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Kalmann Reviews

“Joachim B. Schmidt’s novels show a sensitivity to how the accumulation of seemingly small events makes up the drama of human life.” --Sjón

 “A Swiss author writes a book that takes place in Raufarhöfn (!) and creates characters that are more Icelandic than anything Icelandic. What kind of magician is this?”--Hallgrímur Helgason (101 Reykjavik)

“Kalmann Ódinsson, the 33-year-old neurodivergent man and self-proclaimed sheriff of the remote village of Raufarhöfn, Iceland, who narrates this endearing slice-of-life mystery, Swiss Icelandic author Schmidt’s English-language debut, fills his days hunting Arctic foxes and catching sharks to ferment into the delicacy called hákarl. Lonely, Kalmann longs for another close relationship like the one he shares with his ailing grandfather, who helped raise him to be empathetic and independent. Kalmann’s discovery while hunting of a frozen pool of human blood coincides with the disappearance of a wealthy but debt-ridden local hotel owner whose influence and shady business dealings touch many of Raufarhöfn’s residents. When Birna, a Reykjavík police officer, arrives to investigate, Kalmann winds up navigating the insular social dynamics of the once-thriving fishing community in his efforts to help her, even though he’s underestimated as little more than the town fool. The narrative charms of Schmidt’s unlikely detective will keep readers turning the pages. Nordic crime fans won’t want to miss this unusual take on a familiar story.”--- Publishers Weekly

 

"This affectionately comical yet beautiful and unique Icelandic mystery ensures the reader sits on the edge of a precipice before understanding strikes. Thoroughly provocative, punchy, thoughtful and empathetic, I found this novel and its narrator to be an unforgettable reading experience. While his thoughts often put him on a different track to others, Kalmann is a hunter. His discovery of blood in the snow lead the police to believe a missing businessman has been murdered, even though there is no body. Kalmann has the most wonderfully distinctive voice, it feels open and trusting, and he appears to see the small almost inconsequential things that actually really matter. The plot hums along, the connection to Kalmann grows, and Joachim B Schmidt encouraged the suspense to hover over me as I read. I found myself waiting, ready to tip one way or the other as my thoughts tripped and twisted. Translator Jamie Lee Searle does a cracking job, I felt as though I belonged, even while exclaiming at the differences. The impact of Kalmann shouldn’t be underestimated, he creeps under your skin and sits there quite contentedly waiting for your reaction. A worthy LoveReading Star Book, Kalmann is strikingly vivid, surprising, and incredibly powerful too. Loved it!" ---Love Reading Star Book LIZ ROBINSON"

 

"Wow. I’m not really sure what to say. Apparently, KALMANN by Joachim B. Schmidt (in what seems to be an inspired translation by Jamie Lee Searle) is the only English-language translation of this Swiss/Icelandic writer. He has written “several novels and short stories” according to his author bio, and I really want Bitter Lemon Press out of London, who dumped this on my porch, to make sure they publish the rest of his work.

Because KALMANN, and Schmidt, is a fucking find. It is special. Sure, you can harrumph and say it’s just more Nordic Noir but it’s on the level of Karin Fossum and if you know my preferences, then you know that’s super-high praise indeed. Why is it so good? 

Kalmann is a man in his mid-thirties living in a remote area of Iceland. He is a simple sort, indeed has some sort of brain disorder or learning disability, and is self-aware of this. But he is relatively content. He would like to find a wife but knows this might be difficult. Instead, he occupies himself with his shark-catching skills (he makes fermented shark and is the second-best shark fermenter in all of Iceland; his grandfather being the best). 

However, when out on a hunting expedition, he finds a large pool of blood in the snow, and when he fails to report this to the authorities, the world Kalmann has crafted around himself begins to crumble. KALMANN is written in the first-person, and while this might give rise to some politically correct rumbles about mentally-disabled viewpoints, he begins and remains a stalwart and admirable hero throughout the work. There is a lot of humor that comes from his thoughts and opinions, but they all make perfect sense when you think of them. He has plenty to say to make you laugh, but you also feel his rage and frustration when things don’t go his way.

