Sunday, April 27, 2008

Book Review: FAR AFIELD by Susanna Kaysen

The first leg on my Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge is complete and it was a fantastic voyage. I read "Far Afield", by Susanna Kaysen (NY: Vintage, 2002), the author's second novel, originally published in 1990 and reissued after the huge success of her memoir about time spent in a mental hospital, "Girl, Interrupted", later made into the Wynona Ryder vehicle of the same title.

"Far Afield" took me and the hero, Jonathan Brand, to the Danish territory of the Faroes Islands, a cluster in the North Atlantic, located between Iceland and Scotland. Jonathan is a Boston anthropology student doing fieldwork on this Scandinavian nation, to the dismay of his professors, who don't feel that cultures with newspapers deserve study. He perseveres and diligently studies the Faroese language, folkways and history. This meticulous preparation by the introspective and quiet Jonathan is in contrast with the other two Americans he encounters while on assignment: Wooley, another anthropology grad student (blasted luck!), whose breezy California manner and mangling of Faroese get the same local reception as Jonathan's self-conscious reserve; and Bart, the chain-smoking consumptive and presumed CIA agent, who tucks into Faroese cuisine with gusto.

Food comedy is peppered throughout the novel. Jonathan's first local contact is the outrageous Eyvindur Poulsen, a painter/politician/free spirit whose constantly tests poor Jonathan's stomach with the wildest Faroese delicacies: Spik (whale blubber), Turrur Fiskur (rotten halibut), Kjot (rotten lamb), boiled sheep's head and roast puffin). Jonathan is put off by this endless array of boiled fish and mutton and lack of vegetable accompaniments:
"Cod it was, cooked beyond necessity--beyond conscience--to a bleached stiff mass. Jonathan shut his eyes and wished for an artichoke, a little pot of hollandaise, a goose sausage, an endive salad: a roadside inn near Nimes. The last green vegetable that had touched his lips had been an Icelandic one, many weeks before. A slow cementing process was occurring inside him; each day the amount he expelled decreased in comparison to the amount he ingested. Soon, at this rate, he would lose the ability to excrete."
Brand does eventually use the bathroom and it is this most unglamorous of human functions that leads to his entree in Faroese society. Poor Jonathan clogs up the toilet in his rented flat and discovers that he must empty the septic tank. His neighbors crowd around to silently watch him dig and fill up his wheelbarrow with the noisome leavings. Old Jon Hendrik needles him first by remarking "In America, you hire people to do this, hah." Jonathan retorts with a shot about having proper sewage systems in the U.S, but Jon Hendrik reminds him that he is not home. Jonathan keeps shoveling and spits out in perfect Faroese "Vaelkomin til Foroyar" (Welcome to the Faroes). With that magical phrase and mordant acceptance of life's indignities, Jonathan is one of the gang. From then on he is invited to dinners and tea (temun), he is set up with potential girlfriends, gets a new soul-searching, bad-boy buddy, Hedin and government-rationed booze, formerly completely unavailable, is now proffered.

Warning****Plot Spoilers Ahead**********

Toward the end of Jonathan's year of study, fishing boats spot a herd of whales and Jonathan's neighbor, Sigurd, hurries the American into his patched up car for a trip over the hills to the grind, the whale hunt. The whales are herded towards the beach by Faroese fishing boats. Once the leader of the whales is beached, the others ground themselves on the shore en masse. Jonathan is staggered by this sight but has no time to jot down field notes when he is dragged into the kill by Sigurd and Hedin, and shown how to straddle the man-sized whales and sever their spines. Drunken and violent revelry at the village hall with Hedin continues all through the night.

Jonathan has finally achieved that which he carefully researched and sought; acceptance by his Faroese comrades. He has had doubts about whether to fully integrate with his new friends and stay on as a permanent resident. Much of the book contains this internal debate and his feelings of being an outsider in American society, too. The debate ends with the grind and another unsettling incident when a cat is tortured to death by a young neighbor and this is shrugged off by everyone as a old custom, something that kids just do.

The book reminded me of another great novel, Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News", with its weary, tragi-comic hero, maritime setting and eccentric characters. I recommend it to others with the high praise that my copy is staying put in my home library and will not be traveling to our used bookstore for resale.

Next on the Orbis Terrarum reading itinerary is the Czech Republic with Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being". I'll report back soon.


Corinne said...

I've never heard of this book - but it sounds like something I'd really like. I'm putting it on my TBR list. Thanks :)

bethany said...

this does look really good, I agree with Corinne...I want to add it toO!! Glad you enjoyed the first journey in the OT challenge, thanks for the great review as well. I can't wait to see where all of us continue to travel with this challenge!

Where are you off to next? I keep changing my list, I can't stick to them very well. (:

Old Saratoga Books said...

Corinne and Bethany:

This was a really great read. I hope to forget most of the plot and read it again in a few years. It was that good. A nice mix of humor and moroseness.

Now I'm onto Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being", which I've been meaning to read for a while now, but haven't been able to get to. It's proving a bit of a challenge, though, as a novel of ideas, rather than as a novel with interesting characters as I prefer.

But I will slog on...


Anonymous said...

This is an excellent book. I read it last summer on a trip to Iceland and Finland (appropriate, eh?). A friend gave it to me before I left and I thanked her profusely for it. Terrifically funny, and so insightful... any young, aspiring academic should read it; as should anyone who wants to be more than a tourist, but isn't quite comfortable with going native. I guarantee you will laugh at this book, as you smell the dried cod; thirst after good booze; yearn for a little companionship; and wrinkle your nose at backed up sewage and whale massacres.