Arnaldur Indridason’s third ‘Icelandic Thriller’ finds his Inspector Erlendur in a plush Reykjavík hotel five days before Christmas trying to puzzle o...moreArnaldur Indridason’s third ‘Icelandic Thriller’ finds his Inspector Erlendur in a plush Reykjavík hotel five days before Christmas trying to puzzle out yet another gruesome murder—the brutal stabbing of the hotel handyman cum Santa Claus—that seems to have its roots in the past. Indridason’s previous efforts (the multi-award winning Jar City and Silence of the Grave) practiced such hindsight to rather compelling effect: rather than celebrate in the killers’ capture, we empathize with their motives. In fact, we almost applaud them for enacting what feels like a sort of karmic justice. Some people, it turns out, just really deserve to die.
In Voices, however, Indridason’s sympathies cast too large a net for either himself or his stodgy Inspector to reel in. It takes up the familiar cause of the downtrodden—battered women, abused children, victims of rape, those suffering from substance additions—but clumsily adds to it, trying to evoke even more reader compassion for Indridason’s new cast of prostitutes, pedophiles, and homosexuals. Unfortunately, trying to empathize with so many different characters leaves us not feeling for many of them at all. Moreover, reading Indridason’s frequently clunky prose (no fault of the translator—a seasoned veteran with Old Norse sagas and a fistful of modern Icelandic literary translations to his credit) reveals a distinct lack of authorial understanding. He wants to empathize with the hardships of gay men coming of age in 1980s Iceland, but doesn’t quite know how to, or even why. The act of empathizing has then become a knee-jerk reaction, and virtually abandons true insight into the experiences of another person for the satisfaction of arelatively empty gesture.
It’s pity that defines Voices—and a shame, too. For as we had seen in Indridason’s previous work, Iceland may be a small country where the phone book is alphabetized by first name, but its problems are not so different from our own.
I read a short story by Einar Mar Gudmundsson ("Uninvited") in the Icelandic issue of McSweeny's (Issue 15--it's really good, you should pick it up) a...moreI read a short story by Einar Mar Gudmundsson ("Uninvited") in the Icelandic issue of McSweeny's (Issue 15--it's really good, you should pick it up) and it had quite an effect on me. The story was broken into discreet sections, each a photographic anecdote which wasn't necessarily being included in linear order, but was organized in such a way that you felt as if you were entering the situation--and the events leading up to the immediate story--in an organic fashion. there was an event, there were emotions, there were moments leading up to and progressing from that event, and they all got sort of muddled up in the re-telling. Which is about as accurate of a portrayal of one's personal experience as I think you can get.
This is a narrative approach that I know I've harped on before--Isak Dinesen addresses her characters' memories and anecdotes in a similar fashion--but I think it really does merit some further attention. Chances are, when you're meeting someone new and sharing stories about your life, you don't reel off a time-line of events starting with your birth, progressing through your adolescence, and skipping one by one through each of the important events of your adult life without ever stopping on a digression, or more detailed explanation, or being pulled off course by a memory that perhaps isn't the point per se, but really did make a difference to the way your perspective developed. But for some reason, every biopic (what a foul terrible genre that is) and ever so many biographies approach one's life in this fashion. Which to me is a veritable attack on the nature of memory and a truly boring way to tell a story.
Like Gudmundsson's aforementioned short story, Angels of the Universe, understands memory and experience fully, and really gets to the heart of these by building meaning and significance slowly, as the book progresses. Chapters are divided into mini 'chaplets,' each of which relates a memory or image or exchange that when collaged together, gives you a broad, layered picture of the main character and of his experiences going in and out of a psychiatric hospital in Reykjavik in the 60s.
It doesn't sound like a fast, 'fun' read, but it's very compelling--wry and observant and funny, and never in the least self-pitying.
I know that people say that Proust wrote best about the nature of memory, but not being able to confirm or deny this yet (working on it), I'm going to...moreI know that people say that Proust wrote best about the nature of memory, but not being able to confirm or deny this yet (working on it), I'm going to go ahead and say that the Icelanders have my vote on this count so far. Much in the same fashion that Angels of the Universe broke memories into small, discreet episodes which were relayed in a more elliptical than linear fashion, The Journey Home finds its protagonist collaging together a series remembrances as she travels home to Iceland for the first time in 20 years.
