13 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by P.T. Smith on Ólafur Gunnarsson’s The Thaw, translated by the author, and out from New American Press.

Patrick is one of our regular reviewers, fellow literature enthusiast, and a patient person to boot (I’ve had this review in-hand since before Christmas—sorry!). He also hopes, one day, to own a drunken dog named Wigrum. Or at least I hope he does; it’s an idea so great that I would feel horrible stealing it. (And before any readers go all PETA on me, just give a hyper pitbull-rottweiler mix a quarter cup of beer and watch it pass out happily, snoring, in the middle of the living room for an hour, and then judge me. Your grandpa/uncle/dad never comes near to looking that happy.)

I DIGRESS. Per usual. Here’s the beginning of Patrick’s review:

Short story collections, whether collected over a period of time or written specifically as a set, often have a way of revealing an author’s preoccupation, and Ólafur Gunnarsson’s The Thaw is no different. Throughout its ten stories, we see the same themes turned to time and time again: ambiguity overlaying points of clarity, a blend of mundane realism and the weird, compassion coming from moments of insights into a character, and the sinister potential that broils beneath when all of this interacts. Reading his returns to themes one after another makes it easy to see when it succeeds, and when it falls flat.

The opening two stories do much to show what to expect. In the brief “Alien,” a father’s response to one of his young daughters enjoying Ridley Scott’s Alien is to tell her that he too is an alien, and will return home that day. In the divorced, broken family (in the time of the story, even the twins are separated), the unnamed characters, simply daughters, wives, and narrators, we see the isolation of people from one another that will run through the rest of the stories. There is the haunting, unresolved, near cruelness of his treatment of his daughter, but it is heavy-handed, and reads like the idea of an author, not the character himself. We also encounter a certain oddness with Gunnarsson’s writing: he wants ambiguity to have the final word, but there is also an affection for brief statements of certainty. When it shows us what we otherwise might not see, it is welcome, but when, as in this opening story, he explains the plot of Alien, or in “The Revelation” portrays an alcoholic nearly bathing in Southern Comfort, and later points out it is his favorite drink, ambiguity would be preferable. It is, in the end, a rough and unenthusiastic way to begin a collection.

For the rest of the review, go here.

13 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Short story collections, whether collected over a period of time or written specifically as a set, often have a way of revealing an author’s preoccupation, and Ólafur Gunnarsson’s The Thaw is no different. Throughout its ten stories, we see the same themes turned to time and time again: ambiguity overlaying points of clarity, a blend of mundane realism and the weird, compassion coming from moments of insights into a character, and the sinister potential that broils beneath when all of this interacts. Reading his returns to themes one after another makes it easy to see when it succeeds, and when it falls flat.

The opening two stories do much to show what to expect. In the brief “Alien,” a father’s response to one of his young daughters enjoying Ridley Scott’s Alien is to tell her that he too is an alien, and will return home that day. In the divorced, broken family (in the time of the story, even the twins are separated), the unnamed characters, simply daughters, wives, and narrators, we see the isolation of people from one another that will run through the rest of the stories. There is the haunting, unresolved, near cruelness of his treatment of his daughter, but it is heavy-handed, and reads like the idea of an author, not the character himself. We also encounter a certain oddness with Gunnarsson’s writing: he wants ambiguity to have the final word, but there is also an affection for brief statements of certainty. When it shows us what we otherwise might not see, it is welcome, but when, as in this opening story, he explains the plot of Alien, or in “The Revelation” portrays an alcoholic nearly bathing in Southern Comfort, and later points out it is his favorite drink, ambiguity would be preferable. It is, in the end, a rough and unenthusiastic way to begin a collection.

Fortunately, it is a collection. The title story is perhaps the best of them. Two brothers, in their forties and fifties, are still entwined, living and working together, with the older, though “a balding and scrawny man . . . who suffered from rheumatism” dominating over the younger. Digging a drainage ditch, they find a skull, and their reaction is so casual, enthusiastic for possible Viking treasure, we can miss the sinister nature of the discovery, and the way it threatens the rest of the story.

Where the threat, and sense of surreal prophecy, is palpable is in the way the brothers each remember the same story. The younger brother, Jonas, the dominated one, the sympathetic one, recounts it in memory first, the drowning of a horse and a man in an attempt to win a bet by riding across a lake. When the older brother, Ragnar, remembers it, we see the effect of their closeness: they are intimate enough to remember the same thing apart from each other. We also see the violence lurking in this: Jonas has no patience for hearing it again, but cannot stand up for himself. Ragnar reveals what the younger did not remember, that the bet was over a woman. When a woman enters the picture and falls in love with Jonas, dread settles in, grows as she moves in with her young son, and breeds violence in the household, which culminates in a fulfillment of the shared memory.

Gunnarsson’s collection shows his interest not just in building different types of tension between people, but in looking at how it arises, what causes it. Throughout, and reflective of the smallness of Iceland, intimacy is often forced and inescapable, and therefore a tension. In “The Thaw,” Jonas cares for his new girlfriend’s young son, and has no problem having sex with her when the son is in the next room, but the thought of doing so where his brother can hear is unbearable. In the former, the intimacy is chosen, in the latter, it is forced. “The Beauty Contest” shows an Icelandic singer who nearly made it big in Europe let his insecurities send him into a single battle on stage with Rod Stewart. In “Gimme Shelter” neighbors passively fight each other over a cat.

