Opening with a character — fallaciously known as ‘the widow’ — being kicked from a cliff at a remote Danish colony in western Greenland in 1793, The Prophets of Eternal Fjord (Atlantic Books, 2016, translated from the original Danish by Martin Aitken; originally published by Gyldendal as Profeterne i Evighedsfjorden, 2012) proceeds to become as immersive as such a fall might be. The lead character, the Norwegian-born Magister Morten Falck, missionary and would-be physician, is steadily drawn downwards, run down and weighed upon by the claustrophobic relations of the colony at Sukkertoppen, by the misfortunes that befall him, and by the vagaries of his own decisions, faith and morality. The author, Kim Leine, spins the chronicles of Falck’s mission in Greenland, and his studies, formative years and his later more worldly-weary self in Copenhagen, in a to and fro of time.
At well over 500 pages in length, Leine has given himself plenty of space in which to explore the deeds and further demise of Morten Falck. The Magister-to-be does not begin his journey entirely in innocence. From his home in Lier, Norway, Falck travels to Copenhagen, for theological study, in the early 1780s and Leine soon has him indulging in sexual debauchery in the most squalid parts of town, as well as undertaking the liberation of corpses from the canals for the purpose of the medical enquiry he also partakes of. Leine does not shy away from the stench of the place. Indeed, it is this attention to the very many sensory affectors in the late 18th century urbanscape, at sea, and on the harsh, hostile coast of Greenland that is a particular strength of the writing. Leine has no qualms in rendering the sensory seediness of subversive sexual encounter, of Falck’s defecations over the long drop of a cliff, of his attempted abortion of the unwanted pregnancy of the colony master’s wife by way of oil soaked rags and gunpowder.
A recurring motif is reference to a quote by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, namely: ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’. It is to this concept of liberation that Leine draws attention, not only in terms of the itinerant Falck and his seemingly unplanned-out life but also in terms of Greenland itself and its natives. Under the Danish crown, the Greenlanders are subjects obliged towards Christianity from their native ‘heathenism’, obliged towards the commerce and ‘civilisation’ of European ways. The events in Paris during the late 18th century French Revolution coincide neatly in terms of the idea of liberty and the ruling classes.
Agreeing to a position replacing the previous unfortunate incumbent in Sukkertoppen, Greenland, offered by the Mission, Morten Falck must do political battle with the colony master, otherwise known as the Trader Kragstedt. He finds himself necessarily obsequient to the officious Overseer Dahl. He must sidestep the dangerous and brusque smith who rapes Madame Kragstedt, and he must maintain the sullen relationship with his catechist Bertel Jensen. These are, in some respects, the least of his problems: he has his missionary work to fulfil amongst the natives, some of whom live in what he sees as hot, naked squalor in an encampment on the edges of the settlement. Falck is drawn to the Greenlanders, some of whom are euphemistically referred to as ‘mixtures’: half native and half Dane. The vile Missionary Oxbøl, up the coast at Holsteinsborg, is father of many such progeny. He is also not beyond spawning grandchildren via his own children.
So it is we come to Lydia, incongruously named, who is known for the most part as ‘the widow’. It is she who occupies Falck’s thinking processes: first in life, as she nurses him in his convalescence following his farcical destruction of the colony house in his attempts at stealing provisions, and in marriage as they escape the settlement and go to join the eponymous prophets up coast, and then in death as she trails his travels as a ghost. Her latter presence seems to persuade Falck to return to the colony from the ruins of the great fire of Copenhagen in 1795, some years after her death and after his unseemly departure from Greenland. There is a reading that can be made into this: that is, regarding the Rousseau motif, and regarding Leine’s explicit attention towards the conjunction that is ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ (Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains), Lydia, the widow, the ghost, necessarily enchains Falck in his freedom.
The prophets at Eternal Fjord are merely bit players in the set of the novel. It is true that they represent the liberation of the native Greenlanders in their attempts at eschewing the Danish mission, and thus largely the European culture, but it is rendered as a cult, albeit subtly so, and Falck falls into this for a while. Leine portrays Maria Magdalene, who dreams her visions and relays them to Habakuk, her husband, who preaches to their assembled followers, as charismatic enough, but their presence does not last long (neither directly on the page or in the background light of the book). Habakuk is a philanderer, as seems to be tolerated in the isolated fjord settlement of Igdlut, and he runs off with Lydia, the fallacious widow, Falck’s wife. When the Trader Kragstedt attacks the settlement, no doubt concerned more about the effects of congregations of people on the economic viability of his whaling plans than on those people’s spiritual well-being, Falck is obliged to return to Sukkertoppen.
It is the widow Lydia’s dis-ease and desire for salvation that drives her to seek her own death. With her young daughter dead and with a need to atone for atrocious but justifiable sins, she knows suicide will not deliver her. She seeks collusion. It is this act with which Leine begins his narrative before delving back and then forwards again in time. There is a thread of forgiveness that the author follows throughout the novel’s pages: Falck seeks forgiveness for leaving the woman he was about to marry in his early stint in Copenhagen, Abelone Schultz, departing to take up post for the Mission as he does; there is the tone of forgiveness desired in Falck’s acceptance of the ghost’s occasional appearances in the latter pages; the smith is briefly seen as trying to atone for his sins. The author seems to need to tie up the loose ends of his writing as he goes: we’re told that Bertel, the catechist, leaves the colony on the death of his son (under the medically naive stewardship of Falck and his attempted surgery) and the departure of his pregnant wife — Leine writes several pages of digression to explain Bertel’s months away; Falck takes a long trek by foot across Norway, from Bergen to Lier, so that he may speak to his father again; the Magister seeks out Abelone in Copenhagen, during his second stint, in search of her forgiveness. The author chooses to close with an account of forgiveness-seeking at graves on the fells above Igdlut.
So it is that The Prophets of Eternal Fjord starts and ends on the heights of western Greenland’s sparsely populated, harsh terrain. Kim Leine has produced a narrative that weaves historical events with the fictional intensity of his characters, in sensory landscapes of coasts and urban squalor, in the religious and socio-political claustrophobia of the late 18th century Danish crown. Its occasional digressions sometimes fail to drive the narrative onwards and, as such, it is overly long, but the whole is represented by an immersion, nonetheless, leaving the reader with an after-image of significant depth, sense, and consideration on time, place, journey, and liberty.