While the narrative occasionally verges on the sentimental--which considering some of the subject matter (lovers sent to concentration camps, surprise pregnancies, familial estrangement) seems reasonable--over all, it is a rather moving story of a life lived under unusual and difficult circumstances. The prose is fluid, the characters well developed, and through successful allusions, the reader has a real sense of the world which exists outside of the confines of the story itself.
As an extra bonus, as the main character is an accomplished chef, there's also a great deal of decadent 'food-writing' throughout. Omelettes and salmon on a picnic, smoked lamb and ptarmigan at a 'Christmas' celebration in the middle of June, glazed duck, lobster bisque...even when the food doesn't technically sound appetizing (escargot in honey?), it still makes you hungry.(less)
The Swedish Academy’s Horace Engdahl recently asserted that "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. The...more(Review originally published in The L Magazine:
The Swedish Academy’s Horace Engdahl recently asserted that "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature…” The statement may have ruffled those hoping to see Roth or DeLillo finally honored, but Engdahl makes a valid point. Out of the 290,000 books published in the U.S. last year, only about 350 were new works in translation. (This is, of course, a loose estimate—no one’s keeping exact records.)
In response to this longstanding trend of literary xenophobia, the University of Rochester launched Open Letter, a press dedicated entirely to translated literature. Their first season of releases is an excellent primer for the reader looking to expand her horizons, particularly Bragi Ólafsson’s absurdist comedy (and possibly the funniest novel to be narrated from under a bed), The Pets.
Emil S. Halldorsson is a man beset by happenstance. He’s just happened to win a million króna in the Icelandic lottery, just happened to meet a woman on a plane who he’s “adored from a distance for nearly fifteen years,” and just happened to walk off with the eyeglasses of an eccentric linguist. But none of these random occurrences are nearly as disruptive to Emil’s apathetic existence as the arrival of Havard Knutsson, an Id-fueled persona non grata who literally drives Emil into hiding.
As Havard wreaks havoc on Emil’s life—breaking into his home, rifling through his belongings, inviting strangers over, and compromising his romantic relationships—Ólafsson creates a strangely sympathetic Catch-22. Having hidden from Havard rather than confronting him in the first place, it becomes increasingly difficult for Emil to take any action at all. “I have become the guilty party…” he laments, even as his invader helps himself to cognac and cigars.
And yet, the reader is also forced to consider Emil’s complicity, the responsibility that he bears for his own undoing. “Why on earth don’t I do something? What is wrong with me?” Emil bemoans, a pitiful (but certainly relatable) picture of self-loathing inaction.
Delightfully funny and unexpectedly complex, The Pets introduces American readers to a fresh voice and perspective, and provides ample incentive for us to crawl out from under the bed. (less)
After a recent reading in a small, internationally stocked New York bookstore, Icelandic author Bragi Ólafsson prepared to answer questions from the audience about his newly translated novel, The Ambassador. But rather than asking about the novel, or a previous novel (The Pets, published in the U.S. in 2008), or his prose style and writing inspiration, or even his former gig as the bassist in The Sugarcubes (a band fronted by Björk), the audience put him in the awkward position of providing a complex overview of the entire nation of Iceland — its history, relationship with Europe, and the collective feelings and opinions of its 320,000 inhabitants. Some of these questions veered toward the literary: one participant asked for a summary of the state of all Icelandic fiction, as well as an update on the popularity of crime fiction within mainland Scandinavian countries such as Sweden. Another was curious as to how the current economic crisis was affecting Icelandic poets — “Are they isolated? Are they upset?” This took the conversation to a more purely financial place, with other guests asking Bragi (Icelanders don’t go by their last names, which are patronymic, even in formal contexts) to summarize the events that led to the downfall of the Icelandic banking system, and what, if anything, could be done to resolve the situation.