The story follows Jim, and his continually absent cat. He finds that the old man across the hall is taking the cat in, watching television, feeding it meals the man once fed his wife. It becomes a fight between them, with neither backing down, nor crossing a line. Adding to the conflict is Jim’s fear that the old man knows the woman living with him is a stripper, and this fear, combined with his lack of empathy, suggests he is capable of greater cruelty than denying a lonely old man comfort. The old man himself hints at knowing more than he lets on, and behind his submissiveness, there is an insistence guised behind politeness. By the end, when all is brought to light, there is not relief, but a dark turn. Like the unearthing of the skull, when what was buried is brought to the surface, it is not so to breathe clear air.

None of this is to say that these stories are obsessively dark. The final story, “Gaga,” is the strange tale of a man who believes that he has awoken on a Mars that is mimicking Reykjavik and that everyone he meets is a Martian imposter. Most of the stories have some strangeness running through them, as in one of the strongest stories, “The Killer Whale,” where a dying daughter could have any terminal disease to serve the plot but has a rare one, causing her to prematurely age. In “Gaga” it is dominant. Though there is some excitement in seeing this come to full fruition, it doesn’t ultimately build into an interesting whole. The stories are also not so self-serious that they are entirely devoid of humor, but more indifferent. When humor cracks through in “The Man Who Wanted to Be Vincent,” a story of a failed painter, it is a welcome variety in tone. This tonal shift allows Gunnarsson to pull off the interesting trick of seeing an artist be liberated from his bitterness by an insult.

Overall, The Thaw is a mixed collection. Though connected through themes, preoccupations, and habits, the plots and characters are not repetitious, and in offering different characters, Gunnarsson offers and finds different routes for their insecurities and motivations. It is also mixed in quality, both beginning and ending on the weakest stories in the bunch. The middle has stories of fullness and complexity, and while in the others, it is possible to poke at weak moments where Gunnarsson doesn’t seem to quite trust the reader or himself (it is easy to wonder if his role as his own translator plays into this), it is more rewarding to devote attention to all that does work in them.

8 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Vincent Francone on The Whispering Muse by Sjón, from Farrar Straus and Giroux.

The first time I saw The Whispering Muse was in a bookstore in Riga, Latvia, misplaced somewhere on the D-F shelf. Taking this as a sign of meant-to-be, I bought it, and promptly placed it on my to-read shelf. This was two years ago. But I’ve been itching to get to it since! And the new editions from FSG have some pretty awesome looking covers…

Here’s a bit of Vincent’s review:

The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve seen this sort of thing before in Ovid, Bulgakov, Kafka, and Rushdie to name a few. But the slim novel’s metaphysics are less striking than its blending of myths, serving the reader an exciting book that touches on the cannibalistic nature of story telling; any tale, regardless of time and place, is ripe for postmodern plucking and consumption.

To read the rest of the review, go here

8 May 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve seen this sort of thing before in Ovid, Bulgakov, Kafka, and Rushdie to name a few. But the slim novel’s metaphysics are less striking than its blending of myths, serving the reader an exciting book that touches on the cannibalistic nature of story telling; any tale, regardless of time and place, is ripe for postmodern plucking and consumption.

The year is 1949, a fact quickly established by the primary narrator, Valdimar Haraldsson, Icelandic fish enthusiast and quasi-eugenicist. Haraldsson boards the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen, a merchant ship bound for the Black Sea, and encounters Caeneus, first mate and former Argonaut who, yes, sailed under Jason during his infamous quest for the Golden Fleece. This, regardless of the fact that the year is, again, 1949. This is the kind of book where none of those pesky rules of time and space carry any weight. Caeneus entertains the guests of the ship with after-dinner stories of his adventures with the Argonauts while stalled on the island of Lemnos amid comely enchantresses.

Caeneus’s inspiration comes from a splinter of wood he carries in his pocket—the titular whispering muse— a remnant of the long gone Argo. The mighty ship reduced to a mere splinter seems a good metaphor for the ethereal, the history lingering in our memories, the tiny specter that inspires and haunts all of us, but I suspect such readings are perhaps too heady for such a playful novel. Not to diminish any interpretive reading of The Whispering Muse, but I’m far happier savoring the goofy jumps from Caeneus’s story to Haraldsson’s absurd lecture on the superiority of the Nordic people, which he attributes to their fish consumption, than in picking it apart for deeper meaning. Perhaps this is because the novel’s breezy tone and brevity prevent me from looking at it as anything more than entertaining fabulism. The seafaring novel is constantly moving, sailing across narratives and landing nowhere near where I expected, instead stopping abruptly. A longer novel might have meandered, but Sjón keeps it slim and quick, a short effective burst of whimsy and surprise.

