21 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, which AmazonCrossing brought out this past January.

It may be due to my Icelandic Crush, but of all the books AmazonCrossing has brought out so far, this is the one that most excites me. Here are a few really choice passages from Larissa’s review that back up my interest:

While The Hitman’s Guide has much to recommend it in terms of plotting, pacing, and characterization, it is particularly interesting on a more “meta” level as well. For one, since Toxic arrives in Iceland with little to no previous knowledge of the country and culture, the book acts as something of a crash course in Icelandic society and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes, his observations about Iceland are more factual: he learns that it was originally christened by Irish monks, that Iceland has no prostitutes, and that “the beer costs a bear.” In other cases, the observations are a little more (self-)mocking (“According to Icelandic house rules, you’re allowed to enter in your shoes if they cost more than two hundred dollars”), and a bit opaque for someone unfamiliar with say, Iceland’s satirical contestant in the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest. But however these cultural snippets are conveyed, upon finishing the novel, the reader comes away with a fairly strong, if somewhat slanted, sense of Reykjavík and Icelandic culture.

Another interesting feature is the author’s use of language. Hallgrímur originally wrote The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning in English rather than Icelandic, and has an almost playful approach to rhyme and description throughout the novel. Toxic refers to a contender for his girlfriend’s affections, an Italian mafioso, as “the Talian Mobthrob.” In another passage, he describes the late-setting sun: “At 10:33 the sun is still burning on the horizon like an orange lantern at an outdoor Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn.” The descriptions don’t always hit their mark—there are a few too many laboriously detailed passages about female anatomy, and sometimes the imagery borders on overwrought (“The Balkan animal, which is my soul, is always hungry for prey”), but overall, the prose and dialogue is fresh and expansive. There are also a host of phonetic jokes about Icelandic words and names that Toxic mishears and then renders into stilted English, making countless puns on street names around the capitol; Icelandic phrases are renamed into things like “Guard the Beer,” and Reykjavík’s famous Kaffibarinn becomes “Café Bahrain.”

You can read the entire review by clicking here.

21 May 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Former soldier and current hitman for the Croatian mafia in New York, Tomislav Bokšić, nicknamed Toxic, has dispatched roughly 125 people. It’s a fully ingrained way of life for Toxic—he feels “restless if three months go by without firing a gun”—and takes pride in his professionalism. As a “triple six-packer,” he even holds something of a record in the business: his last 18 consecutive hits have not only been completed successfully, but each was accomplished with a single bullet apiece. But as Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning opens, Toxic is in trouble: “Hit #66 was a miss,” he says.

Don’t get me wrong. I got the bullet into the guy’s head safe and sound, but there was some serious aftermath. The mustached Polish guy turned out to be a mustached FBI guy. What was supposed to be a bright and sunny murder in broad daylight became a nightmare.

Which is how Toxic ends up going into hiding, fleeing his cushy life in New York City and heading back to Croatia to maintain his “LPP, or Lowest Possible Profile.” But even that plan goes awry and instead of heading back to his homeland, the beleaguered hitman ends up on a plane to Iceland under the assumed identity of a Southern televangelist named Father Friendly.

The second of ten Icelandic novels to be published in English by Amazon’s internationally-oriented publishing imprint, AmazonCrossing, The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning is a darkly comic novel which commingles irreverent indifference with sincere introspection and the possibility of redemption. As Toxic settles into his exile on “Lilliput Island”—a country he discovers has no handguns, no army, and hardly any murders (but plenty of good crime writers—there’s actually a list of Icelandic crime authors worked into a conversation)—he reflects back on his life as a killer, both as a soldier during the Yugoslavian civil war, as well as a contract killer. And while it wouldn’t really be true to say that Toxic feels a deep remorse for his actions, in the course of the novel, he is able to both reconcile with his past and plan ahead for a very different future.

While The Hitman’s Guide has much to recommend it in terms of plotting, pacing, and characterization, it is particularly interesting on a more “meta” level as well. For one, since Toxic arrives in Iceland with little to no previous knowledge of the country and culture, the book acts as something of a crash course in Icelandic society and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes, his observations about Iceland are more factual: he learns that it was originally christened by Irish monks, that Iceland has no prostitutes, and that “the beer costs a bear.” In other cases, the observations are a little more (self-)mocking (“According to Icelandic house rules, you’re allowed to enter in your shoes if they cost more than two hundred dollars”), and a bit opaque for someone unfamiliar with say, Iceland’s satirical contestant in the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest. But however these cultural snippets are conveyed, upon finishing the novel, the reader comes away with a fairly strong, if somewhat slanted, sense of Reykjavík and Icelandic culture.

Another interesting feature is the author’s use of language. Hallgrímur originally wrote The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning in English rather than Icelandic, and has an almost playful approach to rhyme and description throughout the novel. Toxic refers to a contender for his girlfriend’s affections, an Italian mafioso, as “the Talian Mobthrob.” In another passage, he describes the late-setting sun: “At 10:33 the sun is still burning on the horizon like an orange lantern at an outdoor Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn.” The descriptions don’t always hit their mark—there are a few too many laboriously detailed passages about female anatomy, and sometimes the imagery borders on overwrought (“The Balkan animal, which is my soul, is always hungry for prey”), but overall, the prose and dialogue is fresh and expansive. There are also a host of phonetic jokes about Icelandic words and names that Toxic mishears and then renders into stilted English, making countless puns on street names around the capitol; Icelandic phrases are renamed into things like “Guard the Beer,” and Reykjavík’s famous Kaffibarinn becomes “Café Bahrain.”