Bragi answered each inquiry with remarkable civility, but it seems comically appropriate that a reading for The Ambassador would both force the author to become an impromptu emissary for his country and so quickly devolve into absurdity. Bragi is a master of the straight-faced farce, the simple situation that becomes suddenly and astonishingly convoluted. This was showcased to great effect in The Pets, in which the main character, Emil Halldorsson, spends the entirety of the novel hiding under his bed while an unwanted guest breaks into his home, drinks his imported liquor, and invites his friends over for a party.
As a rule, Bragi’s characters do not attend to social mores or banal niceties. They actively defy them, forcing anyone they come into contact with (including the reader) to negotiate an entirely unfamiliar brand of social interaction — one bereft of expected politeness, full of bumbling awkwardness and a host of errant choices that compound as the novel progresses. It’s part of what makes his work so engaging. As he explained prior to his reading, “It’s not very interesting to describe nice people.”
The Ambassador opens during a shopping trip to an upscale men’s clothing store in Reykjavik. Sturla Jón Jónsson, a fiftyish building super and published poet, is purchasing an expensive “English-style Aquascutum overcoat” that he’s coveted for quite some time. He’s bought the coat just in time for an upcoming trip to a poetry festival in Lithuania. As his departure nears, Sturla Jón has had a spate of good fortune: not only has he been selected the sole representative from Iceland at the festival, he’s also just published a new volume of poetry and won almost 10,000 kronur in the university-run gambling hall.
Almost immediately upon arriving in Vilnius, however, he finds out he has been publicly outed in Iceland for plagiarizing unpublished poems by his deceased cousin. Shortly after, his prized overcoat is stolen in a restaurant. Both events precipitate increasingly outlandish behavior on Sturla Jón’s part. To replace his lost garment, he steals an expensive overcoat from a different restaurant, only to find out that the man he robbed is a prominent American benefactor of the poetry festival. When one of the organizers accuses him of the theft, Sturla Jón abandons the event altogether, opting to hide out under an assumed name in a Vilnius boarding house.
Much bubbles under the surface of this seemingly simple, comic story of petty theft and a literary festival gone awry. The Ambassador is awash with Sturla Jón’s drifting and tangential memories, each adding an additional layer of nuanced development to his character and his complicated relationships. We’re introduced to his father, an aspiring filmmaker and librarian who is only 15 years older than his son. Sturla Jón’s mother, an unstable alcoholic, has recently taken up posing topless for local artists. His talented young cousin, Jónas, killed himself only days after promising to give Sturla Jón the manuscript for his first book of poems. There’s even a crossover character from The Pets, a teacher named Armann Valur. The rich back story and well-realized secondary characters add a fullness to the narrative, and a sense of Sturla Jón’s deeply interconnected community at home.
Perhaps the most productive recurrent theme in The Ambassador is creation, the question of to whom a creative idea, artistic product, or particularly powerful turn of phrase belongs — if it belongs to anyone at all. As it turns out, Sturla Jón is entirely surrounded by other authors and artists, not only his fellow poets at the festival. Before he’s left Iceland, several strangers and acquaintances — the man who sells him his overcoat, a neighbor in his apartment building — reveal that they, too, are artists of some stripe. Arriving in Lithuania, Sturla Jón shares a table with a Russian man at a strip club who is writing a novel, and a cab with a woman who is also a poet. His coat is later stolen (he believes) by a street musician playing Rod Stewart covers. “[P]eople everywhere around him seemed to have a need to tell him about their own desire to create,” Bragi writes. And for his part, Sturla Jón absorbs all of this creative output, internalizes it, and makes it his own.
Bragi complicates the ethical questions of authorship and plagiarism. Sturla Jón is an avid reader, for whom inspirational quotations, powerful metaphors, and particularly vivid images create a backdrop to all of life. He is constantly recalling lines of poetry, song lyrics, or descriptions that seem so apt, so perfect in describing his own experience that he feels as if he could have written them. Here, he is waiting at a bus station in Lithuania:
"He remembers a quotation he noted down in his black notebook shortly before leaving Iceland, a quotation he’d come across by chance . . . in a book which contained the musings of poets on their duty to explain the meaning of their poems. And when he opens his notebook as he sits there on the hard wooden bench outside the bus station . . . he feels as if these words by the English poet Donald Davie, published in 1959, are his own . . . [Y]ou could easily convince yourself that it was pure coincidence that they’d been printed in a book in England before Sturla’s handwriting had fixed the lines in a black notebook."
