they went with him on an expedition to net fish and helped with the cleaning and gutting of the large catch, but they were appalled when the old folks were doing this messy work directly on the dirt floor of their main room!  They cleared out the mess and set to work on a plastic tarpaulin with modern tools. Another incident showed that Ketil’s eldest son still looked out for his father. After Ketil’s buddy Lias died accidentally, nasty rumors were spread by one man in the village that Ketil might have done him harm for personal gain. This eldest son gave the rumormonger a thrashing in the street, along with a warning never to slander his father again.

Some of the fishing episodes reminded me of Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s experiences with the fishermen of Greenland (described in his memoir An African in Greenland).  Both Greenland and the Faroe Islands are part of the Kingdom of Denmark, as self-governing regions.  It has been 76 years since The Old Man and His Sons was published and a lot has changed for the Faroes.  Both Faroese and Danish are taught in the schools, and the currency is the Faroese króna tied to the Danish currency.  Although Denmark joined the European Union, the Faroe Islands remained outside of the EU and negotiated separate fishing rights and a trade agreement.  Because of worldwide protest led by environmental groups such as Greenpeace, who continue to call for a ban on whale hunting, the hunting of pilot whales has been regulated to some extent. The meat cannot be sold but must be shared out in the community according to a complicated system based on local customs and priority.  This acknowledges the needs of these small communities who may not have enough to eat otherwise.  The fishing industry, however, is still the primary economic engine of the Faroese economy, although they receive substantial subsidies from Denmark.

I don’t want to leave the subject of these islands without showing their beauty. Here is a view toward the fjord of Sørvágur, where the novel was set.

 

 

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Topographic map of the Faroe Islands. Oona Risanen (Mysid)

Sørvágur is not far from the Faroe Islands’ only airport.  All the other islands can be reached by ferry, car, or helicopter. A tunnel has been built connecting Vágar with the big island of Streymoy, which has the capital city of Tórshavn, another one connects Eysturoy and Borðoy, and more tunnels are in the works. About 48,000 people live on all the islands, with double that number of sheep!

Bradt Faroe IslandsI have learned a lot about the Faroe Islands (including that fact about the sheep) from the latest (4th) edition of the Bradt guide, and I highly recommend it for the quality of James Proctor’s writing and the depth of information and history it offers. Plus it has this beautiful cover with two stunning gannets in their splendor. Birding is one of the chief attractions of the Faroes, and seabirds of many kinds–puffins, kittiwakes, fulmars, storm petrels, and more–can be found on cliffs and slopes of several of the islands. As the author says, coming across a large group of them at once is an experience both exhilarating to the spirit and pungent to the nose!

The bright colors in which most buildings are painted make even a small seaside village a photographer’s delight. For me the timber churches with their turf roofs are among the most beautiful. Here is the Funningur Church on the island of Eysturoy.

 

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Funningur Church, Eysturoy, one of 10 remaing old wooden church on the islands. Photo: Vincent van Zeijst.

Heðin Brú is the pen name of Hans Jacob Jacobsen, who was born in Skálavík (Sandoy) in 1901 and died in 1987 in the capital city of Tórshavn. Besides writing The Old Man and His Sons (Feðgar á ferð), along with other novels and many short stories, he was also a prolific translator, with Faroese translations of Hamlet, The Tempest, The Brothers Karamazov, Wuthering Heights, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and other works, to his credit.  In 1988, a commemorative stamp was issued in his honor.

Faroese Writers: Heðin Brú. Stamp FR 165 of the Faroe Islands. Engraving: Czesław Słania. Date of issue: 6 June 1988.

This review was inspired by our “island adventure” in June for our Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge. Tanya of Mom’s Small Victories invited us to pick a book set on an island, and she compiled this amazing list of 35 Best Books Set on an Island.  You will find some new and classic island novels (most set in warmer climates!)–perfect for planning your own island reading adventure.

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“Independent People” by Halldór Laxness: First Impressions for #ReadNobels #TTWIB April Challenge

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I have really enjoyed this month’s Travel the World in Books (#TTWIB) challenge, organized by Aloi of Guiltless Reading, who invited us to read one book by a Nobel prize-winning author. Her announcement post for April’s combined challenge has the linkups of those who participated, along with numerous helpful links for learning more about the Nobel Prize in Literature and the diverse array of authors it has recognized.  Becoming better acquainted with these authors–both those we have read already and those still awaiting our exploration–was the best part of the challenge for me, since I now have a better conception of how the prize has grown and changed over time, especially in its expansion beyond Europe to Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Australia.

Independent People coverI have been reading Independent People, the most important book by Iceland’s 1955 Nobelist, Halldór Laxness. It was published (as Sjálfstætt fólk) in 1934/35. James Anderson Thompson is the translator of this beautiful paperback in English, which also includes an Introduction by Brad Leithauser. I recall reading Leithauser’s ecstatic praise of this novel in The New York Review of Books in 1995, and the Introduction reprints his article. It was titled “A Small Country’s Great Book” and began with the memorable sentence:

There are good books and there are great books and there may be a book that is something still more: it is the book of your life.

For Leithauser this was it, and he goes on to explain why this book about a struggling Icelandic sheep farmer was so fascinating and touched him so profoundly.

Bjartur of Summerhouses is a man who could probably have held his own with the protagonists of the legendary Icelandic sagas.  He appears to be as mean and stubborn as Egill Skallagrímsson, the 10th-century poet and anti-hero of Egil’s Saga. Bjartur himself composes rhymes and fancies himself a bit of a latter-day bard. Above all, he is defiant. He verbally mocks and ignores the ancient custom of placing a stone on the hill known as Gunnucairn, or Gunnvor’s cairn, the burial mound of a murderous old woman who was executed long ago in the area. Feared down the centuries, Gunnvor’s curses have seemed to haunt one sheep holding in particular, familiarly called Winterhouses. But Bjartur will have none of it, and hurls insults at Gunnvor’s memory, as he passes the cairn. After 18 years of working under the region’s Bailiff, farming for hire, he has saved enough money to buy the land called Winterhouses, and, dismissing the past, he decides to call it Summerhouses–as if merely renaming the place will turn around its long history of ill luck.

