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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Black Cauldron

William Heinesen

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To purchase The Black Cauldron

Title: The Black Cauldron
Author: William Heinesen
Genre: Novel
Written: 1949 (Eng. 1992)
Length: 363 pages
Original in: Danish
Availability: The Black Cauldron - US
The Black Cauldron - UK
The Black Cauldron - Canada
La marmite noire - France
Der schwarze Kessel - Deutschland
  • Danish title: Den sorte gryde
  • Translated by W. Glyn Jones

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Our Assessment:

B : dark-colorful novel of its place and time

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 18/7/2018 Paul Binding

  From the Reviews:
  • "The intensity of Heinesenís gaze, the richness of his language, redeem the harshness of his subject. That humanity can feel as passionately as it does, however wrong-headed the cause, itself commands a kind of awed appreciation." - Paul Binding, Times Literary Supplement

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 Black Cauldron is set near the end of the Second World War, most of it in Kingsport on the then-British occupied Faroe Islands. Located at the end of a long inlet, it's a naturally peaceful place: "The sea is always smooth in there, and safer anchorage cannot be found" -- but in this turbulent war-time the name it is generally known by seems even more apt, as it is: "in everyday parlance simply known as The Cauldron". Though removed from the continent, out far at sea, the islands are far from untouched by what is happening, and not just because of the occupation. For one, there's: "all the new flotsam that's been washed up by the war -- soldiers, refugees and wrecks, spies, blacks and muslims". And the war brings with it both great risks and potentially great rewards: the islands themselves are targets, as are the boats plying trade -- frequently bombed and strafed -- but there are also fortunes to be made, as: "vast amounts of money are pouring into the country".
       The novel is presented in four parts, and features a large cast of characters. Central is the large family from Angelica Cottage: Ivar, a skipper on a boat, and his sisters: Magdalena, war-widowed after less than three years of marriage and already with three children; Liva, with a hospitalized fiancé, Johan, incurably ill with tuberculosis; Thomea; and the childish and mentally handicapped Alfhild. Ivar and Liva both work for Opperman, who only a few years earlier was just a traveling salesman and now: "runs a wholesale business in the grand style" -- one of the war's great victors, as his far-reaching business interests have made him very wealthy and he has become an important person on the island, even though he still only speaks the language in the stilted form of a foreigner. Opperman is married, but his wife is also ill, and confined to her bed -- and she's convinced Liva is having an affair with her husband; Liva isn't, but Opperman certainly does have his eye on her, and repeatedly tries to get closer to her.
       Tragedy does strike, including the loss of (difficult to replace) boats but especially the loss of life. Even if only on the periphery of the war-theater, the islanders always face the possibility of a strike out of nowhere, whether on land or, especially, at sea (including encounters with U-boats, in one of the book's most impressive scenes): if not in the thick of things, they are certainly part of the larger picture all around: "Surely the Faroe Islands are in the war. It's a lot of bloody humbug that we're supposed to be neutral."
       There's a great deal of drinking, as one way to get by, while some turn to religion: specifically, there's a so-called (because it is led by Simon the baker) 'bun sect', which Liva becomes an increasingly devoted member of. (Even religion tends towards excess in this time and situation, the members of the sect ultimately taking: "their Christianity to its logical conclusion, and they've ended up in total absurdity".) There's also a great deal of hooking-up, and while there are instances of women being victimized, there are remarkably many women who take the incentive themselves -- perhaps considered 'loose' but also in control. Among the more remarkable aspects of The Black Cauldron is the portrayal of so many strong, empowered women, including (but not only) sexually -- while among the few who suffer are those who can't see clear, or free themselves from the strictures of the staid old social rules and norms (notably Liva).
       The island, shrouded in darkness -- blacked-out, so as not to make an easy target for nighttime plane-raids -- is in some ways a dark place, with a nefarious feel to much that happens. Yet there's also a pervasive carefree (or devil-may-care) attitude, and if The Black Cauldron is dark it is not somber.
       People act impulsively, even downright rashly, and Heinesen orchestrates this large swirl of characters and events quite well. The very large cast of characters, and shifting focus, make for a somewhat jumpy story -- characters coming to the fore and then out of sight for extended periods -- but overall it makes for an impressive wartime tapestry.
       The war is catastrophic -- yet there's no denying that it's been a boon, as well, representing an extraordinary opportunity: many can and are getting rich off of it. This very uncomfortable moral dilemma, weighing on many of the characters, manifests itself in a variety of ways. But the situation is one that's hard not to take advantage of -- the cash that can be made is a great and easy (if also often risky) temptation. Similarly, the general disorder -- specifically what is essentially a social breakdown ("moral laxity is great in our time", one character observes) -- affords women a sexual (and often general) freedom inconceivable in other times (though tongues still wag). The spectrum Heinesen presents ranges from the comfortably empowered, such as the young maid Martha who helps Liva when she visits her dying fiancé, to those somewhat torn, such as widow Magdalena, attracted to the old-fashioned devotion of Ivar's friend Frederik but unable to resist the other opportunities she has, to Liva, who desperately embraces the traditional and familiar (which aren't nearly enough to sustain her in these completely abnormal times).
       One of the characters muses:

     Oh well, perhaps these boom-bubbles would burst sooner or later, and the good, healthy old conservatism which was rooted deep down in the Faroese people finally triumph.
       But for now: "Sectarianism, both religious and political, was blossoming unrestrained", the old order feeling very frail.
       There's an actual 'The Black Cauldron' in the novel, too: "an ingenious little machine, driven by clockwork. A kind of puppet theatre or circus". As one person observes about the dark display-toy:
The Black Cauldron, aye, indeed. I suppose it symbolises the Cauldron here, eh ? Or the North Sea ? Or ... well, I suppose the whole world, the entire present age, doesn't it ?
       So also Heinesen's novel is set on a small, out-of-the-way stage -- but is, fundamentally, near-universal. The dealings and interactions among this large cast of characters are specific to the time and place, but, in their basics, transfer easily almost anywhere: Heinesen's portrait looks very local, but is also comfortably (or uncomfortably) familiar to readers anywhere else.
       The mix of humor and darkness, including in a character such as Opperman, or the alarming discovery of a the works of an alarm clock in a drawer ("It was well known that the works of a clock were a classic component of a time bomb. All that was missing was the explosive charge"), is particularly enjoyable. To good effect, Heinesen also doesn't describe the truly darkest occurrences (such as the deaths and rapes) up-close, not so much to gloss over them but because his focus is on after-math and effects.
       So spread out, and without a neat story arc, The Black Cauldron is somewhat unwieldy, but it's a solid and sometimes very impressive read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 September 2018

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The Black Cauldron: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Danish-writing Faroese author William Heinesen lived 1900 to 1991.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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