Despite the fun The Whispering Muse provides while reading—and it is a lot of fun—it was difficult to completely immerse myself in the book. Lyrical at times and certainly engaging, I was nevertheless detached from the events of the novel, witnessing them from afar. Critics of framed narratives sometimes complain of the frustration that can accompany distancing stories inside stories. Typically I do not agree, but here I sense that Sjón doesn’t necessarily care about his characters, which makes me wonder why I would invest anything in them. There are passages that amuse and delight, but the joy comes from the idea of what is happening rather than what is actually happening. This is not to say that the book is unsuccessful, but those who are looking for rich characterization need not crack open The Whispering Muse. Thankfully, I am less concerned with characters are more interested in the possibilities of the novel, which Sjón presents in 141 taut pages, beautifully translated by Victoria Cribb.

11 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Larissa Kyzer on LoveStar by Andri Snær Magnason, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb and published by Seven Stories Press.

Larissa is a regular contributor to Three Percent, and with this continues her streak of Nordic lit reviews. LoveStar is a book I’ve been casting sidelong glances at here in the office, and have it high on my list of to-reads. But, with influences such as “Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Kurt Vonnegut to George Orwell, Douglas Adams, and Monty Python,” Magnason is sure to please.

Here’s a bit from Larissa’s review:

When Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason first published LoveStar, his darkly comic parable of corporate power and media influence run amok, the world was in a very different place. (This was back before both Facebook and Twitter, if you can recall such a time.) He noted as much himself in a recent interview with The Reykjavík Grapevine: “[w]hen it came out in 2002 it was called a dystopian novel; now it’s being called a parody. We seem to have already reached that dystopia.”

It is difficult to create a fictional milieu that touches on anything remotely related to technology or The Future and doesn’t feel dated pretty much the minute the ink dries on the page. (My favorite example of this is the Ethan Hawke Hamlet adaptation, which came out in 2000 and was peppered with cutting edge technology . . . like fax machines and Polaroid cameras.) As such, it is no small accomplishment that in the ten years since LoveStar was released, the book feels not obsolete, but rather prescient, or at least exasperatingly plausible.

The novel kicks off at some indeterminate point in the future, after a series of freakish, but not cataclysmic, natural events lead a group of intrepid Icelandic scientists to seek wireless alternatives to current technology. (An oversaturation of “waves, messages, transmissions, and electric fields,” they believe, is to blame for such events as clouds of bees taking over Chicago, driving out residents and flooding the downtown area with ponds of honey.)

Head over here for the entire review.

11 April 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

When Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason first published LoveStar, his darkly comic parable of corporate power and media influence run amok, the world was in a very different place. (This was back before both Facebook and Twitter, if you can recall such a time.) He noted as much himself in a recent interview with The Reykjavík Grapevine: “[w]hen it came out in 2002 it was called a dystopian novel; now it’s being called a parody. We seem to have already reached that dystopia.”

It is difficult to create a fictional milieu that touches on anything remotely related to technology or The Future and doesn’t feel dated pretty much the minute the ink dries on the page. (My favorite example of this is the Ethan Hawke Hamlet adaptation, which came out in 2000 and was peppered with cutting edge technology . . . like fax machines and Polaroid cameras.) As such, it is no small accomplishment that in the ten years since LoveStar was released, the book feels not obsolete, but rather prescient, or at least exasperatingly plausible.

The novel kicks off at some indeterminate point in the future, after a series of freakish, but not cataclysmic, natural events lead a group of intrepid Icelandic scientists to seek wireless alternatives to current technology. (An oversaturation of “waves, messages, transmissions, and electric fields,” they believe, is to blame for such events as clouds of bees taking over Chicago, driving out residents and flooding the downtown area with ponds of honey.)

Then comes the dawn of the “the cordless man,” who can both communicate and be communicated to through entirely internal methods:

bq.When men in suits talked to themselves out on the streets and reeled off figures, no one took them for lunatics: they were probably doing business with some unseen client. The man who sat in rapt concentration on a riverbank might be an engineer designing a bridge . . . and when a teenager made strange humming noises on the bus, nodding his head to and fro, he was probably listening to an invisible radio.

None of this, of course, is too great an exaggeration on technology that has come into being in the last decade, and even the absurd advertising methods that quickly become the norm in the world of LoveStar feel accurate. People in debt can rent out their brains’ speech centers out and become “howlers,” automatically screeching advertisements or reminders at specific passersby (“I can’t believe that guy is still wearing a Blue Millets anorak!” or “_Dallas_ is starting!”). “Secret hosts” are hired by companies to go around surreptitiously selling their friends products within everyday conversations. And everything—from birth to love to death—is monetized and monopolized by one gigantic corporation and its subsidiaries: LoveStar.

All of this, it bears noting, is just prologue and backdrop to the novel’s main focus: such is the sheer density of the world that Andri Snær creates within just the first few chapters. There are two main plots that overlap, somewhat achronologically. One follows the executive LoveStar himself in the last hours of his life (Andri Snær has likened the character to Steve Jobs; another reviewer saw Kári Stefánson, the founder of deCODE Genetics). The other plot follows the repeatedly thwarted attempts of a young couple, Indridi and Sigrid, trying to evade the corporate machinations that would break them apart from one another and re-pair them with their supposedly scientifically verifiable perfect partner.

