July 8, 2011 10:07 pm

The Old Man and His Sons

The Old Man and His Sons, by Hedin Brú, translated by John F West, Telegram, RRP£7.99, 168 pages

Hedin Brú’s 1970 novel begins with a tremendous set piece as a group of Faroe Islanders take part in a whale hunt. What follows is surprising: no Hemingway-esque tale of man against elements but a brilliantly observed social comedy.

Thrilled by the kill, and tipsy on sprits, old man Ketil buys a huge chunk of whale meat he can’t afford. As he strives to find the money, he is thwarted by devious neighbours, stroppy daughters-in-law and – to his eyes – indolent sons.

At the heart of Brú’s fable is a clash of two ways of living: the centuries-old subsistence economy of fulmar-hunting and stewed whale liver and the modern world of the telephone and the motorboat. While our sympathies lie with Ketil, the book never spares us the awfulness of his existence or his foolishness. The Faroese voted this their book of the 20th century; by any nation’s standards it’s a classic.

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