"The Greenhouse" by Audur Ava Olafsdottir [Icelandic Literature]
Audur Ava Olfasdottir’s The Greenhouse, translated by Brian FitzGibbon, is one of only three Icelandic translations coming out in 2011, so it deserves a special bit of attention. This also happens to be the first Icelandic title to be published by AmazonCrossing, the relatively new imprint that’s dedicated to doing all books in translation.
First up, here’s a bit about Audur herself:
Auður A. Ólafsdóttir was born in Reykjavík in 1958. She is a lecturer in history of art at the University of Iceland. She has worked as an art historian, and taught history of art, e.g. at the Icelandic Drama School, and has been director of the University of Iceland Art Collection. She has curated art exhibitions, and written about art and art history in various media. [. . .]
Auður has been universally praised for her uniquely hypnotic style and artistic approach. She grips the reader by presenting believable characters who have to cope with unexpected and often comic situations, and she constantly takes the reader by surprise. [Bio from Fabulous Iceland.]
The Greenhouse (referred to elsewhere as The Cutting) is Auður’s third novel, and came out in Iceland in 2007, and really is about a greenhouse (in part):
For Lobbi, the tragic passing of his mother proves to be a profound catalyst. Their shared love of tending rare roses in her greenhouse inspires him to leave his studies behind and travel to a remote village monastery to restore its once fabulous gardens. While transforming the garden under the watchful eye of a cinephile monk, he is surprised by a visit from Anna, a friend of a friend with whom he shared a fateful moment in his mother’s greenhouse, and the daughter they together conceived that night. In caring for both the garden and the little girl, Lobbi slowly begins to assume the varied and complex roles of a man: fatherhood with a deep relationship with his child, cooking, nurturing, and remaining also a son, brother, lover, and…a gardener. A story about the heartfelt search for beauty in life, The Greenhouse is a touching reminder of our ability to turn the small things in everyday life into the extraordinary.
On the Amazon page for this book there’s also an interview with Auður:
Q: What inspired you to get inside the head of a twenty-something man?
AAO: The novel tells the story of a very young father who is “practically brought up in a greenhouse” and has three main interests in life: sex, death, and cultivating roses. The story focuses on his many complex roles as a son, a twin brother, a lover, and a father. I was particularly interested in fatherhood, which is in many ways an abstract experience—especially when you have a child with a stranger, like Lobbi does—compared to the woman’s experience of giving birth. I like to play with traditional gender roles by talking about male sensitivity. [. . .]
Q: Through Lobbi’s grief-stricken eyes after the death of his mother, you paint Iceland as barren and desolate place. But how would you describe the country yourself?
AAO: The natural landscape is breathtaking. It is like being lost in space or in infinity, and it gives you the feeling of total freedom. Being an Icelander also means being part of a small community of 317,000 people and being constantly confronted with the unpredictable: weather, volcanic eruptions, bankruptcy. Being an Icelandic writer means expressing myself in a marginal language that no one understands.
And here’s a brief excerpt:
Because I’m leaving the country and it’s difficult to know when I’ll be back, my seventy-seven-year-old father is preparing a memorable last supper for me and is going to cook something from one of Mom’s handwritten recipes, the kind of thing Mom might have cooked on such an occasion.
—I was thinking of having fried haddock in breadcrumbs, he says, followed by cocoa soup with whipped cream.
I pick Josef up from the care centre in the seventeen-year-old Saab while Dad tries to sort out the cocoa soup. Josef is standing eagerly on the sidewalk and clearly happy to see me. He’s in his Sunday best because I’m leaving, wearing the last shirt Mom bought him, violet with a pattern of butterflies.
While Dad is frying the onions and the fish lies waiting on a bed of breadcrumbs, I stroll out to the greenhouse to fetch the rose cuttings I’m taking with me. Dad follows me at a distance with the scissors to get some chives to put on the haddock. Josef follows silently in his footsteps but has stopped entering the greenhouse since he saw the broken glass after the February storms, when several windows were smashed. Instead he stands outside by the mounds of snow, observing us. He and Dad are wearing the same waistcoats, hazel brown with golden diamonds.
—Your mother used to put chives on her haddock, says Dad, and I take the scissors from him, bend over an evergreen bush in a corner of the greenhouse, trim the tips off the chives, and hand them to him. I’m the sole heir to Mom’s greenhouse, as Dad frequently reminds me. Though it’s hardly a vast plantation; we’re not talking about three hundred and fifty tomato plants and fifty cucumber trees that have been passed down from mother to son here, just the rosebushes that pretty much take care of themselves and about ten remaining tomato plants, maybe. Dad is going to do the watering while I’m away.
—I was never really into greens, lad, that was more your mother’s thing. One tomato a week is about all I can stomach. How many tomatoes do you think these plants will yield?
—Try to give them away then.
—I can’t be constantly knocking on neighbors’ doors with tomatoes.
—What about Bogga?
I say this knowing full well that Mom’s age-old friend probably shares Dad’s limited palate for food.
—You don’t honestly expect me to go visiting Bogga with three kilos of tomatoes every week? She’d insist on me staying for dinner.
I know what’s coming next.
—I would’ve liked to have invited the girl and the child, he continues, but I knew you’d be against it.
—Yeah, I’m against it; me and the girl, as you call her, are not a couple and never have been, even though we have a child together. It was an accident.
I’ve already explained myself perfectly clearly and Dad must surely realize that the child is the result of a moment’s carelessness, and that my relationship with its mother lasted one quarter of a night, not even, a fifth, more like it.