There is a lot going on—arguably a little too much, as some of the larger themes get somewhat lost in the sweep of the (literally) explosive climax, or are, in some cases, grandly dramatized, but done so with little finesse. Though overall, it’s compulsively readable, due in great part to Andri Snær’s kooky creativity and the novel’s simple, straightforward style of prose (credit here to translator Victoria Cribb, who has translated, among others, three novels by Sjón and Gyrðir Elíasson’s Stone Tree).

Read today—in the wake of not only myriad technological advances, but also a worldwide financial meltdown the consequences of which were profoundly felt in Iceland, and will continue to be so for probably decades to come— LoveStar feels a bit like cracking open a time capsule. Its world is poised on the edge of implosion, held in check by only the tiniest bit of better judgement. “If we don’t do it,” LoveStar remarks before embarking on one last, ruinous power quest, “someone else will.”

26 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Now that Cyber Monday is underway, it’s about time for the “Best of Everything!!!” lists to start coming out. (Or, as documented at Largehearted Boy, continue coming out.) Personally, I fricking love these sorts of lists, to find books/albums that I need to check out, and to serve as fodder for my anger . . . I’ll bet at least half of an upcoming podcast will be an escalation of complaints about some utterly predictable list of shit that most four-book-a-year readers will slobber over . . . And hopefully our year end lists (in books, movies, and music) will get some other cultural elitists all bent.

But for now, the only year end list I’ve checked out is this Kirkus one, which is definitely my favorite, since it includes TWO Open Letter titles: Children of Reindeer Woods by Kristin Omarsdottir, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith and My First Suicide by Jerzy Pilch (Kirkus LOVES the Pilch), translated from the Polish by David Frick.

There are a number of interesting books on this list—Kingdom Come by J.G. Ballard, The Investigation by Philip Claudel, Arcadia by Lauren Groff, Lazarus Is Dead by Richard Beard, and Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye—but not many (any?) from small, nonprofit presses. YAY TO US FOR OVERACHIEVING!

I love both of these books, and you can buy them from your local independent bookstore, from Amazon, from B&N, or directly from us: click here for Children, and here for Suicide.

However you get them, I hope you do. And I want to take a second to give a special shout-out to Lytton Smith and David Frick for translating these. Both books set forth their own unique difficulties, and both translators totally nailed it. Congrats to both of you!

4 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Brian Libgober on Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale, which Victoria Cribb translated from the Icelandic and is available from Telegram Books.

Sjón was born in Reykjavik in 1962. He won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize (the equivalent of the Man Booker Prize) for The Blue Fox, which was also longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009. Sjón was nominated for an Oscar for the song lyrics he wrote for Björk in the film Dancer in the Dark and has been working on Björk’s latest project, Biophilia. His work has been translated into twenty-three languages.

Here is part of his review:

Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale has been well received by readers and critics. Junot Díaz has called the book “achingly brilliant – an epic made mad, made extraordinary.” A.S. Byatt gave it a hearty endorsement in The Guardian. Such praise for the book is well deserved. The book’s prose is lovely and its subject matter is fascinating. It is no wonder that the book has been short-listed for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Set in early 17th century Iceland, the book tells the story of the long-suffering Jonas. A poet with a consuming passion for natural science, Jonas pays his keep as an itinerant medicine man. He later achieves renown in this capacity for having exorcised the revenant corpse of a parson’s son. Later, he becomes notorious for refusing to participate in an indiscriminate massacre of dozens of defenseless Basque whalers. This decision arouses the anger of the local authorities; they excommunicate him from society on the grounds that he is a necromancer (For the record, those allegations are totally baseless.). For a long time, he lives in isolation with only the company of his wife and children, all but one of which perishes before reaching adulthood. Toward the end of Jonas’ life, word of his immense learning reaches Copenhagen, where he is spirited away without time to tell his wife. While in Copenhagen, Jonas manages to impress an important figure in the University, who comes to believe that Jonas never did practice dark magic. On special order of the King of Denmark, Jonas is sent back to Iceland to receive an acquittal and an apology from the governing council in Iceland. Once there, however, he is nearly killed and forced into exile once more. The book ends with a man named Jon waking up inside a whale, which soon ejects him onto land. The man wakes up believing his name was Jonas.

Click here to read the entire review.

4 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale has been well received by readers and critics. Junot Díaz has called the book “achingly brilliant – an epic made mad, made extraordinary.” A.S. Byatt gave it a hearty endorsement in The Guardian. Such praise for the book is well deserved. The book’s prose is lovely and its subject matter is fascinating. It is no wonder that the book has been short-listed for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Set in early 17th century Iceland, the book tells the story of the long-suffering Jonas. A poet with a consuming passion for natural science, Jonas pays his keep as an itinerant medicine man. He later achieves renown in this capacity for having exorcised the revenant corpse of a parson’s son. Later, he becomes notorious for refusing to participate in an indiscriminate massacre of dozens of defenseless Basque whalers. This decision arouses the anger of the local authorities; they excommunicate him from society on the grounds that he is a necromancer (For the record, those allegations are totally baseless.). For a long time, he lives in isolation with only the company of his wife and children, all but one of which perishes before reaching adulthood. Toward the end of Jonas’ life, word of his immense learning reaches Copenhagen, where he is spirited away without time to tell his wife. While in Copenhagen, Jonas manages to impress an important figure in the University, who comes to believe that Jonas never did practice dark magic. On special order of the King of Denmark, Jonas is sent back to Iceland to receive an acquittal and an apology from the governing council in Iceland. Once there, however, he is nearly killed and forced into exile once more. The book ends with a man named Jon waking up inside a whale, which soon ejects him onto land. The man wakes up believing his name was Jonas.