He and his friends talk and think of nothing but sheep and how to keep their flocks healthy, because year in, year out, the health and well-being of their sheep mean the difference between economic independence and falling back into near-slavery or starvation. As Bjartur surveys his new holding with its small croft-house, he voices his thoughts to his only companion, his rather forlorn dog, Titla:

“Size isn’t everything by any means,” he said aloud to the dog, as if suspecting her of entertaining high ideas. “Take my word for it, freedom is of more account than the height of a roof beam. I ought to know; mine cost me eighteen years’ slavery. The man who lives on his own land is an independent man. He is his own master. If I can keep my sheep alive through the winter and can pay what has been stipulated from year to year–then I pay what has been stipulated; and I have kept my sheep alive. No, it is freedom that we are all after, Titla. He who pays his way is a king. He who keeps his sheep alive through the winter lives in a palace.” (p. 13)

By and by, this independent man decides he needs a wife and chooses Rosa, the youngest daughter of a neighboring farmer. She had been working for the Bailiff of Myri and his wife, who was a poet and graduate of an agricultural college.  At Bjartur and Rosa’s wedding, the Bailiff’s wife romanticizes the simple joys of the peasants’ life “close to the land” in a long-winded speech, presumably in their honor. Laxness’ satire here is biting, because it is already apparent to the reader that life on these farms is often brutal and perilous, and not a country idyll.

Rosa has been living with the well-to-do Bailiff’s family for a while, albeit as their servant, and so the change to Bjartur’s rustic croft-house depresses her. It is low and dark, with a mud floor and only a small window in one of its turf walls. On their way to see it, Bjartur flatly refused her tearful entreaties to let her stop and leave a stone on Gunnvor’s cairn to ward off evil luck; this rueful beginning to their married life leaves Rosa both angry and miserable. Homesickness, poor food (mostly dried catfish), and Bjartur’s dismissal of her wishes at every turn, begin to weaken her in body and spirit.  When she complains and begs for a cow to provide some milk and cheese, he says no, but promises to make her a vegetable garden someday, but only after he has paid off some of his land’s debt. She wonders, what if she has a baby?–surely she can have meat and milk then? Nonsense, he says.  “She stared at him with anguish-stricken eyes and everything personal seemed suddenly to have been wiped out of her face.” (p. 40) It’s certainly painful to read about her suffering, and ironic that he thinks obsessively about securing his independence while he makes his wife a slave.

There’s a lot more to Bjartur’s story. His daughter, Ásta Sóllilja, will challenge Bjartur with her own implacable will.  This will be the pivotal relationship in his life, and I will write more about them when I get to the end! Thanks again to Guiltless Reading for a great #ReadNobels challenge!

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#ReadNobels for Travel the World in Books in April @ Guiltless Reading

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My esteemed co-host, Aloi of Guiltless Reading, is hosting our Travel the World in Books (#TTWIB) event for April, combining this ongoing challenge–to read our way around the world with diverse books–with her own fabulous challenge to read books by Nobel prize-winning authors. Her announcement post for April’s combined challenge has all the details, including numerous helpful links to reviews and resources for finding books to choose from. The main thing is to pick ONE BOOK for April, something by an author who garnered the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Independent People coverI will be reading Independent People, the most important book by Iceland’s 1955 Nobelist, Halldór Laxness. James Anderson Thompson is the translator of this beautiful paperback in English. That’s the lovely thing about the Nobel prize–it tends to motivate skilled translators to take up that author’s works and make them available to more readers worldwide. As another example, Emma of Words and Peace, herself a translator, reviewed 2014 Nobelist Patrick Modiano’s So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood (in English translation) last year for our October #TTWIB Readathon.  As you might guess from the cover, Independent People takes place on a sheep farm in Iceland. It was published (as Sjálfstætt fólk) in 1934/35 and Halldór Laxness remains the most important writer of modern Iceland. This book, the story of Bjartur of Summerhouse’s struggle to keep his sheep farm solvent and retain his independence, is perhaps closest in spirit to the legendary Icelandic sagas that are the jewel of Iceland’s literature. Laxness echoes this literary heritage brilliantly, yet he crafts an astute 20th-century novel around this stubborn, no-nonsense character and his daughter, Ásta Sóllilja.

I’m looking forward to answering the rest of Guiltless Reader’s fun and stimulating questions slated to chart each week’s progress and cheer on our exploration of Nobel writers. I’m also thrilled to be reading one of the hallmark writers of the Northern Lights countries, and one of the key books that motivated my starting this reading project in the first place.

 

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Travel the World in Books is Reading “An African in Greenland”

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Our March 2016 Readalong selection is An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie.  I raved about this amazing travel memoir in November 2014 (see my review). Now I have the chance to share it with friends reading both fiction and nonfiction from many continents in the Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge.

For more information about the Readalong and discussion opportunities, visit the main announcement at The Fictional 100.  If you are interested, stop by one of our Twitter chats #TTWIB and/or visit our Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge group at Goodreads.

 

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An Estonian Tragedy–“Purge” by Sofi Oksanen

Purge cover GoodreadsPurge, a novel by Sofi Oksanen (Trans. from the Finnish by Lola Rogers). New York: Black Cat, Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2010. (Original work Puhdistus published 2008)

Purge depicts the bitter realities of Estonian life during the post-war Russian occupation and Stalinist purge, through the tragedy of one family. The setting is Läänemaa, a western county of Estonia, bordering the Baltic Sea. Chapters shift primarily between 1992 and the immediate post-war years, with a few chapters set before and during the war to show the early lives of two sisters, Aliide and Ingel.

Although we first meet Aliide as an older woman living alone in 1992, the initial chapter is a single page from the diary of Hans Pekk, dated 1949, with the recurring title “Free Estonia!”  He complains of his isolation, but is irritated by Aliide:

“Liide’s always trying to get closer to me. Why won’t she leave me alone? She smells like onions.

What’s keeping the English?  And what about America? Everything’s balanced on a knife edge–nothing is certain.

