Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Casual Classics: The Fishermen by Hans Kirk

The Fishermen is the debut of Danish author Hans Kirk (1898 - 1962). It was published in 1928 and was the first Danish collective novel, meaning that it was about a group of people, not just one person. In this case, the reader follows a group of fishermen and their families from the day they move from the harsh Northern Sea to the more quiet land around the large fjord, Limfjorden. We follow these families for at least a couple of years.

The fishermen and their families have bought rights to fish for eel in the fjord, they've rented small houses and they are all looking forward to a somewhat easier life than what they led when they were living by the rough Northern Sea. The families are, with a few exceptions, very religious, belonging to a certain branch of Christianity called The Inner Mission. (Please read more about Inner Mission here if you are interested in more info on this movement, for which I don't care an awful lot).

Two of the major themes of the book are religion and sin.
We follow several familie, among the the most religious one of the group Thomas Jensen and his family, the non-inner mission Povl Vrist and his wife Mariane with the big heart, the bachelor Anton Knopper who has to fight his sinful urges all the time and the gossipy but holier-than-thou Tea and her family.

We also meet the town-people who lived there before the fishermen and their families arrived: the old religious teacher Mr. Aaby, the well-read but somewhat annoying tax-man Kock, the inn-keeper Mr. Mogensen and the mild and friendly priest, whose religious outlook is not strict enough for the fishermen and their families, so they more or less chase him out of the town and employ an inner-missionary priest instead.

The story continues over several years. Winter is followed by spring, summer by fall and specially fall is an important season. This is where the fishermen put out their eel-traps (I'm sorry, I am simply not familiar with the English words for all those words about fishing-gear) and earn most money. God willing, that is. It is a rough life to be a fisherman. No doubt about that. Between working on the fjord fishing, the families read the bible, go to church and fight sin (which among other things include fighting against the hotel, where the town's youth dance each Saturday). Last but not least, everyone tries to fight his or her inner demons, which show themselves often because of the strict laws of the Inner Mission religion.

Its impossible to talk about all persons in this book, but if I should mention one, it will have to be Tea Roen. Tea is a curious woman, she loves to gossip and she is the first to tell others if she feels that they have sinned or done things which Jesus might not have approved of. At the same time she knows that she must deal with her own sins each day, but she also feels that she has found her way and in many scenes in the book, she acts in an annoying holier-than-thou way. As a reader you can sense that at some point, she is going to taste her own medicine

I have read The Fishermen a couple of times now and it is one of the most interesting social-realism novels in Denmark. I understand how it can be hellish to get through when you are young and in highschool. Lots of things and themes in the books seem utterly irrelevant in 2009. And there is not much action going on with a group of poor fishermen from the first half of the last century. Also, it helps if you know more about the world back then, and I personally know lots more about that than I did when I was in highschool. Nevertheless, The Fishermen is a main work, which every Danish pupil in high school (and later levels) are supposed to know. The Fishermen has been translated to English, but I haven't been able to find an image of the English cover or an English bio for the author, Hans Kirk. The Fishermen was made into a tv-series on Danish tv in the late 1970'es. I haven't watched it.

This is my first book in the Casual Classics challenge and it is also the first book for the Read and Review 2009 challenge.


mimbles said...

Interesting review Lou. Was Hans Kirk sympathetic with the Inner Mission movement or not, does that come through in the writing?

I don't think I've ever read any substantial work that wasn't originally written in English (and I certainly can't read in any other language). Just this week I got myself a copy of Les Miserables so that will be my first, perhaps I'll give The Fisherman a go one day too.

Louise said...

Hi Mim, thanks for your comment :-)

Hans Kirk's father was a strict Inner Mission fisherman, and Hans Kirk himself grew up to become a Marxist, and even though I know nothing about Marxism, I seem to remember that one of their things is a disdain for religion, whatever "branch" or book.....in any case, Kirk was not a fan, and that is clear when reading the book, although his voice is not negative in the book. He writes about his religious characters with sympathy - and it is actually the non-religious ones who are portrayed as foolish and dreamy. Any way, there are many things between the lines and enough author bios out there (in Danish) to tell loud and clear that he wasn't an Inner Mission fan.

That was longwinded ;-) But I'm done now....

Beth F said...

Fascinating! I'll have to track this down in English to read one day. I know very few Danish author beside the obvious Isak Dinesen & H. C. Andersen.

Louise said...

Hi Beth,

If you feel like it one day, then I definitely recommend this major work. I do realize however, that it is not for all. But if you have read Isak Dinesen though, Hans Kirks shouldn't be too weird ;o)

Anonymous said...

This sounds interesting... Don't think I've read any Danish fiction, which is terrible, considering I love Denmark. Have visited Copenhagen numerous times and am always itching to go back, but I absolutely fell in love with Skagen when we stayed there a few years back...

Louise said...

Hi kimbofo - great to see you here. This book actually take place in the same area as Skagen. Although Skagen is all about summery fun and I can definitely say, that the same is not the case with The Fishermen.

Lovely to hear you love Denmark! I live in Copenhagen, but I can tell you, right now it is definitely too cold to visit ;o)