German, Diogenes, Zurich, 2020
‘My mother was quite contented too, somehow. We supped our tea, nearly burning our lips, and said as much, but apart from that we didn’t really talk. After all, there’s no need to natter all the time. Once there was a woman who talked a lot, and now she was dead. Magga. Now she wasn’t talking any more. She was silent for ever. Odd, that.’
Kalmann, set in Iceland, tells the story of a simpleton, a hunter and fisherman who becomes entangled in a case involving a missing person. At the end of the book, the protagonist finds himself lying under a dead polar bear and is granted honorary citizenship of his village. Kalmann is the fourth novel by Joachim B. Schmidt, born in 1981. It is a tale full of droll humour and surprises. A tale that unfolds in a peripheral region – in Iceland – far away from the capital, Reykjavik, and far away from life as we know it. Yet this novel is brimful with warmth, optimism and courage.
Kalmann, the first-person narrator, is a little bit simple. He lives as a hunter and fisherman in Raufarhöfn, a coastal village whose glory days, when the herring fisheries brought rich harvests, have long since passed. Kalmann lives alone in a little house, pays weekly visits to his grandfather, a dementia sufferer living in a care home two hours away by car, and goes hunting.
But his true vocation is fishing for the Greenland shark, a delicacy that never was one. The flesh of this monster, which can live for several hundred years in the frigid waters of the Greenland Sea, is inedible. It has to be left to rot thoroughly, until all the urea it contains has fermented. Only then is the shark’s flesh ‘edible’, albeit foul-smelling; it genuinely is regarded as a delicacy in Iceland.
The Swiss author, himself an inhabitant of Iceland for over 13 years, takes the reader on a journey through a story whose truth and tragedy are revealed little by little and which thus exerts an irresistible pull. Kalmann, as painfully honest to himself as he is to others, knows more – as the self-appointed sheriff of Raufarhöfn – than the reader does.
At the end of the day Kalmann is a hero, and he is granted honorary citizenship of his village. He even finds himself a girlfriend. A ingenuous simpleton who more or less stumbles into the story, Kalmann has more than earned this outcome. For the plot concerns a person who has gone missing in this harsh natural setting, in which the snows of spring play a major role and a polar bear puts on a show-stealing performance at the very end.
Kalmann is a figure who may soon take his place among the greats of Swiss letters. He might well be Switzerland’s pure-hearted Simplicius Simplicissimus. Our little piece of world literature.
Text by Jan-Jesse Müller
- Diogenes, Zurich
- Translation rights
- Susanne Bauknecht, email@example.com
- Publication date
- August 2020
Joachim B. Schmidt
Joachim B. Schmidt, born in the Swiss canton of Graubünden (Grisons) in 1981, is a journalist and the author of three novels and numerous short stories. He emigrated to Iceland in 2007, where he lives with his family in Reykjavík and also works as a tour guide.
Photo: Eva Schram © Diogenes Verlag