Fish Have No Feet – Jón Kalman Stefánsson

(Tr. Philip Roughton)

“Music can dispel the darkness, rip us out of melancholy, anxiety, negativity, and swing us over to joy, exuberance at being alive, at existing here and now; without it, the human heart would be a lifeless planet.”

I’m not sure I fully understood this one. I really wanted to adore it and carry it with me on dark days but I didn’t connect quite as much as I’d hoped too. It started out brilliantly I must say, and if you take a look at my copy you would wonder why I’ve underlined so many passages if I didn’t adore it.

Fish Have No Feet and you don’t need any either in this novel. Stefánsson’s lyrical prose sweeps you along, no navigation needed, but let me tell you now that if bleak poetry isn’t your slice of pie this novel will drown you and drown you good. Fish Have No Feet is reflective, nostalgic, depressive; filled with rhetorical questions and existentialist musings.

“I’m not so sure we seriously try to understand other people – do we really give it our full attention? Don’t we actually do the opposite, and constantly try, all our lives, to make others see the world as we see it? Isn’t that our great misfortune?

I can definitely see why this one has been nominated for the Man Booker International and good pickings, for it has everything I love. Iceland, bleak weather, bleak landscapes, bleak meandering questions about what it is to be alive, lyrical prose, and did I mention it’s a bleak novel? It’s translation is definitely beautiful and muted and I can only imagine how stunning it is in its original language, but in spite of all this, something still doesn’t sit right with me. A definite A++ for Stefánsson’s writing and use of the passive narrator (which is done so well – and I also enjoyed the footnotes) but I can’t help but think that this has all been done before.

“Can happiness be luck, a lottery win, or does it come, on the contrary, only to those who have worked for it, with their diligence and way of looking at things? Life, writes Margrét in her diary, is nothing but a senseless beast if happiness is just luck.”

Basically, in the end Margrét was all I was reading it for. The passages of her story were my favourite and even though I still adore Iceland (as I write this I’m listening to sigur rós and wishing our rain would turn to snow) there was just too much penis for my liking. Now, not to sound like a raging feminist, but I’m sure the penis thing has been done before. And that’s great it still continues as I’m sure there are many men who still read books and will have enjoyed this novel. But, like I said, it’s been done before. Imagine if this was filled vagina imagery. Would it have the same reception?

“It’s raining and ten years have passed. You blink and you’re older, the darkness of death hangs over the mountains. Time passes so swiftly, yet sometimes so slowly that we nearly suffocate.”

Fish Have No Feet is a great book and I don’t doubt it’s literary success of which it deserves but in the end I got annoyed with the philosophical meanderings of the penis while the women filled themselves with drink or attempted suicide on account of their “excessive imaginations.”  2.5 stars – which would’ve been one if it wasn’t set in my dream country.

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