Haven’t most authors — and most readers — had a similar experience when first coming across a resonant line or passage? The Ambassador isn’t interested in wrapping up any debates about plagiarism — or any of Sturla Jón’s offbeat misadventures. It relishes the journey, and offers plenty of unexpected insights and ironic humor along the way.(less)
Alda Sigmundsdottir is the author behind the popular blog (now Facebook page) "The Icelandic Weather Report." After living abroad for many years, she...moreAlda Sigmundsdottir is the author behind the popular blog (now Facebook page) "The Icelandic Weather Report." After living abroad for many years, she returned to Iceland and found herself at once "one of us" but also very much unfamiliar with the "social mores and standards that prevailed in Icelandic society." So The Little Book of Icelanders is a short, anecdotal collection of observations ("sweeping generalizations and subjective opinions," she admits) made by a woman who is at once inside of Icelandic culture and yet is able to view it as (almost) a foreigner as well.
There's not a lot of analysis or deeper connections drawn in the course of Alda's Little Book, but then again, she really hasn't promised any such thing. It's not an anthropology text, after all. But the book is chock full of Fun Facts About Iceland, some of which, I think, circulate rather widely, and some of which were delightfully new to me. Some of the more entertaining and interesting Fun Facts Alda shares throughout are as follows:
--Family names (as in the sort of last names used in the US) have been "unequivocally illegal" in Iceland since 1991. Traditionally, Icelandic names are patronymic and end in "-son" for men and "-dottir" for women. So Bjarn Gudmundsson is Bjarn, son of Gudmund. His son would be, hypothetically, Karl Bjarnsson. But at some point, taking non-patronymic family names became very popular in Iceland, and people were just making things up "willy-nilly." So, to preserve tradition, no new family names can be taken.
--Continuing with the name-related rules: Iceland has a "Name Committee" that parents must submit the name of their child to for approval. And less traditional names, such as "Pixiebell or Apple or TigerLily" can absolutely be rejected. Alda explains: "Fascist? Perhaps. But consider: Icelandic is one complicated language...and one of its more difficult features is that the nouns, as opposed to just the verbs, decline according to case. They change. Either their endings change, or the whole name changes." So one of the Name Committee's jobs is to make sure that it's possible to decline a name in Icelandic without any trouble.
--As of 2010, 92% of Icelandic households had an internet connection--one of the highest rates of connectivity in the world. Icelandic dependence on Facebook is also unusually high: the post-meltdown revolution was, according to Alda, "largely organized through Facebook."
--Even though the current Icelandic Prime Minister is a woman, she is--in official correspondence--referred to with a male pronoun. Says Alda, "...an official committee appointed by the Icelandic authorities declared that all people in Iceland shall be referred to as 'men' and use the pronoun 'he.'"
--Icelanders rarely, if ever, say "excuse me."
--For Icelanders, the hot tub serves the same social purpose as the British pub or the Turkish teahouse. "It's where people go for rest and relaxation and also where they discuss current events and social affairs of prime importance."
--Icelandic children are universally made to nap outdoors in their prams, regardless of the weather. "This is believed to strengthen the child's constitution...All warmly ensconced in their lambskin-lined pouches, tucked behind a nylon net or blanket to keep out leaves, snowflakes, or other stray matter."
There's a lot more, all generously and humorously explained by Alda. The book is going to come out in hardback soon, but in the meantime, can be purchased as an e-book, here:http://icelandweatherreport.com/...
(For another observational exploration of Icelandic Culture with a bit more structure to it, check out Ring of Seasons by America-to-Iceland transplant Terry G. Lacy.)
Part road novel, part bildungsroman, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s The Greenhouse is a meditative story of love, death, fatherhood, and creating meaning in life even when it seems to be entirely dictated by chance. Published in English translation in 2011, it is the first of ten Icelandic novels that online retailer Amazon committed to publishing in the next year via its literature-in-translation press AmazonCrossing.
