The 1001 books list does it again and throws something superb my way. This one just crept into Arukiyomi’s Hall of Fame, a brooding saga of a novel with symbolism written into every page.
Isak is man. No, that’s not a typo: Isak represents us as a race. As the book opens, he is nameless, faceless – a wanderer in a primeval landscape. Gradually he begins to adapt to his environment, he builds himself a shelter and finds food. And before you know it, he’s mastered his environment in ways he could never have dreamed of.
This is the story of how we have all come together to be, how we negotiate the paths open to us in life. Not only does it depict the best of our mastery, it also shows the worst of our conniving. The range of characters gathered around Isak provide a counterbalance of caprice to his unflinching focus.
Through it all Isak stands as a kind of monumental figure. Many a Scandinavian will recognise his inscrutable personality, his lack of expression, his need for time to consider a change. And while he plods on in life, prospering by the virtues of hard, unceasing labour, those gathered around him demonstrate every other variation of humanity. There’s the flighty and the money-grabbing, the gossip and the fearful… all stand in contrast to his unerring purpose.
The translation I read (by W. W. Worster) was superb, written in a lilting prose that perfectly reflects the culture it has come from. Even the conversations between characters are laden with undertone and imagery. It’s a novel that could be read many, many times.
So, if you have space on your tbr list, squeeze this one in somewhere near the top. You’ll thank me for it.
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