But the writing style is other-worldly. A paragraph will begin with a mundane description of what Kalmann sees, and then it spirals out of control into past storylines and random thoughts so that two pages later, we end up as confused and disoriented as Kalmann himself is. And then he goes right back to what he was doing. This is a tremendous book. An absolute must buy-and-read. It’s 300 pages long and I took it down in one sitting because I was so enraptured by the world, the story, the characters. Very strong stuff indeed. Thank you, Bitter Lemon Press — more please! " --Bookgasm

 

 

“Clearly not getting enough snow and ice in his native Switzerland, in 2007 Joachim B. Schmidt made the logical choice to emigrate to Iceland, the setting for his new novel Kalmann [Bitter Lemon].  Apart from a stand-out cover showing a Greenland shark (pertinent to the plot), this ‘Icelandic mystery’ features one of the most unusual protagonists in crime fiction. Kalmann is a 33-year-old shark fisherman and Arctic fox hunter living a solitary life in a small, run down coastal village, where the locals tolerate his eccentricities and think him essentially harmless, even when he dons a cowboy hat, a tin star, toy gun and holster, and proclaims himself town sheriff.

The problem is that Kalmann, existing on junk food and daytime television, is not all that worldly; in fact decidedly removed from reality at times and prone to outbursts of violent anger. The disturbed Kalmann is therefore, probably the last person suited to play a part in the investigation into the disappearance of the town’s most important citizen, but he’s involved from the offset whether he wants to be or not. Told from Kalmann’s mentally restricted (the locals call him ‘a retard’) viewpoint, this is no way a conventional detective story - Greenland sharks and polar bears play a part - but it is a fascinating novel about how an innocent but unsound mind processes the mysteries of everyday living (and how to talk to women) as well the effects of violent death. The story is told with pathos and much humour and a genuine sympathy for the damaged hero, not mention slipping in some satirical barbs about Icelandic attitudes to foreigners. The only thing it does not explain is why fermented, sometimes rotting, shark meat should be such an Icelandic delicacy.”---Shots Magazine

 

“In Kalmann, the Swiss-born journalist and author Joachim B Schmidt brings us the story of a local man’s disappearance from the remote village of Rauferhöfn in northeast Iceland. However, this isn’t your typical gloomy Nordic noir crime mystery. Schmidt’s take on a small community and its inhabitants is refreshingly unorthodox and quirky, despite its sombre and serious plot.

Hotel owner Róbert McKenzie’s disappearance and the events that follow are from through the perspective of Kalmann Ódinsson. Kalmann isn’t the narrator we’re used to in crime fiction. He isn’t a detective or private investigator. He’s not a journalist or part of an intelligence unit. In fact, Kalmann is different from most other adults. At 33 he has the mental ability of a six-year-old. He was told that the wheels in his head ran backwards and, according to him, sometimes his brain just switches off, which can lead to bouts of anger and losing control.

Our first introduction to Kalmann is when he is stumbling across the Melrakkaslétta plain, hungry, exhausted, confused and smeared in blood. He has been hunting Schwarzkopf, the elusive blue fox, up at the Arctic Henge monument when he finds a pool of blood in the snow. Kalmann follows the blood trail, but there is no body in sight. He doesn’t want to get involved and decides to keep quiet about his gruesome discovery.

The disappearance of a man of Robert McKenzie’s stature doesn’t go unnoticed for long and when the police are called in to investigate, Kalmann has no choice but to show Detective Birna, all the way from Reykjavik, where he saw the blood. Proudly wearing his cowboy hat, sheriff’s badge and Mauser pistol he looks like the Sheriff of Raufarhöfn and acts the part even though he is frequently ridiculed for doing so. He wears these items with pride because it’s the only connection he has to his estranged American father who was briefly at the US military base outside Reykjavik.

