Explorers and missionaries must be the most stubborn people on the planet. Explorers are firmly convinced that there is something out there, something that must be found. Missionaries, sometimes explorers themselves or in the second wave of colonists, seek to reshape what and who were found so that it looks more like what was left behind. Morten Pederson Falck is one of the latter. Greenland was discovered (more than once) centuries before he heard of a missionary position in a Danish colony on the western coast of the island. Most of Kim Leine’s The Prophets of Eternal Fjord is centered on Falck, but the book is about the people of Greenland—Inuit and Danish—and how the country was shaped and reshaped by its waves of settlers. Falck’s story is grafted on to real history, so skillfully its hard to say where the joins are.
After a brief, disturbing prologue that will only make sense after reading most of The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, we meet Morten Falck as he arrives in Copenhagen in the early 1780s. His father has sent him from their small settlement north of Christiania (later Oslo) to train as a clergyman. Flack would much prefer to be a physician—anything other a clergyman—and spends much of his time at dissections and sneaking into lectures. This changes when he falls in and out of love with the daughter of his landlord. After failing to commit to Miss Schultz, Falck finally commits to being a priest (Lutheran, not Catholic). He barely graduates before signing on to go to Greenland.
The clergy is the only thing Falck doesn’t eventually abandon. (He tries anyway.) This is the great failing of Falck’s life. Over and over again, he angers, renounces, betrays, or leaves the people he used to love and who might have loved him. If Leine didn’t occasionally hand over the reins of narration to other characters—Falck’s catechist, his lover, a constable, and other characters—I don’t know that I might have been able to finish.
Greenland itself also kept my attention. I asked to read this book mostly because of the setting. Years ago, I read Judith Lindbergh’s The Thrall’s Tale, set during an earlier failed attempt to setting the eastern coast of Greenland around the year 1000 C.E. I remember the book as relentless misery. Centuries later, Danish colonization was more successful, though illness and famines kept things pretty harrowing for anyone choosing to live there. Falck comes close to death more than once and there’s a sense that everyone is hanging on by the skin of their teeth. The fat times are not that fat; the lean times are very lean indeed.
The title of the book comes from two Inuits, a husband and wife, who took the Christianity they learned from the Danish missionaries and set up a commune in the early 1780s. (Leine mentions the sparse, but real, historical records of the pair.) By preaching and trading without Danish oversight, Habakuk and Maria Magdalena drew the ire of the colonists. Their community at Evighedsfjord (Forever Fjord or Eternal Fjord) was destroyed. Falck (fictional) spent a few short years at Eternal Fjord, experiencing a religious revelation before its destruction.
Destruction is a recurring them in The Prophets of Eternal Fjord. Falck’s peripatetic wandering around Greenland, Denmark, and Norway just as events turn for the worse makes him seem like a victim. Falck might be pitied if it weren’t for his inability to appreciate the love of the good women he finds. Any sympathy I felt for him evaporated when he abandoned yet another woman.
What sticks with me about this book is the sense of enduring stubbornness in many of the characters. The Inuit people are enduring the Danish, as if they know that the colonization attempt can only be temporary. They just need to wait out the pale foreigners. Falck’s nemesis, colony official Jørgen Kragstedt, is waiting for Falck to make a fatal mistake or die—either is an acceptable outcome. Falck spends most of his years in the Sukkertoppen settlement marking time until he can go back to Denmark or Norway, except when he lives at Eternal Fjord. All of the conflicts in The Prophets of Eternal Fjord come from characters butting heads and refusing to back down.
The Prophets of Eternal Fjord will upset readers. There is a lot of violence, sexual abuse, racism, and deadly explosions and fires. Still, I was able to see the beauty in Leine’s exposition about the stark landscape of Greenland. The descriptions of food being eaten after a long hunger sent me scurrying to my own kitchen. And, through it all, I kept hoping that Falck would find a place and a woman he loved enough to settle down. Even in the harshness of late eighteenth-century Greenland, there is always the hope that next time will be better.
I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 13 July 2015.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Prescribe this book to readers who have too many “first world problems” or are prone to whining.