Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Old man and his sons - Heðin Brú

Faroe Island is a tiny piece of land in the arctics , inhabited by slightly over 38000 people. An island located between Iceland and western Norway, currently under Danish administration. I was more intrigued when I heard about the literature coming out of this land and is widely acclaimed across the world. Feroan language and the writings are pretty new and emerged out of the Danish influence towards the end of 18th century. Interestingly, Faroe had a large oral tradition of story telling. It is said, that, during the long cold winter evenings people gather around and narrate tales to kill time. These traditions continued over the years and resulting in a highly developed written and literary genre.

Ketil and his wife represents the older generation lives their own small and content life. The family have five sons staying in an around their village , except the last one who is with them. The father is not very happy with his own kids.."We have got five great oafs of sons living around us, and here I am in my seventieth year, but I have to reckon myself the only man among the lot"

The book starts with the annual whale hunt in which the men of the village participate irrespective of their age. It is the elders hold the key to the tactics and methods, while the youngsters are the power. Ketil at the age of 70 is active as ever, and after the successful haul , its time for the official to share and auction the catch. Ketil, on an impulsive mood, decide to bid for a large whale and have won the auction. It is now upto him to plan the repayment, once the bill reaches him. Proud of being the owner of such a large chunk of meat , which should see him through the cold winter season and at the same time worried about the mode of payment to the authorities from his meagre means, he returns to his house. Lavishly distributing part of his possession to the lazy sons of his, and securing the rest, he now plans to build his money for the eventful day of payment. As the year passed and the amount of meat reduced, he is further worried about his debt repayment capabilities. Seeking help from his sons unsuccessfully, he had to forego many of his beloved things, including the cattle.

While this form the general outline of the story , it is more to do with the lifestyle of the people in the lay back villages of the island and their way about. Ketil's personal issues are not only to do with the debt fears, but also from his disappointment with his sons, who grew useless to themselves and to the society. Their wives wanted to be progressive in life, do not want to lead a peasant / fishermen life, but want their husbands to do the clerical / white collar job, which they are not qualified to. Their natural skills for fishing/catching sea birds and securing woods from the shore is forgotten as they do not want to be in the sea. The only think they know is to request help from their aging father and steal again from him. Ketil's wife, home bound settling domestic issues of chicken/cattle and growing potatoes during the season, had not been out of her house for over 40 years ( she exclaims a lot of changes happened to the place over the years).

The central theme is the conflict of generations. "I don't know how the world's got this way, The older folk scraped and struggled every day, and tried to get good value out of every penny, and there was nothing to spare. You were reckoned to have done well if you gave every man his due. But now! The young folk spend their working days the whole year round in idle amusement. But they seem to get by somehow."

This is not a work of an intellect and it does not demand high level of analysis and focus. What is attractive about this book is the simplicity and the freshness of the place and people it brings to the world. It is an easy and effortless read. The story line is simple, its the life and cute pleasures and difficulties of simple people. Their activities are limited to their current state of existence. The writing is simple but very warm. Some chapters like the opening whale hunt scene and the funeral are glorious and touchy. Nice little book from an interesting place in up north in the Arctic.
The Old Man and His Sons ( 1940)

Heðin Brú  ( He-yeen-broo) Translated from Feroese by John F West (1970)

Paul S Eriksson Inc, New York

203 Pages
More Read : Markstaniforth , Old Man and his sons in Stamps


Kjartan said...

Some corrections:

- The language is Faroese, not Feroan.

- There are around 49.000 inhabitants, not 38.000.

- The Faroe Islands are located in the Atlantic, not the Arctic

- The whale hunts are not annual. Whales are captured when ever they get close enough to the islands.

Faroese dude

Jayan Parameswaran said...

Thank you so much. Being so far away in India, these might reflect my ignorance. Needless to say, I liked the book.

Could you, enlighten me, on the first chapter ( if you have read the book in the original) about the whale hunt. I get a sense that it was some sort of an annual ritual.