Review published on March 24, 2016.
An epic novel about an unconventional priest, set in late-eighteenth-century Denmark and Greenland.
Kim Leine’s third novel, The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, was published in Danish in 2012 and won the Nordic Council literature prize. It struck me as a cross between Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned (first published in English in 2010), another historical saga from Denmark and one of my favourite novels of all time, and Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (2002). Like the former, it features perilous sea voyages and ambivalent father–son relationships; like the latter, it’s edgy and sexualized, full of lechery and bodily fluids. No airbrushing the more unpleasant aspects of history here.
The book opens with a shocker: a man pushes a widow off a cliff in Greenland in 1793, both of them begging for God’s mercy. Not until four-fifths of the way through will this scene be fully explained, though as the pages pass we figure out who the two characters must be. The novel proper, though, begins and ends with Morten Pedersen Falck, the youngest son of a Norwegian schoolmaster. In 1782 he arrives in Copenhagen to undertake his training for the priesthood. Really he’d rather be a doctor, but the ministry is his father’s wish for him. This doesn’t stop him from auditing natural history courses, observing anatomical dissections, and conducting his own private sociological experiments on the city’s many prostitutes – including a hermaphrodite. He lives above a print shop and falls for the printer’s daughter, Abelone, but breaks things off with her to take up a job offer from the Bishop of Greenland.
After two and a half months of sailing on rough seas, Morten and his milk cow, Roselil, arrive at Godthåb in 1787. Approaching his missionary role with naïve optimism (“He yearns to meet people in their natural state, free and unspoiled”), he’s disappointed with the natives right away: “He finds them slovenly, aloof, unreliable, dirty, foul-smelling.” Leaping forward six years, we find Morten suffering from scurvy, dysentery and hallucinations. Even now he thinks of the Greenlanders as savages, notwithstanding the fact that his catechist, Bertel Jensen, is part Eskimo. He’s never bothered to learn their language; Bertel translates at services. There is a general air of disgrace surrounding Morten: he’s in debt, and a fire in the not-too-distant past has complicated his friendship with Haldora Kragstedt, the Trader’s wife.
Part II fills in the intervening years, with each chapter named after one of the Ten Commandments (with an eleventh thrown in). Two days’ travel north of the main colony sits an Igdlut settlement in an inlet of Eternal Fjord. Here live Maria Magdalene, a prophetess, and her husband Habakuk, a blubber-cutter turned preacher. Their religion blends ancient customs like shamanic séances and ancestor worship with Christian imagery and scripture. When Morten visits the settlement, he and Habakuk give duelling sermons, with the native man using his to defy the Danish king. The Greenlanders argue that they are good without God, while some of the so-called Christians among them are violent and debauched. It’s a point Morten – who is inordinately fond of women and alcohol – can hardly argue with.
Although the connections are fairly subtle, it’s possible to link the events of each chapter to the commandment referenced at its start. In the “do not commit adultery” section, for instance, a colonist waits in vain for a marriage licence that will allow him to officially wed his common-law native wife, by whom he has four children. In “honour the Sabbath” a man commits a hideous rape on a Sunday; following on from that, in “do not murder” Morten uses his medical knowledge to perform a primitive abortion procedure involving gunpowder. He’s not exactly a model priest, yet he’s a trailblazer in some ways, willing to defend an interracial marriage and bend the Church’s rules when human circumstances merit it.
The entire novel is told in the present tense, with no speech marks. It flows pretty much effortlessly, with only one thing marking it out as a translation: in eighteenth-century Danish, translator Martin Aitken reveals in a prefatory note, the third-person pronoun was used as a mark of politeness or distance when addressing another person. So instead of “you,” characters often say “he.” Normalizing the pronouns would have been a very simple way of making the novel read more fluently. Still, you’ll never for a moment forget you’re in the eighteenth century, what with the lice-ridden wigs, decayed teeth, diarrhoea, vats of boiling blubber, and so on. There are a lot of needless, tragic deaths – all in the name of ‘civilising heathens’. The greatest achievement of this engrossing but gruelling novel is to show that everyone – whether colonizer or colonized, priest or parishioner, king or subject – is human. Flawed and fleshly, yes, but capable of everything love, hope and art can achieve.
It took me nearly a month and a half to read this doorstopper; by the end I felt I’d been on an odyssey as long and winding as Morten’s.
The Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine
Atlantic Books 9781782396673 pbk Jan 2016
We That Are Left by Clare Clark