Even though Kalmann’s brain is wired differently there are a few things he’s very good at. Hunting the Greenland shark is one of them, hence the book’s unusual cover. However, it’s been getting more difficult to find them due to the increasing water temperature and he often returns to shore empty-handed. When he does catch one he uses his family’s secret recipe to make hákarl, the fermented fish Iceland is known for. He’s proud that his his hákarl is almost as good as his grandfather’s and regularly takes some to him in the retirement home, even though his grandfather doesn’t recognise him any more.

Kalmann’s relationship with his hunter-fisherman grandfather is the most important part of his life. He was Kalmann’s only male role model growing up and the person who taught him to trust his gut when he was unsure of what’s right or wrong. He also instilled in Kalmann a love and respect for the sea. He tries to visit his grandfather as often as he can get a lift from the talkative Magga. That is, until Magga, who was once involved with Róbert McKenzie and pregnant with his child, unexpectedly dies.

Through the portrayal of Kalmann’s life and his observations of the town’s people, critical information is gradually revealed. For example: Róbert McKenzie planned to take the last fish quota to Dalvik which would lead to the only remaining income generated in town disappearing. Rauferhöfn thrived during the herring boom, but stocks were depleted and the fisherman had to broaden their search until there was almost nothing left. Could McKenzie’s plans have been enough reason to kill him?

Or, was he mauled by a stray and hungry polar bear swimming all the way from Greenland as Kalmann wants everyone to believe?

Occasionally you might forget that this is a crime fiction novel. Schmidt so cleverly builds up his characters that they are often more interesting than the disappearance that’s being investigated. It’s also an extremely handy diversion technique. Likewise, Schmidt’s descriptions of the landscape and the animals inhabiting it are vivid and even interesting. These details are something native Icelandic crime writers might not necessarily consider as interesting for readers outside the country. Perhaps a Swiss author who has been living in Iceland for the past 13 years brings a fresh outlook?

The use of a narrator that’s naive, yet astutely observant, and a slow developing plot results in a pleasantly unique, less dark and gloomy and mainly character-driven novel which is unlike any Nordic noir you’ve read before. Moving, intriguing and different, Kalmann is recommended reading.—Crime Fiction Lover

 

"For nearly twenty years London based independent publisher Bitter Lemon have introduced a very diverse range of translated crime fiction to English language audiences despite publishing a modest half dozen books a year. I’d highly recommend exploring their catalogue of exceptional crime fiction publications countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Japan, Turkey, France, Italy, Spain and Germany - many of which I consider as essential reading for any crime fiction fans.  The one notable region that the publisher have avoided to date is Scandinavia (although check out their novels by Harri Nykänen & Katia Ivar from Finland).  While they appear to have taken a step closer with the publication of an Icelandic mystery, Kalmann actually follows the publishers’ tradition of publishing Swiss authors. These have previously included Friedrich Glauser and Hansjörg Schneider.  Joachim B. Schmidt, born in Grisons, Switzerland in 1981 emigrated to Iceland in 2007, where he lives with his family in Reykjavík and works as a tour guide which he combines with being a journalist, the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Perhaps more to the point, Kalmann sees the emergence of a new unique voice in a radically different novel from those pended by either Icelandic crime fiction writers like Arnaldur Indriðason, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Ragnar Jónasson or the aforementioned Swiss authors. 

Set in the northern peninsula of Raufarhöfn, Iceland, I had the sense as I read this book that this is Schmidt’s ode to the country he has made his home. The story effectively depicts the beauty, the isolation, the diversity and the wildlife that are present in one of the most remote outposts of Europe. It also presents many of the challenges in living in such an environment as well as a consideration of some of the perceptions of those who live there.

Kalmann features the portrayal of a neurodivergent narrator of the same name and I feel an extremely high level of skill has gone both into the creation of this character and its superb translation by Jamie Lee Searle. The character’s neurologically atypical patterns of thought and behaviour are shown from the outset of the book in a very effective manner.  At times his thoughts are conveyed as simplistic such as when he states: “things with me had never really gone forward. They suspected that the wheels in my head ran backwards.”