One of the most obvious motifs in the novel is myth. Variations on standard mythology abound in the text. The novel begins with a retelling of the story of the fall of Lucifer. Later, it introduces a variation on the Garden of Eden story and the origin of Eve. In a sense, the entire story of Jonas could be viewed as a re-imagining of the story of Jonah. After all, the two characters, Jonas and Jonah have nearly the same name, they both have sailors try to throw them off boats in order to appease a storm, and, toward the end of their stories, they both get eaten by whales. Mythology is also contrasted with knowledge in the book, though the two subjects are not presented as opposites. It is clear that Jonas, a poet and man of myth, and his wife Sigridur, an amateur astronomer and woman of science, both express a similar basic desire for knowledge; indeed, knowledge and myth often boil down to the same thing, as they both seek to explain the way the world works. Jonas’ major scientific achievement, the classification of the flora and fauna of Iceland, is a curious mix of magical properties and concrete descriptions. One of the more interesting aspects of the book is that it provokes reflection on the difference between mythology and knowledge, for in the period in history this novel portrays there does not seem to be any difference at all.

In addition to the little myths that pepper the book, there are longer myths that deal explicitly with the problem of depravity. For Lucifer, man’s creation is a depravity. For Adam, his shadow is a depravity. For Jonas, the behavior of the ruling powers in Iceland is a depravity. Depravity exists in the world of this book, and it’s a central problem – so what does one do about it? By dealing so centrally with this question, Sjón’s work is in much the same genre as Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and The Book of Jonah. Like those other two important works, From the Mouth of the Whale doesn’t provide a whole lot of answers; its main virtue lies in challenging existing ones. Disengagement, one of the strategies Jonas pursues, doesn’t work for him, and he ends up wasting his life and ruining that of his wife. Poetry, myth, and reportage make up Jonas’ other strategy, and it seems to be much more promising. By recording the wrongs that he has seen the rulers of Iceland perpetuate, Jonas manages to keep some of his dignity and self-respect. The second strategy may not provide a perfect answer to the question of how to respond to the world’s depravity, since it surely doesn’t fix the underlying problem. Still, it seems to be the best answer that From the Mouth of the Whale proposes.

Even though the book would have had a neater finish if the author had managed to figure out a definitive solution to the problem of evil, it’s not exactly a fair to fault him for it. By provoking thought about big questions, and doing it in such an elegant and engaging manner, Sjón has written a book that is quite brilliant.

1 June 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Aleksandra Fazlipour on Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Children in Reindeer Woods, which Lytton Smith translated from the Icelandic and is available from Open Letter.

This is the first book of Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s to be translated into English, and it received a great amount of attention when we brought it out this past spring.

Introduced a few weeks ago, Aleksandra Fazlipour interned with me last semester and wrote a ton of book reviews, including this one.

Here’s part of her review:

In Children in Reindeer Woods, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, who is also a playwright, presents an interesting reflection on war. On what is introduced as a peaceful day, three paratroopers invade the temporary home for children where Billie lives and kill everyone except Billie right in front of her. Unexpectedly, one soldier turns against his two comrades and kills them, sparing the young girl yet again. Rafael chooses to retire from the military and start over as a farmer—he goes so far as to shoot off his toes in repentance for murders he commits. We are invited to glimpse into a world fraught with the horrors of wartime and the wonders of childhood by seeing things through the perspective of Billie (although the story is not always told directly from her point of view), an eleven-year old girl who seems too old for her years.

Ómarsdóttir pushes the limits of storytelling, testing the line between the creative mind of a child and what the audience is expected to believe as fact in this surreal world experiencing a devastating war. Billie herself is not any ordinary child—at eleven, she has many ideas about the world around her, about love and relationships, and has many interests that are way beyond her years, yet in spite of this she seems convinced that she is “retarded.” The prose is often frantic, feverish, and sometimes repetitive in a way that draws us into this vaporous, mysterious world. Although the story is not told in Billie’s perspective, the winding and often stumbling style of prose and the hopeful yet naïve tone seems characteristic of either of the two major characters in this fable-like tale.

Click here to read the entire review.

1 June 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In Children in Reindeer Woods, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, who is also a playwright, presents an interesting reflection on war. On what is introduced as a peaceful day, three paratroopers invade the temporary home for children where Billie lives and kill everyone except Billie right in front of her. Unexpectedly, one soldier turns against his two comrades and kills them, sparing the young girl yet again. Rafael chooses to retire from the military and start over as a farmer—he goes so far as to shoot off his toes in repentance for murders he commits. We are invited to glimpse into a world fraught with the horrors of wartime and the wonders of childhood by seeing things through the perspective of Billie (although the story is not always told directly from her point of view), an eleven-year old girl who seems too old for her years.