Where are my girls Linda and Ingel? The misery is more than I can bear.”

The significance of his words only becomes clear as the story unfolds in the interplay of present events and family history. Each chapter quotes a symbolically resonant sentence from that chapter; the first one in 1992 is called “The Fly Always Wins” and grimly reveals Aliide’s state of mind as she obsessively tries to rid her kitchen of flies and their eggs. The imagery of flies and being like a fly on the wall will recur throughout the book. She becomes aware that a teenage girl is outside, lying in a disheveled state under a tree in Aliide’s yard. Despite her poor condition, she is alive and Aliide brings her inside, begins to care for her, and questions her reason for being there. The girl, named Zara, is Russian, but able to speak accented Estonian.  She has made the trip from Tallinn, looking for her grandmother’s family, and possesses one treasure, a picture of her grandmother and her great-aunt together as young girls. Aliide recognizes herself and her sister Ingel but, to the girl, she denies having a sister.  Zara also lies to Aliide about her past, but voices her very real terror that her abusive “husband” will be coming to look for her and she must hide from him.

The separate histories of Aliide and Zara are disclosed gradually in flashbacks. Aliide could not recall a time when she did not feel bested and loved less than her prettier, sweeter, more capable sister Ingel. Ingel cooked and preserved jam better and was altogether more satisfying a housekeeper and helper to their parents. When handsome peasant farmer Hans Pekk came to their house, Aliide fell in love with him on sight, but he, of course, fell in love with Ingel, and they were married–on a day that seemed to twist the knife in Aliide’s heart. The three of them lived together in the family home, even after their parents were gone, and the affectionate married couple had a baby daughter, Linda, compounding Aliide’s jealous resentment.  War separated them from Hans but the disaster didn’t end after the war. As in other Eastern European countries, German occupation was followed by Soviet occupation, and the brutalities continued. Hans was a freedom fighter (“Free Estonia”), but he was hunted by the Soviet police and began a period of hiding in their house in a closet concealed behind a cabinet–a horrible, lonely existence.  Aliide and Ingel were interrogated and tortured, and little Linda was also abused.  In her mind, Aliide became dissociated from her body, as if she herself were no longer there, except as a fly buzzing in the room.  After unspeakable degradations, Aliide continued to maintain that Hans had died in 1945, and she was eventually returned to their house. Ingel and Linda disappeared. We surmise they have been deported to Siberia. In her own mind, Aliide now had Hans to herself–he was certainly in her power, since she could reveal him at any time. What would become of them both?  Fueled by terror, Aliide sought relative safety in a marriage with a Communist party official, Martin Truu, and she became an occasional informant.  She still called herself Aliide Truu in 1992.

Zara, we learn from flashbacks, has been a victim of sex-trafficking in Vladivostok. Her captors were ex-KGB agents seeking to make money after the fall of the Soviet system.  She persuaded them to make a trip to Tallinn to find more lucrative clientele, and from there she escaped to find her grandmother’s home in Läänemaa. But her pursuers are not far behind, and when they catch up with her, arriving at the house, the only person standing between her and a return to her former life of sexual slavery is Aliide.  What will Aliide decide to do?

The last section of the book includes KGB reports that shed some light on the events in the book, but still leave many questions unanswered.

Purge was the No. 1 bestseller in Finland when it appeared, and it has been translated into 38 languages. It has garnered numerous literary prizes, most notably the Finlandia Prize, the Nordic Council Literary Prize, and the 2010 FNAC prize in France, where it marked the first time that this prestigious award went to a foreign author.  With her unflinching look at the ongoing human cost of the Soviet occupation, Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen is now a major young literary figure in Europe. Her latest book is called When the Doves Disappeared, which I first discovered after reading a review of it at The Book Binder’s Daughter.  I decided to review Oksanen’s earlier novel first, but hope to return with a review of this important new novel as well.

Purge captures the corrosive effects of jealousy with stark insight. It shows the devastating effects of torture, prolonged fear of reprisal, and sexual brutality, in explicit detail. With this warning to potential readers, I recognize the author’s distinctive achievement and recommend it to anyone wishing to gain a deeper understanding of this human tragedy, past and present.

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“Babette’s Feast”: the Story and the Film

Babette's Feast cover“Babette’s Feast” is a short story by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), the Danish author whose real life experiences managing a farm in British East Africa (colonial Kenya) led her to write Out of Africa (1937).  Anyone who has read that book, or seen the 1985 film of it, knows that, at the end of her time in Africa, she returned to her native Denmark where she would live out her days crafting her famous memoir as well as an impressive host of short stories. “Babette’s Feast” first appeared in a magazine, the Ladies’ Homes Journal, in 1950, and it was again published in 1958 in a story collection called Anecdotes of Destiny. Notably, Dinesen wrote in English and then translated her own works into Danish (so you won’t see any translator credited).

As a teller of tales, Dinesen did not restrict herself to any brief time interval. She could easily follow her characters across decades of their lives, to arrive at the moment that crystallized their destiny. “Babette’s Feast” is certainly such a tale, recounting the story of two sisters, Martine and Philippa, from girlhood to old age, and preparing these characters for one remarkable feast bestowed on them and their friends by their mysterious French housekeeper and cook, Babette Hersant.

Martine and Philippa lived with their father, the Dean of a small lay community of Pietists (strict Lutherans following an austere lifestyle much like the Puritans). Devoted to their father and faithful to their way of life, the young women were also radiantly beautiful and each attracted a suitor even in their remote surroundings. Dinesen devoted a section to each girl’s early love story. “Martine’s Lover” tells how a young lieutenant, Lorens Loewenhielm, was sent by his commanding officer to this very village to visit his aunt; he wanted the wild young man to spend some time away from too much high living and settle himself down a bit.  Lorens met Martine in church and, by and by, found himself frequently at the Dean’s table for dinner. Rather than pressing his suit to marry this girl who moved his heart, he became more and more intimidated, more and more uncertain of his resolve to reform, and left one day to resume his life in the army and the glittering court society. “Philippa’s Lover” was quite different; Achille Papin was a mature man and an artist–an acclaimed opera singer who came to the village to rest.  Listening to Philippa sing in church, he discovered her extraordinary singing talent and somehow convinced the Dean to permit him to give her voice lessons.  Achille had great plans for her to become a celebrated singer herself, and his wife, if she agreed. During one lesson, Achille at last expressed his love for her with a sincere kiss to finish their singing of the tender duet between Don Giovanni and Zerlina.  In this case, it was Philippa who drew back from romance; she ended her lessons, asking her father to send her teacher a letter of apology.

