The Good Hope

Written by W. Glyn Jones (trans.) William Heinesen
Review by Lucinda Byatt

William Heinesen was a native of the Faeroe Islands – where this book is set – although he wrote in Danish. He was renowned as a poet and novelist (this is the fifth novel recently retranslated by Dedalus), but he made his living as an artist. Indeed he offers vibrant descriptions of these sea-bound islands and, above all, their inhabitants and the oppressive confines of the world in which they lived. In the 17th century, the Faroes were so remote from Denmark that the feudal overlord, Von Gabel, ruled through a provost and a military commander.

The Good Hope is essentially a story of the struggle between good and evil, in which good is represented by the newly arrived pastor, Peder Børresen, and evil by the military commander, Lieutenant Claus Cattorp, a villain of biblical proportions. The inhabitants of Torshavn, the largest town, are mostly harmless, pious folk, but they are treated by the authorities as rebellious and ignorant. Even the law is in the hands of Cattorp and his cronies at the fort because the judge is corrupt. Many – including the pastor himself – are locked into the “Black Hole” for days. Børresen decides to start a journal and to note all these wrongdoings, including the social problems (prostitution, abortion, forced labour and witchcraft), in a series of letters written in diary form. This unusual tale is strangely compelling, and it also opens a window onto a little-known society at a time of social and political upheaval.