Ómarsdóttir pushes the limits of storytelling, testing the line between the creative mind of a child and what the audience is expected to believe as fact in this surreal world experiencing a devastating war. Billie herself is not any ordinary child—at eleven, she has many ideas about the world around her, about love and relationships, and has many interests that are way beyond her years, yet in spite of this she seems convinced that she is “retarded.” The prose is often frantic, feverish, and sometimes repetitive in a way that draws us into this vaporous, mysterious world. Although the story is not told in Billie’s perspective, the winding and often stumbling style of prose and the hopeful yet naïve tone seems characteristic of either of the two major characters in this fable-like tale.

Billie labels Rafael a murderer: an odd title for a soldier whose profession it is to kill people. This begins to blur the line between soldier and civilian life. However, in spite of the harsh label she bestows on Rafael, Billie is hopeful in the way that is characteristic of childhood but has ideas and wisdom beyond her years, trusting Rafael and the circumstances but still questioning him without disobeying him when she suspects he has killed an unexpected visitor who goes missing. In some ways, Rafael becomes the family that she lost when she was left at the temporary home for children in Reindeer Woods, whose whereabouts we do not know (other than that they are in fact alive). Billie’s discussion with the chickens in the henhouse captures her unique perspective:

“Good day, little chickens. I am the spring-man. I suppose I should vacuum, in here. Today’s Saturday, and that’s when people clean their residences and also the hen houses, though less frequently since animal-kind has fewer requirements. Perhaps because nature is expected to see to cleaning itself. But how are you going to get swept? God’s natural brush, storms, never reach in here, do they? Poor you. In your shitty beds. But I still envy you. A little. Not much. A little.”

Billie’s story is even stranger and more fantastical than she is as a character. Additionally, there are many different displacements that strip away the setting and add a mythical, fable-like quality to the story—the presence of modern-technology, including cell phones and computers, is confounded by a strange sense of tradition where little girls still curtsy and wear fancy dresses and lace socks daily. Furthermore, it is difficult to tell where the story takes place, because although the story is translated from Icelandic, Iceland does not have a military, the name “Rafael” has Italian or Spanish roots, and at one point the word “señorita” is used to refer to a woman. These displacements seclude Rafael and Billie in a dream-like setting where Billie’s dolls carry out conversations (with Billie and Rafael guiding them, of course) and sometimes kill themselves as part of their dramas, and where Billie’s father is a puppet who is ensnared by her mother by refusing to securely sew back on his damaged arm and thereby handicapping him:

One time, when Abraham’s arm ripped off during a brawl between the puppeteers about what should happen whether to go home or to the pub, Soffia refused to sew it back on; she took the torn arm and hid it. Borrowing a wheelchair was easy for a doctor, and so began a period of diligence in which Abraham sat at Soffia’s home in the wheelchair and wrote his work of jurisprudence; Soffia worked her shifts, and between them she sat at home too, reading medical books and pushing Abraham around in a wheelchair. She enjoyed pushing him. He enjoyed letting her push him because he loved depending on her, a change from the time when he didn’t want to depend on anyone Amidst this peaceful medical work, writing, and reading, Billie arrived. No-one had expected that. Abraham had thought his life’s mission on earth was not to have children, thought he was meant to break the mold, to exceed the frame that had been planned for him. It occurred to him that he might abandon mother and daughter before everything became too complicated and messy. Then he would leave behind a little souvenir which, amusingly enough, would grow larger, and he could fulfill his obligations as jurist somewhere else in peace and quiet.

My love, sew my arm back on, asked Abraham.

Soffia: No, Abraham. It isn’t good for you to drink beer now.

The disembodied and surreal nature of wartime that Ómarsdóttir in this story prevents the reader from knowing what is in fact real in Billie’s world, Reindeer Woods, or what is being fabricated through the eyes of a child or a nation fogged over by war. However, the dreamlike nature of the novel only increases its appeal, and makes Children in Reindeer Woods a more memorable tale.

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 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For all you GoodReads users, we’re giving away 10 copies of Kristin Omarsdottir’s Children in Reindeer Woods though their special program. To enter, simply click on the button below before March 31st.

In terms of this book, it’s a very intriguing novel that’s kind of like a war book that’s not about a war. It opens in shocking fashion with a group of paratroopers descending on an idyllic farmhouse and killing everyone in site. Then one paratrooper turns on the others, and by page three, the only people remaining are Rafael—a soldier who wants to start life over as a farmer—and the eleven-year-old Billie, a precious and strange child who had been living at the Children in Reindeer Woods foster home.

As the book progresses, it becomes less about war—the when and where of this war are displaced and made intentionally irrational, transforming this into a more mythic, or universal sort of story—and more about the relationship between these two characters who are building an oasis amid a culture of violence.

Back at the MLA conference, I gave a copy of this to a friend who texted me the next day to say that it gave her “the most fucked up dreams ever . . . in a good way.” It really is that strange and powerful and vivid.