Achille returned to Paris and never saw his dearly loved Philippa again but many years later he did one remarkable thing for her and her sister: he sent them Babette. She was a refugee from the Paris Commune, and without giving many details of her political activities, he asked and urged them to take her in and let her be their housekeeper. Innocently, he closed his letter by saying simply, “Babette can cook.”  The sisters had no idea at first what lay behind that simple truth.

Martine and Philippa were reluctant initially, wary of what this unknown Frenchwoman might be like and what sort of food she might thrust upon their simple tastes. Their genuine Christian charity prevailed, however, and they offered her a place in their home. They needn’t have feared; the discreet Babette kept her counsel and cooked plain cod and soup for the elderly sisters in the style they preferred. Twelve years passed in this way, until one day, Babette surprised them.  She announced that she had won 10,000 francs in the lottery! She proposed using this money to cook them a real French dinner, on the upcoming memorial occasion of the Dean’s 100th birthday. To do this, she would need to travel to Paris for a few weeks to order and obtain all she needed to prepare the celebratory feast.

They wanted to refuse, I think–not wanting her to use her money this way, and fearing she might leave them for good. Yet once again, their deep sense of fairness and charity prevailed and they let Babette have her way.

One more surprise was in store for them. The sisters learned that Lorens Loewenhielm, now a distinguished General, was once again visiting his aunt, who asked if he could accompany her to their celebration. Martine, beautifully composed, said yes without hesitation and prepared for this unexpected reunion with him.  For his part, the General wished to make amends for his lack of self-assurance in his youth, and cut a more confident figure at the dinner. He had never truly made peace with himself and the direction he chose for his life.

At last in the sisters’ home again, he was perplexed and pleased at the meal itself–the expensive wines, the rare ingredients, and gourmet dishes which reminded him distinctly of an unforgettable meal he had eaten in Paris years ago. Could this really be Veuve Clicquot 1860 he was drinking? Was this dish Blinis Demidoff, tiny pancakes filled with caviar? He took the first opportunity to speak, his heart brimming with a mixture of love and astonishment:

“Man, my friends, said General Loewenhielm, “is frail and foolish.  We have all of us been told that grace is to be found in the universe.  But in our human foolishness and short-sightedness we imagine divine grace to be finite. For this reason we tremble…”

“We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace, my friends, demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude. … See! that which we have chosen is given us, and that which we have refused is, also and at the same time, granted us. Ay, that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly.  For mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another!”

What the General expressed was felt by each person at the table in her or his own way. The film shows beautifully, with just a few touches and words, how rifts were healed, arguments settled, love restored, between pairs of diners united in the glow of grace and forgiveness. Indeed, it was Dinesen herself who served up this moment of their mutually felt epiphany. “Unpacking” the full meaning and implications of the General’s speech is the interpretive work that the author gives us. In some ways, Loewenhielm functions in the story as the “wise fool”–an accidentally oracular figure–because he is the only one who does not know the open secret of Babette’s Feast, the unspoken uniqueness of it all. No one disabuses him of the impression that this is the way the two elderly sisters and their small conventicle of believers dined frequently, if not every day!

Babette's Feast DVD coverGabriel Axel’s exquisitely beautiful, touching, and warmly ironic film makes the dynamics of the special feast apparent in a way that surpasses even the perfection of Dinesen’s story–one type of artistic perfection vying and dancing with the other. We see the pious elderly community, which had clung together all these years in the Dean’s name and adhered to his austere example, come together to celebrate his 100th birthday and make a promise, one and all, to remain silent throughout the meal–not to give in to the stimulation of their senses by any exclamations or comment, either of pleasure or displeasure at the unusual food they are about to receive. The General, therefore, who is a special guest from outside the group, becomes the only mouthpiece to convey the remarkable flavors, textures, and rare delights of food and drink presented at the table. The only other exceptions are the kitchen boy who is given small portions to enjoy after his serving work is done, and Babette herself–the luminous and self-possessed Stéphane Audran–who allows herself to close her eyes in appreciation of a sip of wine and then gently smile.

The two-disc DVD version includes a booklet with Isak Dinesen’s complete story along with a very helpful essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu. He remarks on the fidelity of the film to the story, noting that short stories more naturally expand to fill the time of a feature film in the telling, without much pruning being required. Still, in the filmmaking it becomes the director’s story to tell as he decides, and Axel chose to move the story which Dinesen set in Berlevaag, Norway to her own native Denmark, to a fishing village in the region of Jutland. In the soundtrack, Le Fanu informs us, we hear dialogue in both Danish and Swedish; because of linguistic history, these related languages are mutually intelligible, so we can depend on knowing that the simple Danish folk understood the gist of what the Swedish General Loewenhielm rose to say with such deep feeling.

Can I review “Babette’s Feast” without talking about the food? Here the film excels indeed in showing us what Dinesen has described so vividly, the rich delicacies offered to these Spartan Danish palettes. (The New York Times review of the film in 1988 dwells on the ingredients of the various dishes, even including a few recipes.)  Vegetarians or the squeamish beware! Babette is a chef, and wants to use only the freshest ingredients, so we see the arrival of many live ingredients: a rustic cage of tiny quails who will end up in pastry for the cailles en sarcophage (“quails in sarcophagus”) and a big turtle who will sadly end up as soup. Plenty of butchered meats are hauled in to her kitchen, but we also see the lovelier, succulent treats of fresh figs, grapes, and other bounty of the garden.  It is revealed in the story (indirectly) and in the film that Babette once practiced her culinary art as chef at the Café Anglais in Paris.  It closed in 1913; here is a vintage photo taken before its destruction:

337px-Café_anglais

I will long remember the images from this jewel of a film, which deservedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, the first Danish film to do so.  I can see the rapturous faces of the twelve people gathered around the table, gifted with a meal that seemed to erase any division between material and spiritual blessings, self-denial and abundance, effort and grace.  For that evening, “mercy and truth have met together, and righteousness and bliss have kissed,” and they all became one.