When in company his comments often appear carefully pre-learned or habitual while his interpretations of events and the interactions between other characters are often interpreted innocently and literally. The result is a fully formed character who the reader cautiously lends their sympathies to. Someone whose knowledge has been acquired by the conversations he has had with his grandfather, mother, other residents of the village, through the television programmes he watches and online chats with his only friend. While on the surface he appears to be a fool, he is actually inherently wise to his surroundings with an excellent memory.

The book starts when Kalmann, while tracking a fox he has named Schwarzkopf finds a pool of blood in the hills above Raufarhöfn. The location is Arctic Henge - a modern day stone construction which evokes neolithic monuments that was built to encourage tourism (this place really exists). When the villagers discover that local businessman and hotelier Robert McKenzie has vanished this prompts a search for his body and his presumed murderer. Thinking differently from the way the rest of the village do so, Kalmann presents his theory that a polar bear has killed McKenzie thus making himself an unreliable witness for police investigator Birna and a very unpredictable interviewee for the media teams that have descended on the village. 

As the story develops, we learn that Kalmann was born to an Icelandic mother and a long departed American airforce man, Kalmann sees himself as the local sheriff of Raufarhöfn, wears a cowboy hat and carries a Mauser gun, an heirloom from his father.  He has been part raised by his grandfather who trained him to fish Greenland shark and prepare the traditional Icelandic speciality of hákarl (fermented shark). It appears that these undeniable skills, which are unique to the region, allow him to be tolerated by the other villagers despite his idiosyncrasies. Kalmann fantasies of relationships and sexual relations with some of the girls in the village yet it is clear that it is company he craves most.  He is constantly worried about the mortality of his grandfather who is now living in a care home 130 km away. His frustrations are occasionally expressed through loud vocal or violent outbursts when things do not go his way to acts of self-harming. While the crime story is what will bring most readers to this book, many of the most memorable aspects of the novel are how the character of Kalmann amuses, charms and alarms the reader in equal measure.

Life in the harsh climate of Raufarhöfn is one of considerable endurance with the local population believing they and their ways of life have been forgotten by the latte drinkers of Reykjavik. The onset of global warming and the introduction of fish quotas have made fishing a far less lucrative business than it was previously. When it is found that Robert McKenzie has been involved in some shady business and has sold the village’s quota, this seems certain to see the collapse of fishing in the area. This creates numerous enemies for the hotelier whose workforce of East Europeans had already fostered suspicion. While providing motives and context, I feel these carefully and sensitively crafted portrayals of some of the realistic issues such as the impact of the decline of the herring and fishing industries are very revealing. While the themes of isolation and depopulation of rural areas is regularly a feature of Icelandic noir, I did feel that some of the societal issues featured in Kalmann went deeper into an examination of the country’s psyche.  The breath-taking peacefulness of the savage landscape on a calm day is revealed on the occasions that Kalmann goes on the sea. Yet it is also from the sea that two discoveries emerge that start to bring the investigation to a conclusion…

The first of these is some macabre evidence pointing towards the fate of McKenzie while the second points at a reason why he might have disappeared. As the book reaches its climax Kalmann unwittingly stumbles into the middle of a police investigation with hilarious consequences. There is a real art to making humour work in translation and Jamie Lee Searle has excelled at doing so in these sections. A suspenseful episode follows leading to the final revelations before an ending that I found was quite moving.

Kalmann is a remarkable read as it is quirky, warm and deeply heartfelt story yet somehow manages to be suspenseful, insightful and humourous. It’s a book with a lot of soul with a lead character that you will really invest in.  Originally published in Germany, Kalmann was published in Iceland relatively recently  to great acclaim. It might just be the book to open Icelandic fiction and its authors in the same way Antti Tuomainen provided a contrasting angle in contrast to darker writers of fiction in Finland. I’d highly recommend this first English translation of Joachim B Schmidt’s work and I look keenly forward to reading further works by him.”—Fiction From Afar

 

 

‘The Greenland shark is a miracle of nature, even though it wouldn’t win any beauty contest. It has a marvelous sense of smell, probably better than that if a dog […] is far down on the seabed, two hundred metres deep or two thousand metres deep, it doesn’t matter to the shark.’ 