It’s also going to be reviewed in the New York Times Book Review next month. So get your copy now, either by entering below, or simply buying it through our website.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Children in Reindeer Woods by Kristin Omarsdottir

Children in Reindeer Woods

by Kristin Omarsdottir

Giveaway ends March 31, 2012.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win
5 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Larissa Kyzer on Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s The Greenhouse, which is available from AmazonCrossing in Brian FitzGibbon’s translation from the Icelandic.

As Larissa—one of our excellent contributing reviewers, who loves the Scandinavian and is starting to learn Icelandic—points out at the beginning of her review, this is the first of ten (yes, ten) Icelandic works that AmazonCrossing will be bringing out over the next year. A few are announced on their site (a little place called Amazon.com that you may have heard of), and of the forthcoming titles, the one I’ve heard is most amazing is The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason (who is an incredible writer).

This is great news for the Icelandic literary scene, and will surely bring a lot more attention to the non-crime fiction writers one can find there. (Such as Bragi Olafsson and Kristin Omarsdottir, two Open Letter authors you should all read.)

Here’s the opening of Larissa’s very positive review:

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.”

To read the whole piece, simply click here.

5 December 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

14 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re bringing Lytton Smith’s translation of Children in Reindeer Woods next April, which is a ways off, I know, but it still seems like the perfect time to introduce this strange, haunting novel.

This novel takes place at a “temporary home for children” called Children in Reindeer Woods, where eleven-year-old Billie lives. The book opens with an intense clash of styles, as a very pastoral description is uprooted by the sudden arrival of a group of paratroopers who kill everyone—except for Billie. Rafael, one of the soldiers, then turns on his compatriots, kills them, and decides to get out of the war and become a farmer with Billie.

What war is this? It’s very unclear. Initially it might seem like WWII (which doesn’t make a great deal of sense), but people use cell phones, a nun passes through on her way to buy a computer, etc. This sort of murkiness adds to the fable-like quality of the novel.

Kristin Ómarsdóttir is the author of several books of poetry, short stories, novels, and plays. She received Gríman, the Icelandic playwright award, in 2005 fo the play Tell Me Everything.

Here’s an excerpt from Children in Reindeer Woods, her first book to be published in English translation.

vii. Rafael shouldered the weapon and took the crockery into the kitchen. Then he aimed the gun at the girl. “You can play for an hour before you go to bed. You’ll play here.”

With the toe of his army boot, he gestured to an empty spot on the living room floor. Billie got up from the table, pulled down the hem of her dress, and curtsied.

“Are you tall for your age?” he asked.

Tall like my father was, she was about to say, but stopped her motormouth dead.

“You said you were . . . eleven years old.” Billie nodded her head. “Then you’re tall for your age. Do you still play or not?”

“Yes.”

“How does the daughter of the house spend her time?”

“I’m not the daughter of the house.”

“How does a bright young thing spend her time?”

“With Barbie dolls,” replied Billie, bowing because she felt she was replying to a king and kings like being replied to with bows at the end of sentences. “I am not a precocious child. I am late-developing, almost retarded, though I am not dyslexic. I
believe in God, the Father, the creator of heaven and the earth.”

Billie bowed. Rafael smiled without effort, and just as effortlessly the smile vanished from his face. His ordinary facial expression was in keeping with his physical strength and his deliberate movements.

“Where are the Barbie dolls?” he asked inquisitively. She pointed to the red plastic box on the bookshelf. He rummaged around in the box. “You know what? It was a pleasure to dine with you.”

That’s how a fully-grown man talks to a fully-grown woman, not to a girl, little or big. She stretched her back. Perhaps she’d gotten big. “The pleasure was all mine,” she replied, and curtsied.

“Play,” he commanded, setting the red box on the floor. Billie sat down. She had heard offhand comments that eleven-year-old girls were too big for Barbie. Perhaps she was retarded. Her father and mother had said, they were always saying, the two of them together and each of them separately:

Billie dear, don’t constrain your inner child.

Be a child as long as you want, even if you become the object of ridicule.

What does object of ridicule mean, Mom and Dad, what does object of ridicule mean?

When you get laughed at.

Why will I get laughed at, why will I get laughed at, Mom and Dad?

We don’t know you will get laughed at, but if, if, you get laughed at, you have our word that you can be the way you want to be, so long as it doesn’t hurt others. Other people’s laughter is not a death sentence. You can’t let others change your habits.

If she asked them whether she was retarded, they laughed like baboons. And so she took note of this, she would learn the truth for herself later. When she got bigger she would go to an institution, perhaps, and get the confirmation she currently lacked. The phone rang. Rafael, who was standing at the front door holding the cat, breathing in the evening breeze and the warm country air, turned in a half-circle and stared at the telephone. It was like he hadn’t seen a phone before. Like it made a difference to stare at it. You have to answer it. Then he looked at Billie. Back at the phone. He let the cat fall from his arms and went towards the machine, which stood on a pillar in the hall. It might be Soffia. She usually rang about that time, after dinner. The phone’s ringer fell silent. The army boots continued past the girl, and the man sat down in the rocking chair.

“Does the phone ring much?” he asked, massaging his forehead.

“It sometimes rings in the morning. Sometimes in the evening. Not often.”

“Who calls?”

