Northwords Now

New writing, fresh from Scotland and the wider North
Sgrìobhadh ùr à Alba agus an Àird a Tuath Twitter Facebook Search

The Call of the Cormorant by Donald S. Murray

A Review by Jennifer Morag Henderson

The Call of the Cormorant
Donald S. Murray
Saraband (2022) £9.99

The Call of the Cormorant tells the story of Karl Einarsson. As the subtitle of the novel says, it’s an ‘unreliable biography’ of an unreliable man, who fictionalised much of his own life. Einarsson was a real person, who was born in Iceland, raised in the Faroe Islands, and then lived in Denmark and Germany during the time of Second World War. An artist and a storyteller, in this book Einarsson works for a printer and advertiser, and tells tales about his life.

Einarsson claimed to be the Count of St Kilda (among other titles), and argued that St Kilda was all that remained of the lost city of Atlantis. During the Second World War, his claims came to the attention of the Nazis: interested in the potential of Einarsson’s Aryan roots, they got him to broadcast radio bulletins to the Faroes, in the manner of Lord Haw-Haw. The Faroe Islands were (and are) officially part of Denmark: Denmark had been occupied by Nazi Germany, but, because of the location of the Faroes (mid-way between Scotland and Iceland), Britain had occupied the strategically-important islands. The Nazis wanted to use Einarsson to reach his fellow islanders. In Donald Murray’s book, Einarsson chooses to broadcast in what he claims is the original language of Atlantis, at once reaching out and making himself unintelligible.

It’s a powerful scene in the novel: Einarsson has lived on the edges, imitating noblemen and railing against people who he thinks have stopped him taking his rightful place in the world, including a Jewish boss. However, he ultimately rejects the Nazi ideology in favour of poetry, retreating into a fantasy world of islands and bird life – while remaining simultaneously aware of the realities and coldly calculating how best he can survive.

Einarsson is an interesting character, but this book actually starts from the point of view of a Hebridean fisherman, who is shipwrecked near to Einarsson’s childhood home in the Faroe Islands. The point of view alternates throughout the book, mainly between Karl Einnarsson himself and Christianna, his sister, but occasionally also letting us see the action from other perspectives. The perspective of the Scottish islander is particularly important, as this book wants to talk about islands in general: about the people who are brought up there and whether they choose to leave or stay and also, importantly, about how other people see those islands. Einarsson is able to get away with many of his Northwords Now Issue 44, Spring–Summer 202332 REVIEWS outrageous statements because people on the mainland are so ill-informed, seeing the islands as a romantic ‘other’ on which they can project their fantasies.

Christianna, Karl Einnarsson’s sister, chooses to stay on the islands and marry a quiet Faroeman. In the narrative, she’s an important counterweight to her brother, but her morality seems very Hebridean – she would have been a good match for the man she actually wanted to marry, the shipwrecked sailor of the opening passages of the book. It is very hard to write about someone else’s culture – even if many island communities have things in common, they also have many points of difference. But when Christianna felt trapped in her island home with an unspeaking husband and a newborn child, so miserable that she could hardly even leave her house, I had to put the book down for a day or so because I just couldn’t bear to read this familiar story. Christianna’s state of mind is told in a few sentences, as her brother Karl – or their father – is the focus. Christianna remains stoic, stuck facilitating others’ lives right to the end. She can’t leave or stay happily, and I wish she had something more.

My strong engagement with the characters tells you how well-written this book is, and I would highly recommend it. For all that this is an island book, much of the action is set in Europe: Karl Einarsson leaves his small home for wider horizons, and his adventures likewise deserve a wide audience.

Northwords Now acknowledges the vital support of Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
ISSN 1750-7928 - Print Design by Gustaf Eriksson - Website by Plexus Media