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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Old Man and His Sons

Heðin Brú

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To purchase The Old Man and His Sons

Title: The Old Man and His Sons
Author: Heðin Brú
Genre: Novel
Written: 1940 (Eng. 1970)
Length: 166 pages
Original in: Faroese
Availability: The Old Man and His Sons - US
The Old Man and His Sons - UK
The Old Man and His Sons - Canada
Vater und Sohn unterwegs - Deutschland
  • Faroese title: Feðgar á Ferð
  • Translated by John F. West
  • The original (1970) edition had an Introduction by John F. West

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nice, small tale of its time and place

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 8/7/2011 Adrian Turpin
NZZ . 26/7/2015 K-M.Gauß

  From the Reviews:
  • "(N)o Hemingway-esque tale of man against elements but a brilliantly observed social comedy. (...) The Faroese voted this their book of the 20th century; by any nation’s standards it’s a classic." - Adrian Turpin, Financial Times

  • "Hedin Brú ist ein Sozialrealist, der eine Gesellschaft erkundet, die vom Einbruch der Moderne erschüttert wird. Er erzählt in einer dem Mündlichen angenäherten Kunstsprache, zu der auch die Satire auf jene gestelzte Sprache gehört, in der sich einige Färinger, die auf ihre dänische Bildung stolz sind, heillos in Phrasen verlieren." - Karl-Markus Gauß, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Old Man and His Sons is set on the Faroe Islands, in and around the village of Seyrvágur (Sørvágur) and begins with the all-out whale hunt that provides the locals with much of their financial security -- and food -- for the coming year. The whales are driven and trapped in the local fjord, all the locals lending a hand in the big hunt (which, it should be noted, is fairly graphically described). Among those joining in are seventy-year-old Ketil and his twenty-four-year-old son Kálvur.
       The hunt is a drawn-out and exhausting affair, and while doors are opened and food -- and drink -- provided in this communal activity which practically all get involved in, it certainly is a bit much for Ketil. Still, he still manages to get caught up in things -- too much for his own good then, at the whale auction. While he gets a cut of the takings for his work anyway, he nevertheless gets caught up in the auctioning frenzy and buys a thirty-six hundredweight (that's eighteen hundred kilos, or just over four thousand pounds ...) whale that he can't afford, a 270 kroner debt that now hangs like a millstone around his neck. It would be too shameful to go back and say he can't afford it, and so he accepts and bears his burden.
       The Old Man and His Sons is, in part, this story of a family in debt, worried about how they will make ends meet, but, in fact, it's not really a tale of down and out desperation. For one thing, the worry isn't immediate: the District Sherriff, in charge of collecting the whale meat bills takes his sweet time getting around to that, and the family knows they don't have to pay until at least after the New Year. Aside from that, most of the locals do with very little, and while the debt is a burden -- scraping up that much money, much less earning it, will take them a good long time, no matter how they go about it -- they won't be destroyed by it. The worst part of it is apparently the disgrace -- shame plays a big role throughout the novel, a factor in how the characters act.
       So while the novel does concern itself with Ketil and his wife and son trying to collect enough to pay off the debt, life also goes on as it usually does, and, day to day, probably wouldn't be all that different for them even if they hadn't bought the two-ton fish (which, in any case, would see them through any truly hard times). When Ketil can't go fishing because of the conditions he and his wife knit sweaters for sale; regardless of the circumstances, they don't believe in keeping their hands idle. And while Ketil does explore other opportunities to earn something -- well, the opportunities are limited, to things like getting permission to gather driftwood (valuable in the barren Faroes, where they still heat with peat).
       So The Old Man and His Sons is mostly a novel of Faroese life -- with a good bit of a clash of generations thrown in, and a small dash of modernity creeping in. There's little going on in this quiet backwoods -- no industry, barely any schooling -- but it is enough of a land of plenty (in its austere way) that everyone seems to get by in reasonable (if, in our terms, very humble) comfort; the land, and especially the sea, provides. There's also a considerable sense of community, with everyone helping out when called upon. Ketil and Kálvur help out scofflaw neighbor Klávus when he gets himself into yet another mess, lugging him home after he breaks his leg, while the villagers help out with the family roof -- though the younger generation pointedly observes that a sheet metal roof would be much more sensible nowadays .....
       Kálvur is the slightly spoiled and lazy laggard, the youngest of eleven children Ketil and wife had and the only one still living with them in their two-room house. The other kids are married off -- and the mother gripes a lot about her daughters-in-law and their modern ways and expectations -- limited though these are in this barren countryside anno 1940. Comically immature Kálvur ("Father, is it true I'm a half wit ?") woos the neighbor girl, though his parents have their doubts about him being able to support a family in one of the threads of the story. It really does seem hard to fail abjectly, however: even the true losers Ketil deals with seem to get by reasonably happily enough (though one does come to a tragic end in the end).
       If slightly sorrowful in its conclusion, the community Brú has presented is strong and supportive enough that readers can take some comfort in knowing Ketil and his family's future will not be miserable. And they and many of the other characters have also shown that they can navigate considerable hardship, in a world that is still very raw and fundamental.
       With amusing incidental characters -- including the one who has visited Copenhagen, an almost unheard of venturing afar -- and the colorful description of Faroese life, much of it still much like it was centuries earlier, with only bits of modernity creeping in, The Old Man and His Sons is an appealing little novel, nicely done.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 July 2019

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The Old Man and His Sons: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Faroese author Heðin Brú (Hans Jacob Jacobsen) lived 1901 to 1987.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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