The Greenhouse opens on Lobbi, a young man to whom things seem to just happen—things which he is rarely equipped to handle. The last year has been particularly unsettling in this respect: first, his mother, with whom he was very close, died in a terrible car accident. Exactly a year later—after being unexpectedly conceived in “one quarter of a night, not even”—his first daughter was born. Feeling superfluous in the life of his child and misunderstood by his aging father, Lobbi is only really comfortable when he is gardening. And so, he decides to leave Iceland for an isolated monastery in a foreign country, hoping to restore a once-legendary garden to its former splendor and add to it a rare species of rose that he cultivated in his mother’s greenhouse.
Once Lobbi begins his journey, little goes to plan. He falls ill almost immediately after he departs and later gets lost and has to detour through a labyrinthian forest. He’s barely settled into his gardening routine at the monastery before the mother of his child arrives with his daughter, asking him to “bear [his] part of the responsibility” and look after the girl while she works on her graduate thesis. But instead of collapsing in this new role, Lobbi rises to the demands of fatherhood, and finds himself embracing such simple tasks as roasting potatoes and picking out hair ribbons.
Auður Ava is not only a fiction author, but also a practicing art historian. So it seems only natural that her prose is particularly visual in its descriptions, such as when Lobbi first arrives at his new village and sees the monastery on the edge of a cliff, “…severed in two by a horizontal stripe of yellow mist that makes it look like it’s hovering over its earthly foundations.” There is a tangible richness to each setting in the novel. Lobbi imagines the lava field where his mother died, visualizing a landscape of “russet heather, a blood red sky, violet red foliage on some small trees nearby, golden moss.” The cozy warmth of her greenhouse, a sofa among the tomato plants, contrasts with the forest Lobbi drives through “which seems endless and spans the entire spectrum of green.”
This evocative prose, fluidly translated by Brian FitzGibbon, provides a nice counterpoint to the simple but perceptive landscape of Lobbi’s continuous internal monologue. In the end, his own transformation mirrors that of his beloved roses, echoing his mother’s gardening philosophy: “it just needs a little bit of care and, most of all, time.”
2011 has been a banner year for Icelandic literature on the international stage. “Fabulous Iceland” was this year’s guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and in August, UNESCO named the Reykjavík as one of its five Cities of Literature—the only such city where English is not the native language. Perhaps even more notable for American readers, however, was the recent announcement that Amazon’s new publishing imprint, AmazonCrossing, will release an astounding ten Icelandic titles in new English translations over the next year. Judging by the press’ first Icelandic selection, The Greenhouse by Audur Ava Olafsdottir, English-readers can look forward to a catalog of remarkable Icelandic titles in the coming months.
At once wryly observant and sweetly comic, The Greenhouse is a meditation on such sweeping themes as sex, death, becoming a parent, manhood, and finding a place for oneself in the world which doesn’t once fall prey to cloying generalizations or cliche. Rather, through the eyes of twenty-two year old Arnljótur Thórir—or Lobbi, as his elderly father affectionately calls him—author Audur Ava Olafsdottir breathes a freshness and sincerity into her subject matter which is as charming as it is insightful.
The novel opens with a birth and a death. Having lost his mother in a car accident just a year earlier, Lobbi is also adjusting to his unexpected new role as father. His first child, Flóra Sól, is the product of the unlikely indiscretion of “one quarter of a night, not even, a fifth, more like it.” His mother’s death and the birth of his daughter both take place on the same day, which also happens to be his mother’s birthday. Lobbi’s father ascribes this confluence to “some intricate system,” while his son dismisses the coincidences as meaningless chance. “In my experience,” he sagely remarks, “as soon as you think you’ve got one thing figured out, something completely different happens.”
This statement ends up being wiser than Lobbi could imagine, as all of his best laid plans and worldviews are systematically upended throughout the novel. Feeling himself to be somewhat superfluous in the life of his daughter, and at loose ends with his father and autistic twin brother at home, Lobbi decides that rather than go to college, he will travel to a remote (unnamed) village monastery abroad to work as an gardener. Although he is generally indecisive and frequently unsure of himself, the decision is not a difficult one. Lobbi was “more or less brought up in a greenhouse” by his mother, who shared with her son a knack for cultivating tomatoes, flowers, and roses where once had only been “a flat stretch of barren land with rocks surrounded by wind-scattered pebbles.”
