A pensive, provocative, altogether extraordinary novel of a small-scale clash of cultures and its tragic consequences.
Why is it that entirely self-assured, Ahab-like proselytes so rarely figure in fiction? Perhaps because self-certainty is such an unsympathetic trait. No such worries for Morten Falck, a Rousseau-quoting, 37-year-old Danish missionary who lands in Greenland in 1787, a bundle of self-doubt mingled with overbrimming idealism. His arrival was, it seems, preordained, or so a fortunetelling youngster tells him after dunning him for three marks: “I can see a whole lot of strange people dancing in the fells….Black and dirty they are, but they’re your friends and you’re dancing with them.” What else the youngster reveals will give readers pause, but whatever the case, Falck finds not just friendly dancers on the heights above Eternal Fjord, but also a cauldron of heated opposition to the presence of Europeans in Inuit country and the usual human failings, not least the comprehensive ambitiousness of his native catechist. Leine, who won the Nordic Council Literature Prize for this elegant epic, is a poet of Arctic places, conjuring just the right descriptions with economical prose (and ably served by his translator, Aitken): “All night the fog has had its clammy arms and pasty fingers far inside the fjords, but now sudden lagoons of sunlight and clear sky appear, magnificent visions emerge only to vanish again, as surprising as illusions.” At the same time, his lyricism extends in some unusual directions, as when he describes the viscera-wrenching effects of the plague and the resultant “inexhaustible landslide of brown.” If the ending is inevitably tragic, it is so because Falck cannot curb his paternalistic view of the native people even as they promise him meaningfully that “it is the pale faces in our country who will soon be gone.”
A boreal classic in the making, brooding and memorable, reminiscent of James Houston’s great novel The White Dawn in its narrative sweep and evocation of an unforgiving land.