The above information is essential if you are serious about catching sharks. Also, you need to be aware of their various habits, and what they like to eat to make a success of hunting for these enormous creatures. By the way: ‘it’s a complete nonsense that red-haired children used to be used as bait – even though you could use them if you really wanted.’ It’s not a job for the faint of heart or those who cannot properly commit and just want an easy catch. But of course, Kalmann knows everything about this subject and that’s why he is also the best shark-catcher in the tiny village located on the northeastern tip of the Melrakkaslétta peninsula, in the north of the country. In fact, he’s renowned for producing the best hákarl, the fermented shark meat delicacy which could easily kill people with its powerful stink. But it doesn’t kill. Hákarl is appreciated only by some connoisseurs, and Kalmann is fine about it. He is familiar with how the village inhabitants live, react and deal with life; he feels responsible for them; after all he is the self-appointment Sheriff of Raufarhöfn; complete with a cowboy hat, a sheriff badge and an ancient Mauser, physical memories of his American father. Wise and courageous, he takes pride in protecting people and every day he treks across wide plains, hunts Arctic foxes and keeps an eye on any reckless polar bears that might feel inclined to swim from Greenland to Iceland. His routine keeps him grounded and relatively happy, though he makes no secret of his wish to find a wife urgently, OK, his first girlfriend. Basically things are fine. Well, sometimes his brain works in a truly strange way but at the age of nearly thirty-four he is definitely not a village idiot even if he didn’t spend much time at school and was called a retard, and eats too much of Cocoa Puffs (but ‘never for lunch. That was my rule’). He relies on his gut feeling, in times of need wants his mother who works as a nurse in Akureyri, and desperately misses his Grandfather who slowly withers away in a residential home in Húsavík. Yes, that Húsavík of Eurovision Song Contest: The story of Fire Saga fame. And Akureyri that you might have read about in Oskar Guðmundsson’s The Commandments.

Back to the small community… When one day towards end of the winter Kalmann discovers a pool of blood in the snow, the sequence of very small events threatens to overwhelm him. He accidentally tells someone about his discovery, police are notified, and he realises that local businessman Robert McKenzie, otherwise known as the King of Raufarhöfn, is missing. But is there any connection between this disappearance and what Kalmann has seen? Is the existence of almost deserted village in peril? Was Robert eaten by a large animal or killed by the East European mafia? Detective Birna arrives from Reykjavik, and suddenly the remote isolated spot on the Icelandic map, 609 kilometres from the capital, becomes more news-worthy than a political summit.

 If you had no interest in Icelandic flora and fauna before then now it’s time to get acquainted through Kalmann’s eyes and his simple but wise thoughts. Joachim B. Schmidt’s mission seems to be enlighten us in the manner of glorious madness akin to TV series Fargo or the Finnish author Antti Tuomainen’s fictional universe. We have snow, cold and some darkness; weird characters and formal protocols; gossip and stereotypes; tenderness and compassion. What we don’t have is the corpse or the visual evidence of the crime, and we’re not totally sure about the motive as speculations get wild. As the police investigation progresses and Kalmann’s head begins to explode from the contradicting theories and invasion into his calm naïve existence, we also get rough dark humour and realisation that we might live in parallel worlds where events can be seen and understood in contrasting ways. The background of serious issues such as losing fish quotas and impact of the changes on the lives of people dependent on stable climate: social and meteorological, adds to the beauty of this unusual and rich novel superbly translated by Jamie Lee Searle. You will love Kalmann. 

‘People need rules in life, that’s important, because otherwise there would be anarchy, and anarchy is when there are no police and no rules and everyone does whatever they want. Like setting fire to a house, for example.‘

---Nordic Lighthouse

 

 

 

 

 

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    Francois Von Hurter
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