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2015 Reading Challenges–Nonfiction and Books in Translation (Perfect Together)

This blog is my place for visiting the “Northern Lights” countries of Scandinavia, including Iceland, by way of my dream reading list. I have books beckoning in each of my categories of literature, history, biography, travel, and food (see my project reading lists for the whole shebang).  But my primary focus for two new challenges will be biographies. Happily, the biographies I have in mind fit perfectly with two challenges posted by The Introverted Reader: the 2015 Nonfiction Reading Challenge and the 2015 Books in Translation Reading Challenge.

Here is my biography TBR list:

  1. The Fairy Tale of My Life: An Autobiography by Hans Christian Andersen; trans., R. P. Keigwin [Denmark]
  2. Hans Christian Andersen: European Witness by Paul Binding [Denmark]
  3. Jean Sibelius by Karl Ekman; trans., Edward Birse [Finland]
  4. Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland by Glenda Dawn Goss [Finland]
  5. Righteous Gentile: The Story of Raoul Wallenberg, Missing Hero of the Holocaust by John Bierman [Sweden]
  6. Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography by Joakim Garff; trans., Bruce H. Kirmmse [Denmark]
  7. The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown [Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland]
  8. Heimskringla: or, The Lives of the Norse Kings by Snorri Sturluson; trans., Erling Monsen and A. H. Smith [Norway]
  9. Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Tuula Karjalainen; trans., David McDuff [Finland]

Not all these are translations, and it is debatable whether the Heimskringla, which is traditional history in saga form, is quite fact or fiction. But in general, these books will fall into one or the other of the challenges above, or both.

I will surely want to include some literature in my Books in Translation for the year too!  Foremost, I want to start my reread of Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (translated by Charles Archer and J. S. Scott).

Finally, all these books are part of my ongoing participation in the Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Mom’s Small Victories, I’m Lost in Books, and Savvy Working Gal.

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“Scandinavian Christmas” by Trine Hahnemann–My first cookbook review!

Scandinavian Christmas coverScandinavian Christmas by Trine Hahnemann, with photography by Lars Ranek. Sterling, 2013.

One of the chief joys I anticipated when I started this blog devoted to a region of the world was the chance to review cookbooks! I like to read and collect cookbooks, but I’ve never had a good opportunity to review one over at The Fictional 100. Now is my chance! It  was an easy decision to select Trine Hahnemann’s Scandinavian Christmas for my first food review.   Hahnmann is a very accomplished food author and teacher, as well as a former caterer to touring rock stars! Copenhagen is her home base, but her work reaches well beyond Denmark.  I’m so glad that several of her books are available in English.

Scandinavian Christmas is a beautiful book. From the crisp red, white, and silver of the cover to the gorgeous full-color photography inside to the clear, attractive design of the recipes, this book was a joy to page through and learn from. The pictures felt close-up and immediate and carried me right into the sunny, snowy world of a Scandinavian Christmas, with its bright decorations, savory roasts and tangy fish, earthy root vegetables, and abundant sweet baking.

Hahnemann introduces the book with a Danish welcome–Velbekommen!-and explains that Christmas in Scandinavia “celebrates life and ‘hygge,’ a Danish term that is almost untranslatable, but encompasses comfort, camaraderie, and good food and drink.”  It is also “all about baking,” she says. Her chapters reflect these two themes and carry the reader through the season with “Christmas Baking,” “Gifts from the Kitchen,” “Advent: A Whole Month of Christmas,” “Christmas Party,” “The Christmas Eve Feast,” and “Christmas Day Smörgåsbord.”

Let’s get right down to the indispensable baking! Breads such as Lucia bread and Pulla bread are made with white wheat flour for a softer, more refined texture at holiday time than the many hearty rye bread variations that are the daily staple.  The most appealing cake for me was a Spiced Christmas Cake baked in a heart shape and decorated with piped hearts of white chocolate icing. The Honey Layer Cake with Orange Mousse also looked amazing and quite straightforward to make.  And then there are the cookies, lots of cookies, in many shapes and flavors. Here is her picture of the Crisp Cinnamon Cookies with a link to her recipe for them.

Crisp Cinnamon Cookies. trinehahnemann.com

As intriguing as the baked goods are, some of the other dishes are what makes the Scandinavian Christmas menus seem distinctive: Roast Duck with Turnip Gratin, Caramel Potatoes, drinks with lingonberries and elderflowers, red cabbage cooked with spices and black currant cordial, and many varieties of winter salads (here are three).

3 Winter Salads with Spices. trinehahnemann.com

Meatballs, served with pickled beets or lingonberry jam, are such a necessary item at the Smörgåsbord that she offers them up in four languages:  “frikadeller” (Danish), “köttbullar” (Swedish), “kjøttkaker” (Norwegian), and “lihapullat” (Finnish).  Her meatball recipe combines pork and veal with sage, juniper berries, and rolled oats.

I learned that there is a specific order for eating the offerings at the Christmas Smörgåsbord: first, the cured herring (often pickled); second, hot fish (flounder breaded in rye flour and fried like veal cutlets looked good); third, cold fish–all of these served with good rye bread. Then diners take a new plate and dig in to the hot meats (this must be the place for the meatballs!), and then finish with cheese and various homemade candies.

I like what the author wrote about the zest for life at this time of year, even as temperatures drop. For example, she suggests:

Celebrate one of the Advent Sundays outside.  Play in the snow: Remember there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. Serve hot drinks, salmon sandwiches, and “nisse” (elf) cake, make a stew and bake bread over an open fire.