Lobbi is not even out of Reykjavík when his plans begin to go awry. He falls ill on the plane and must be hospitalized upon landing. Once recovered, he rents a car and begins his long journey, only to find himself lost in a deep forest and unexpectedly transporting an inn-keeper’s daughter to her drama class, 350 kilometers out of his way. Finally arriving at his destination, he finds solace in the monastery garden and a mentor in a monk with a love of dessert liqueurs and art house cinema. But he has not been working at the garden long when he is contacted by the mother of his child, an aspiring geneticist who would like Lobbi to “bear [his] part of the responsibility” and help her look after Flóra Sól while she completes her thesis. Thus, in very short order, Lobbi finds himself living with a woman, raising a daughter, learning to cook, and hopefully, figuring out what he wants to do with his life.
The Greenhouse is a meandering novel and although there are quite a few happenings throughout the narrative, not much actually “happens” per se, and nor does it need to. Lobbi’s daily negotiations of quotidian responsibilities are so sweetly related that something as simple as making dinner can become a rich, humorous, and illustrative moment. From Brian FitzGibbon’s seamless translation, it is clear that Audur Ava is a beautiful prose stylist who uses simple and straightforward language and imagery to convey complex emotions and observations. Interspersing scenes from Lobbi’s daily life with reflective moments from his past—the last conversation he had with his mother, sitting up and watching his daughter sleep the night that she was born—Audur Ava creates a fully realized portrait of a young man coming into himself without even really being aware of his own transformation.
The Greenhouse is a novel about finding beauty in the everyday, in simple moments and acts—in making dinner, and planting roses, and helping a child learn to walk. It is a story of creating meaning in one’s own life, especially in the face of chance and coincidence.(less)
Tomislav Boksic, or Toxic, is the go-to hitman for the Croatian mafi...moreReview published in The L Magazine on March 14, 2012, here: http://goo.gl/M8JcA
Tomislav Boksic, or Toxic, is the go-to hitman for the Croatian mafia in New York. A former soldier, Toxic prides himself on his impeccable hit record, his “sex bomb” girlfriend, and his decadent Manhattan lifestyle. But when kill #67 turns out to be an undercover FBI agent, Toxic has to flee America, assume the identity of a televangelist named Father Friendly, and hide in Iceland, a country he only knows from travel advertisements of “lunar landscapes and sunny faces.”
In the wake of its financial collapse, Iceland has invested significant energies in exporting itself both as a tourist destination (think of all those alluring subway ads), and—justifiably—as a hotbed of cultural innovation. A new partnership between AmazonCrossing and the Icelandic Literature Fund is representative of this effort: The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrímur Helgason is one of ten Icelandic novels that the press will release in English this year. Hallgrímur previously gained attention in the U.S. with his slackers-in-the-city novel 101 Reykjavík, and Baltasar Kormakur’s subsequent film adaptation. (There’s a fun moment in Housecleaning when Toxic discovers “the most famous bar in the land, heavily featured in some hip movie years back”—referring to the iconic Kaffibarinn in 101 Reykjavík.)
Housecleaning shares much of 101 Reykjavík’s sensibilities. On one hand, both protagonists—with their respective rating systems for women—could use some feminist sensitivity training. On the other, both books make for great mini-guides to Icelandic culture. It’s a clever device in Housecleaning—Toxic is essentially a tourist, so there’s ample reason to share factoids about Iceland: the country has no army, prostitutes, or handguns; and on particularly warm days (60ºF), businesses close for a “sun-break” so that “employees can go outside and enjoy the heat wave.”
Housecleaning is also notable in that it wasn’t actually translated from Icelandic—Hallgrímur wrote the novel in English. The prose is rhythmic and fluid, and showcases his linguistic creativity. Toxic not only has a flare for descriptions (“her hair… has the color of butter fresh from the fridge”) but also converts all the Icelandic names and words he hears into a phonetic English hitman-ese: he hears a woman’s name, Gunnhildur, as “Gunholder.” The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning was written prior to Iceland’s meltdown, but these efforts to familiarize outsiders with Icelandic culture and situate the country in a greater global context feel particularly appropriate for the current moment. (less)