Sunday morning. I’m drinking coffee and eating a cinnamon bun. I’ve just emailed my review of Nightblind by Ragnar Jónasson, in masterful translation by Quentin Bates, and need to read another Icelandic book! Suddenly I remember Bowline (Pelastikk)! I got a copy of this Icelandic classic some time ago but was waiting for the right moment to immerse myself in the herring.
So Bowline… written by Guðlaugur Arason, known as Gulli Ara, writer and artist, and also translated by Bates whose true love of the book and its subject made it possible that Bowline is available in English, albeit only as an e-book. The circumstances surrounding the translation and the painful publication process are explained in the introduction, and the additional information about the fishing industry can be found on Quentin Bates’ author website.
The book beautifully captures the spirit of the herring boom when the fish was in abundance and lives of Icelandic people depended on a successful fishing season. Set in the late 1950s, published in 1980, the book was a must-read in Icelandic schools and colleges where Bates also became its fan.
Most of the action happens in a small fishing village called Dalvíkin in northern Iceland, but Siglufjörður of Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series is also mentioned. A quick look on the map and I can see that these two places are very close, but the atmosphere, the mood couldn’t be more different. For a start there’s plenty of summer light.
Logi Kristinsson, an eight year old boy (almost nine!) wants to be a proper fisherman. One summer his dream becomes reality when he is allowed to go with a fishing crew during the herring season. The story is told from his perspective and is full of comments about his dreams, life in general, grown-ups and their lack of understanding, especially his loving mother. Logi has a fixed idea how to be a fisherman. First of all he needs a vessel. And a pair of waders. And a smell of fish all over him, and scales in his hair… also, ‘the more Logi thought about this matter, the clearer it became to him that as a proper ﬁsherman he would have to ﬁnd himself a girlfriend.’
He aspires to be a top skipper like Pálmi, captain of the strong weathered crew of the wooden boat called Sleipnir, though being called ‘old man’ doesn’t appeal to him. He learns so much from Pálmi’s men, hence his view of the opposite sex is summed up like that:
‘Always the same old story with these women. They never think of anything but soap and water if there’s a man anywhere near them.’
In the introduction Quentin Bates explains how he approached the translating process, especially of difficult idioms that are untranslatable into English, and ‘the wry, bone-dry humour of coastal Iceland, almost impossible to render into English.’ But I found the language vibrant and exciting, and very modern. It is a lovely story, evoking friendship, loyalty and a wonderful sense of belonging in the community. But underneath smiles and jokes there is a truthful reality about the hard life and the harsh places where people have to work together to survive.
I learnt a thing or two about purse seine boats, conditions on the fishing boats, and tying the famous knot:
‘Nobody can ever be a ﬁsherman unless he can tie a bowline with his eyes closed.” Ási cut a length from a ball of twine. “Here’s a lake,” he said, making a loop in the twine. “This end here is a snake. Here he comes, down into the water and has a look round, then he crawls towards you until there’s a small puddle next to the lake. This piece here is a tree branch and the snake crawls over the branch, has another look round and doesn’t like the look of things, so he dives into the lake. There! That’s a bowline.”
And the trout feet? You have to find for yourself…