Don’t forget to leave some rice porridge, topped with butter, sugar, and cinnamon, in the attic for the “nisse”–then, as she informs us, “he won’t eat your cookies or hide your favorite things; instead he will leave little presents in your boots.”  I especially liked the recipe for this simple comfort food and, equally, the one for sweet Rice Pudding with Hot Cherry Sauce.  I know I will want to make them, with or without elves in the house.

I recommend this book highly for anyone who collects international cookbooks or holiday cookbooks. Most of the recipes didn’t seem too difficult, but simply called for that extra bit of care that one wishes to put into a food gift or a special recipe for holiday meals and entertaining.

You can read more about Trine’s life and activities at her beautiful website, which features a very nice selection of her recipes.

You can read more about Smörgåsbord and Julbord (the Swedish version of Christmas lunch) here.

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Review: “The House by the Fjord” by Rosalind Laker

The House by the Fjord coverThe House by the Fjord by Rosalind Laker. Severn House, 2011.

The House by the Fjord is the last novel of the prolific romance writer Barbara Øvstedal  (1921-2012), who wrote primarily under the pen name of Rosalind Laker. Her many historical romance novels, notably To Dance With Kings (about the court of Louis XIV), The Golden Tulip (about Vermeer), and The Venetian Mask (about orphaned music students in the Ospedale della Pietà in 18th century Venice), brought her much recognition and the chance to work with Jacqueline Onassis, her editor at Doubleday.  She was born in Bognor Regis, West Sussex, England, to a Canadian father and English mother. In 1945, her life would change dramatically when she married Inge Øvstedal, a Norwegian who had escaped Nazi-occupied Norway by fishing boat in 1941. When she met him, he was stationed in West Sussex with the Royal Norwegian Air Force–the Norwegian air force in exile, which was fighting with the Allies and preparing for Normandy. In 1946, the young couple and their infant daughter moved to Gardermøen, Norway.

This town figures prominently in The House by the Fjord, in which the heroine, Anna Harvik, arrives for the first time in Norway as a war bride. The time is 1946, the immediate postwar period, when Norway is still suffering the aftershocks of the brutal Nazi occupation; this was the year in which the author herself went to live in her husband’s native country.  But the fictional Anna is alone. Her husband Johan has died in the war, and she is fulfilling the demands of kindness, duty, and a good measure of curiosity by accepting an invitation from Johan’s father to visit him and see her late husband’s boyhood home.  The opening chapters of the book are very agreeably filled with Anna’s interactions with the close-knit group of war brides who have banded together to help ease their adjustment to living in a new country. They accept her quickly and many become her close friends, helping her learn to speak Norwegian, teaching her about local foods, even showing her the local dance steps. As much as she appreciates this warm reception, she keeps assuring everyone that this is only a visit and she will soon be returning to her home in England. Unruffled, the townsfolk nod and hold to their own opinion that once the healing beauty of Norway seeps into her soul, she won’t ever wish to leave it.

Anna’s grieving father-in-law, Steffan, is emotionally reticent at first, yet equally determined to have her stay.  She learns from (handsome, single) lawyer Alex Ringstad that Steffan has another plan in mind as well: he is eager for Anna to take possession of the old Harvik family house in the mountains–the house by the fjord–which has always been passed down the generations to female relatives.  Anna rejects this idea out of hand at first, resisting as politely as she can.  To pique her interest, Steffan gives Anna his own grandmother’s private journal, which he has had translated into English expressly for his English daughter-in-law and beautifully bound for her.  It details Ingrid Harvik’s long and eventful life, beginning in 1878, when she was 16, and newly widowed herself.  The many pages of this journal, which Laker interpolates into the story as Anna reads them, make for some of the most gripping passages of this novel.  In the first entry, young Ingrid confided her unhappiness in her first brief marriage to Erik Berdal, a cold and cruel man, and her determination to make a better life for herself.  She was setting out, traveling by pony and wagonette, to see the old mountain house by the fjord that she had inherited from her grandmother:

… although I have never seen it, I feel drawn to it as if it has long been beckoning to me. …  I have packed my belongings in my bridal chest. These include the bed linen and hand-woven blankets with the blue and white pattern that I brought to my marriage, but nothing that came from Berdal’s purse. I have also taken my father’s field gun, which he sold to Berdal once when he was desperate for money, and a box of bullets.  When sober, my father was a good shot at bringing down ptarmigan and other game birds in season. He was also a skillful angler and taught me to fish, and indeed sometimes it depended on our catch whether we had something for our supper.  So I am taking my rod and line, which as a birthday gift from him and with which I caught my first salmon, and many more fish since that day.

My pony, which I named Hans-Petter, is a fjording, one of the sturdy native breed that have been ridden and worked on this land since Viking  times. Patient and gentle, they are a beautiful cream colour and have a characteristic black streak running through the mane and down the tail. Hans-Petter has been my only friend during my unhappy time… (pp.113-114)

Anna reads this account with growing excitement and the narration switches to third person, as if moving back into Anna’s reading experience, her own understanding of that first glimpse, along with Ingrid.

As she drove up higher, she was presented with a wonderful view of the valley that was a cul-de-sac of farmland and forest.  Then, as if nature wished to treat her lavishly, there lay in the other direction the greatest of all views, the sparkling sun-diamond fjord that was as deep as the mountains were high.  On its far shore stood the village of Molde. …

Ahead there were tantalizing glimpses of her new home through the trees. Then suddenly it came into full view, a two storied house built of dark logs with its windows shuttered and padlocked. It was much larger than she had imagined it would be and she could scarcely believe her good fortune. Its roof was turf-covered and thick with harebells and buttercups and wild pansies as if it were wearing a floral crown in which to greet her. She felt her heart go out to it, this haven where she could live and breathe as a liberated woman at last. (p. 115)

I was most enchanted to read this description of the turf roof, covered with wildflowers. One could imagine sleeping in the heavy, carved beds of the house, knowing one was under a living canopy of flowers, and then waking to look out on the “sun-diamond fjord.”

View from the top of Varden near Molde. (Photo: Ridinghag) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:View_from_varden.JPG

Although this house near Molde is not as grand as Ingrid’s, it does have a turf roof, and the panorama of the fjord behind it.