Both The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning and Hallgrímur Helgason seem assured to find a dedicated audience in the United States. As of this writing, the novel is among Amazon’s Top 20 Mysteries and Thrillers (although neither genre seems to really fit the book). Perhaps its success will allow for more of Hallgrímur’s Icelandic language novels to make it into English translation in the future.

22 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Last week I mentioned a few contemporary Icelandic authors, including Hallgrimur Helgason. In the post about Hallgrimur, I mentioned The Author of Iceland, which won the 2001 Icelandic Literature Prize, and sounds like a cool, playful book.

Well, not only did someone comment about how this is “one of the top 5 Icelandic books since 1980,” but over at Nordic Voices, David McDuff posted some additional info about the novel and a series of translated excerpts:

The Author of Iceland (Höfundur Íslands) is a novel by the contemporary Icelandic writer Hallgrímur Helgason about a famous Icelandic author who dies at the age of 88, only to wake up in a novel he wrote some 40 years earlier. At first, he is unaware both of his death and of the fact that he is now living in a world of his own creation. The novel is set on a remote farm in the eastern part of Iceland. One day the old man is found lying out in the fields, as if he had just fallen to earth. The farmer carries him into the house, where the writer gradually comes to terms with his afterlife. The character of the writer is based on the personality (and biography) of the Nobel prizewinning twentieth century classic Icelanndic author Halldór Laxness, and the fictional novel is actually Laxness’s own Independent People. Helgason’s narrative becomes in some sense a reappraisal of Laxness—especially of Laxness’s infatuation with Stalinism and Communism, which Helgason takes great pains to document and revisit in circumstantial detail (Laxness even visited Moscow in 1937 to attend the purge trials, and—by his own later admission—misrepresented them for fear of offending the Soviet government). But the book also goes beyond the biography of one man, and becomes a commentary on the twentieth century itself, and the response of Western writers and intellectuals to the vast upheavals and insoluble moral dilemmas that marked it.

Here’s the opening of Chapter 33:

Stalin stands on a shelf. He stands on a shelf, waving to the crowd. He has stood there for two whole days and nights, waving. Everyone went home long ago. Everyone but me. I lie here on the bed in the yellow room in the Chimney House and pass the light nights with Comrade Stalin. He stands over there on the shelf high up on the wall beside a dusty old candlestick and a vague-looking jug. Now and then he raises his stiff arm and waves, squints and almost smiles. Just as he did on the roof of the mausoleum the other day. My thoughts march past him, stare up at him, one after the other, there seems to be no end to them, they stream forward across the blood-red square.

Stalin stands there alone. He has murdered everyone else.

‘The death of one person is tragic, the death of a million a mere statistic,’ said Count Sosso. That figure was probably 40,000,000, the most recent historians say. The Icelandic nation would fit four times into each of those zeroes. But many more were the souls he murdered. I was one of them. I was a victim of Stalin.

Click here for the first part of the excerpt, and click here for the second.

Update: click here for part three.

18 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

First off, I can’t believe that I managed to leave Hallgrimur Helgason off of yesterday’s list of contemporary Icelandic authors. His novel 101 Reykjavik was published a few years back by Scribner, and was also made into a movie. The book of his that always sounded most interested to me though is The Author of Iceland. Here’s a description Daniel Mandel once sent me:

The Author of Iceland, winner of the 2001 Icelandic Literature Prize, is about a writer named Einar Grimsson, who is a character based on the great Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness. The novel begins with Einar in old age, who one day wakes up to discover he is now living in one of his own novels. Grimsson slowly becomes younger as the novel progresses, and his life is explored in reverse—falling in love, embracing Stalinist ideologies, and trying to make good on the mistakes of his own life. But Grimsson can’t change fate, and soon realizes that he is trapped in his own novel, and fiction is no different than life.

*

Rounding out my week of posts about Iceland, here’s the article I wrote for Publishing Perspectives on the Festival and the recent interest in Icelandic fiction:

Although Iceland has had some very notable cultural exports — Halldor Laxness, Bjork, and Sigur Ros among them — last fall’s spectacular economic collapse probably brought more attention to this island nation than any other event in its modern history. One year later, the financial sector may still be recovering, but its literary scene is thriving.

“Our goal is to get people to have a crush on Iceland and Icelandic literature.” That’s how Agla Magnúsdóttir — the director of the Icelandic Literature Fund, and one of the organizers of the Reykjavik International Literary Festival — described last week’s series of readings, interviews, and other cultural events.

Dozens of writers from both Iceland and abroad participated in the festival, including Gyrðir Elíasson, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Steinar Bragi, Thor Vilhjálmsson (all from Iceland), Naja Marie Aidt (Denmark), Michael Ondaatje (Canada), David Sedaris (U.S.), Jesse Ball (U.S.), Henning Ahrens (Germany), and Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya).

The events were very well attended, which shouldn’t be that surprising, considering there’s been increased sales of Icelandic fiction in the domestic market. Most publishers figured that in a time of great economic upheaval, self-help and nonfiction would dominate the best-seller lists, but instead, it seems that most Icelandic readers are looking for an escape. According to Úa Matthíasdóttir of Forlagið-Iceland’s largest trade publisher — there was a surge in sales for fiction last Christmas that went against conventional wisdom.

Click here for the whole thing, and click here for a video interview with Kristján B. Jónasson, the President of the Icelandic Publishers Association about the future of publishing in Iceland.

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