Fish have no feet is a novel by Jon Kalman Stefansson, translated from Icelandic by Philip Roughton. Published by Maclehose press (an imprint of Quercus Editions) and subtitled a family history, it is a profound meditation on on life, love and loss.
Ari, who has left his wife and family for two years, is flying back to see his dying father in Keflavik ‘the blackest place’ in Iceland. It is like ‘driving out of the world into non-existence’ – the fishing industry has been decimated because of fishing quotas, and the wealth brought to the country by an American air base has long gone. We never find out the identity of the first person narrator, but as one of Ari’s close friends, he bears witness to Iceland’s collapse through a complex family saga covering three generations. We see Ari in the present day travelling back to his home town; Ari as a teenager in the 70’s listening to Pink Floyd and the Beatles; and at the beginning of the last century Ari’s grandparents Oddur and Margret living relentlessly harsh lives and working in the fishing industry. At first I was confused by the number of characters experiencing similar struggles, but it gradually became clear that history was repeating itself down the generations and that each story was universal.
In the novel human existence is a fight to survive in an unforgiving climate; Keflavik is a place of black lava and moss, and there is no escape from the sea. But the sea which is ‘larger than language… has nothing to say.’ Communication is often at its most basic and miscommunication forms one of the key themes in the novel. Emotions are expressed through gesture: when Oddur falls in love with Margret he clenches his fists and this is ‘his declaration of love, she knows that this gesture is his love poem to her.’ When Ari realises he has fallen out of love with his wife he can only express it with his body: his arm ‘swept like a scream across the kitchen table’ and he gets up and leaves before the relationship suffocates him. Jon Kalman’s language is at once poetic, in the best sense of the word, and lyrical. When Margret wants to tell Oddur that she loves him ‘She stepped out of her dress completely naked…her breasts… stopped his heart, changed its rhythm, it stood stock-still for several moments, became a silent planet in his chest.’
Philip Roughton’s translation is deft and contemporary; it is so good that at no point did I have the sense that I was reading a translation which is very difficult to achieve. For a while I struggled with the Icelandic names but a glossary at the end of the novel (and Wikipedia) was useful.
I can only give high praise for Fish have no feet and look forward to reading more novels and poetry by Jon Kalman
Jón Kalman Stefánsson was born in Reykjavik in 1963. His novels have been nominated three times for the Nordic Council Prize for Literature (2001, 2004, and 2007) and his novel Summer Light, and then Comes the Night received the Icelandic Prize for Literature in 2005.
MacLehose Press has published translations of three earlier novels that form a trilogy:
Himnaríki og helvíti (2007) / Heaven and Hell (MacLehose Press, 2010)
Harmur englanna (2009) / The Sorrow of Angels (MacLehose Press, 2013)
Hjarta mannsins (2011) / The Heart of Man (MacLehose Press, 2015)