Anna is captivated by Ingrid’s strength and pluck, as well as her acceptance of herself as a woman still desirous of finding real love and sexual fulfillment with a better man. Ingrid meets and marries Magnus Harvik, who is already a famous painter of Norwegian landscapes, and thus she begins her life as mother and matriarch of the sprawling family that will lead in Anna’s time to her beloved Johan.  Anna is well aware that her new friends are urging her to be open to the possibility that she might love again, and find that love in Norway.  The rest of the story shows how she deals with questions of love and trust, of family and independence, of heritage and finding one’s true home.  In the process, she also uncovers the sobering truth behind a mystery connected with the house, sparked by clues from Ingrid’s journal.

Anyone who has loved Rosamund Pilcher’s novels set in Cornwall, in particular The Shell Seekers, would quickly warm to Rosalind Laker’s beautifully told story in The House by the Fjord.  I’m eager now to read some of her other books, especially This Shining Land, about a woman who joins the Norwegian resistance, but I know this last novel of hers, closest to her own experience, will likely remain my favorite.

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Call of the Deep North: “An African in Greenland” by Tété-Michel Kpomassie

An African in Greenland coverAn African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie (trans. by James Kirkup, 1983; intro. A. Alvarez). New York Review Books, 2001.

Tété-Michel Kpomassie is an extraordinary person and an extraordinary writer. His decision to leave his native Togo in 1959 and travel alone to Greenland puts him among some of the most determined Arctic travelers of the last few centuries. His choice of destination is surprising, until one reads his account of it. This book, his absorbing travel memoir, won the Prix Littéraire Francophone in 1981.

His first chapter, “The Snake in the Coconut Tree,” reads like the excellent start of an absorbing novel about African life. His uncle wanted to wake the young man to join a party of his brothers going to the nearby coconut plantation to harvest coconuts. Tété-Michel did not want to wake up and did not want to go to collect coconuts–he had a premonition that something very bad would happen that day if he went. But, on the impatient uncle’s orders, his brother filled a coconut-gourd bowl with water and dumped it on him; at last, soaked and resigned, Tété-Michel got up and joined the expedition. With practiced skill, he shinnied high up into the first coconut tree, without a rope, to dislodge the bunches of coconuts at the very top. But he also dislodged a nest of snakes. He had no weapon and few choices, when faced with the venomous reptile. He tried to avoid the snake and climb down ahead of it, but it slithered over his head and down his back–the last ten feet, he fell to the ground. It is unclear whether he was bitten or not, but, whether from venom, from venom antidote poisons, from injury, or plain shock, he soon lapsed into fever and delirium. In the next chapter, “The Sacred Forest,” he was taken deep into the territory of the python cult and its priestess. She discerned reasons she believed accounted for his condition, including seeing a dead snake in the past, and performed healing rituals. In return for this service–Tété-Michel did survive–she expected his father to dedicate him to the python cult, as an apprentice for its priesthood. The young man was horrified at this prospect. An alternative came from an unlikely place!

While he was still convalescing, the young man got books from the missionary bookshop in their town of Lomé. Among these was a book about Greenland, The Eskimos from Greenland to Alaska by Dr. Robert Gessain. He studied its photographs and learned that Greenland lay mostly north of the Arctic Circle and was incredibly cold (not sweltering as it is in Togo), but above all, it had no snakes! He adopted a fixed purpose–to leave his home and travel by himself to Greenland, going as far north as he could, and settling there. It was 1957 when he resolved to do this and made plans to run away. He would go to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast and visit an aunt who lived there; from that point, instead of returning home, he would work his way up the West African coast, obtain passage to Europe, and finally, sail to Greenland from Denmark. At that time, Greenland was a county of Denmark, its former colonial ruler. (Greenland would gain limited home rule in 1979 and full self-rule in 2009.)

Several stops, and some backtracking to Togo, were required before he finally booked passage for Europe on a ship leaving from Dakar, Senegal. For 6 months, he had worked as a translator at the Togolese embassy in Dakar, earning enough money to begin his trip. Throughout his travels, he was tremendously resourceful at finding kind people who would take him in to live and help him in various crucial ways, often finding him jobs. Besides working at those various jobs, he took correspondence courses in the languages he would need to master along the way. His graded papers often did not catch up with him before he had to move again, so he decided to teach himself with the French classics–from the 16th century onward! “My large suitcase eventually contained more books than clothes,” he writes. His writing talent must have emerged early, as he kept extensive journals on his trip, which took quite a few years and much patience. A French friend that he made encouraged this writing, suggesting that his perspective, derived from a traditional African culture, would shed new light on Eskimo customs and make his comparative observations uniquely interesting.

His boat to Marseille, France left in May of 1963. Summing up his travels so far, he remarks ironically: “And that is how, in this era of interplanetary flight, it took me six years to get out of West Africa.” He was able to enter France at the port of Marseille with just his identity card because Togo had been a former French colony. He took the seven-hour train trip to Paris. With a letter of introduction in hand, he simply presented himself at the home of a French government minister and explained his life’s mission “to link Greenland with Africa.” Remarkably, the government official received him sympathetically and gave him lodgings there for three months and, after that, a lifetime of support and advice, acting as a second father to him. This kind of story is repeated again and again in An African in Greenland: events testify to Kpomassie’s undoubted personal charisma, sincerity, and dedication to his goal. He pushed on to Bonn, Germany where he worked for two years and continued his self-education. He describes a potential advantage that his unorthodox path had over traditional education: “As for university studies, it seemed to me that without them I had remained more African: an African graduate would have spurned the risks I took and found a niche in some government ministry.”

At last, he reached Copenhagen, picking up Danish during a three-month delay while he waited for a visa to enter Greenland (his French ministry friend helped him get the authorization). In all, it had taken 8 years since he first left Togo to get this far.

The book turns now in Part II to a new chapter in his life, “The Call of the Cold.” As he intended, the sea voyage allowed his body to adapt to dropping temperatures gradually. On June 23, he saw his first ice floes: “Some were white, others green or blue. A brilliant sun, cold as steel, glittered on them and transformed the sea into a fairy-tale world: a vast ice-blue expanse strewn with great chunks of crystal” (p. 79). Four days later, they landed at Julianehåb, or K’akortoq, “the White One.” With a natural sense of the dramatic, he prepared to disembark and make his entrance for the Inuit people gathered at the dock, who had not seen a black man before in person.

As soon as they saw me, all talking stopped. So intense was the silence, you could have heard a gnat in flight. Then they started to smile again, the women with slightly lowered eyes. When I was standing before them on the wharf, they all raised their heads to look me full in the face. Some children clung to their mothers’ coats, and others began to scream with fright or to weep. Others spoke the names of Toornaarsuk and Qvivittoq, spirits who live in the mountains…. That’s what I was for those children, and not an Inuk [singular of Inuit] like themselves. …

The scene made me think of the Lilliputians surrounding Gulliver. I had started on a voyage of discovery, only to find that it was I who was being discovered. (pp. 82-83)

Tete_Michel_Kpomassie

But Tété-Michel Kpomassie was quite welcome among the adults who vied to give him a place to stay, their customary hospitality salted with a keen curiosity about him. From then on, he was simply called Mikili (nickname for Michel or Michael) by those he met in Greenland. He made friends readily in all but a few exceptional cases during his time there. As with most travelers to a very different place, the most difficult adjustment was the unfamiliar food. Food preferences and aversions are learned in childhood and adults are less adaptable, but necessity teaches even adults. His first host family prepared a large plate of raw whale skin and seal blubber! He did his best with it; in his book he confesses that his revulsion at first was so great that he considered getting back on the Danish ship still at port. He asked himself, “Could I suddenly give up what had taken me so long to achieve, just because of a bit of raw whale skin?” No, he decided, and the process of learning and adapting to the local lifestyle began in earnest.

Mikili arrived in summer, when the midnight sun kept people restless and active all night. In the days he was taken on endless rounds of coffee visiting, and at night to dances among the young people, who did plenty of drinking. On another day he chose to visit the residents at a home for the elderly. This scene in particular was very touching to me because of his deep interest and respect for all the people he met there. After a few weeks in this southern coastal town though, he lamented the continual dancing and drinking parties that occupied the young people, along with their casual sexual pairings, as it seemed to him. He is honest too about his own behavior at that time, admitting that he indulged in some sexual relationships with girls there; however, he was troubled and frankly perplexed by the rapid swapping of partners, and felt the sting of jealousy. He wished to move farther north to “the Greenland of my dreams. I wanted to live with the seal hunters, ride in a sledge, sleep in an igloo” (p. 112). Anyone reading his memoir up to this point will have no doubt that if he can find the means, he has more than enough determination to do all these things.

As it turned out, he did all these things and more. For example, he went ice fishing and also learned the backbreaking routines of the boating fishermen, helping them haul in their nets during the long Arctic nights. As he traveled north, he was also moving into the long dark winter. He stopped at several towns along Greenland’s western coast, and saw the aurora borealis–the northern lights–for the first time:

…a great deep-folded phosphorescent curtain, which moved and shimmered, turning rapidly from white to yellow, from pink to red. The curtain suddenly rose, then fell again further on. The wind shook it gently like an immense transparent drapery carried by the breeze and drifting on thin air. Its movements were now regular as an ocean swell, now hurried, jerky, leaping and tumbling like a kite…. I stood watching it for ten minutes, stunned and fascinated. (p. 145)

By the time he reached Jakobshavn, its port was beginning to freeze and he realized he would have to winter over in this town before he could ship out again to his dreamed-of destination of Thule in the far north. In the end, he made it only as far north as Upernavik, but his life there, staying with the family of Robert Mattaaq in their small cottage, provided some of the most moving and thoughtful passages in this book, which displays those qualities abundantly throughout.

I most admired his willingness to share very Spartan accommodations with his hosts. While he noticed the hardships of poverty, the lack of sanitation or comforts, he never judged people by their physical situation but by their character.  In one instance, he willingly chose the home of a poor, even outcast family over the grudging offer from a richer resident who had snubbed him earlier (and remained rather mean-spirited). He observed his fellow human beings with clarity and honesty, but always with compassion and respect. Reading his reminiscences made me wish to emulate his outlook in the face of difficult circumstances.

You may wonder now if he settled there for life, taking Greenland as his new home. I should say that it became a second home for him, one he returned to gladly throughout his life. Let me give you his own poignant words about why he decided to go back to Africa, to see his family again, of course, but more than that, to respond to a new aspect of his calling:

I had adapted so well to Greenland that I believed nothing could stop me spending the rest of my days there. Apart from a sled and a dog team, I needed only a fishing boat and a roof of my own to live happily in the Arctic. … But if I were to live out my life in the Arctic, what use would it be to my fellow countrymen, to my native land? Having tried and succeeded in this polar venture, was it not my duty to return to my brothers in Africa and become the “storyteller” of this glacial land of midnight sun and endless night? After the degradation of colonization and the struggle for independence, wasn’t it the task of educators to open their continent to fresh horizons? Should I not play my small part in that task and help the youth of Africa open their minds to the outside world? (p. 293)

Tete_Michel_Kpomassie speaking in Bergen, 2011And that is exactly what he did. He wrote this amazing memoir, which was published in France in 1977. As I mentioned earlier, it won the Prix Littéraire Francophone International in 1981. The English translation I read was done in 1983. Kpomassie lives in France, but travels and speaks widely. I loved finding this recent picture of him, speaking to the Bergen (Norway) Student Society in 2011.

I wish to thank Aarti Chapati for recommending this book in the Diversiverse reading event organized by her. Her review of the book inspired me and I made it one of my reading goals for the event–it has taken me a while to finish and write about it. Do read her excellent review of the book at her blog Booklust. And I wouldn’t have found Diversiverse if it hadn’t been for Becca of I’m Lost in Books and Tanya of Mom’s Small Victories, who hosted their Travel the World in Books readathon with such warmth, energy, and insight. This book is also part of my participation in Nonfiction November!

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