“Someone or other.”

“Do you know any names?

She shrugged her shoulders; she couldn’t possibly say, my Mom. Perhaps the man would be sorry to hear her mom wasn’t dead. She dressed the Barbie dolls in new clothes, she combed their hair. The phone rang again. She acted as though the machine didn’t exist. The phone went dead. Rafael’s eyes closed.

The cat slunk slowly across the f loor, nuzzled at the rocking chair and the army boots, then jumped up onto the soldier’s lap. With his eyes still closed, he made room for the animal and put a hand on its fur. The other hand grasped the weapon, which rested on his chest like a bow and violin on a sleeping fiddle player’s chest. While he slept, because he snored, the playing girl took charge, and the dolls began to speak, competing to speak as though they had eaten lots of eggs, talking in soft voices:

viii. Ragga: I’ve gotten into even more trouble because I’m pregnant and going to have a child. I’ll leave it on the doorstep of some rich folk. I wouldn’t let anyone suffer my poverty and hardship.

Sara: I’ll take the child, dear Ragga; I cannot have children because in truth I have metalbelly.

Ragga: What is metalbelly, Sara babe?

Sara: Ugh, let’s not talk about it at this elegant party. Thank you for coming, my darling angel.

Ragga: Are you going to see Gugga? Teddy cut off her hair and sold it.

Sara: Let’s go and steal something from Teddy. Quick.

Ragga: Good idea! I likewise am dead tired of this party. It’s much more entertaining to go and play outside.

Sara: I had to host this party, my darling cinnamon bun, so no one would think that I’m retarded. Sara whispers to Ragga: I am, you see, retarded.

Ragga: Me too. Don’t tell anyone. Come and steal something from Teddy, Guggalugga’s husband.

They arrive at bald Guggalugga’s home.

Ragga: Guggalugga, you’re quite the sight! You’re bald.

A bald Barbie doll is added to the group.

Gugga: Don’t say that, Ragga, please, be nice to me.

Ragga: It’s best to speak the truth my angel, my raisin bun, I hope you’re not ill, dear Gugga. Where is that guy? Where’s that jerk of a guy?

The new Barbie doll, a boy-doll, who has been added to the crowd: I’m good. I’m good. As the saying goes: everything’s hay in hard times. I’m good. God bless us, God bless us all. I’ve sinned and now I repent. All the worst things humankind has
done had gathered inside me. I repented. God bless us, my child. Everything’s hay—

Sara and Ragga beat Teddy to pieces.

Gugga: Girls, be nice to Teddy. It’s not like you think, my hair will grow back.

Ragga: It won’t grow back, you donkey, you’re a doll.

They stop beating Teddy, who cries like an old crone.

Gugga: Girls, listen, please. Teddy’s momma ordered him to steal my hair because she said she would disinherit him if he didn’t and she gave him a lot of money for the hair. We were starving. Our stomachs howled. We would have died of hunger.
Didn’t you notice that we were beginning to lose weight?

Ragga: Is it better to be rich and bald?

Ragga punches Teddy.

Gugga: You’re one to speak, Ragga, pregnant and about to sell some rich people your child.

Ragga: I’m not going to sell it. I’m giving it away. That’s quite different. My offspring won’t be bought and sold like your hair.

Sara: I shall give Gugga my hair. I’m giving Guggalugga my hair.

“Wait a moment, I need to fetch the scissors,” said Billie, standing up.

12 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

12 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Since we publish two of his novels, and since we featured his band yesterday, I thought today would be a perfect day to excerpt Bragi Olafsson’s The Ambassador, which is translated by Lytton Smith. (FYI: Lytton is the one responsible for providing me with the bottle of Brennivin featured in my upcoming “Black Death” post. So blame him.) Without a doubt, The Ambassador is the best novel ever written about a Lithuanian poetry conference. Most definitely.

Poet (and building superintendent) Sturla Jón Jónsson, is the Icelandic representative to this Lithuanian poetry conference. Which makes sense—he just has a new collection out that’s getting a lot of praise . . . Well, that is until he goes away and a major newspaper runs a story accusing Sturla of plagiarism. And that’s just the start of Sturla’s troubles. In Lithuania, someone steals his new overcoat, so he decides to swipe someone else’s jacket—which, obviously, doesn’t end up working all that well for him.

Here’s how Karen Russell—author of Swamplandia put it in a recent issue of PEN America:

Bragi Olafsson’s English language debut [Ed. Note: The Pets was his English language debut, but whatever], The Ambassador, is the strange, hilarious, and brilliant story of Sturla Jon Jonsson, a building superintendent who also happens to be a venerated Icelandic poet. He’s on his way to Lithuania to represent his nation at a literary festival, opening the door for all kinds of scathingly funny insights into the “situation of the writer.” It’s a tricky book to paraphrase—boozy, literary Icelandic black comedy? Icelandic picaresque? No “elevator story” exists for it, according to the book’s publisher, the fabulous Open Letter. It’s unlike anything else out there, anda joy to read. Sturla gets into all sorts of jams over the course of this short, weird novel, from being accused of nicking his latest poetry collection from a dead cousin to losing his overcoat, the only piece of clothing with a high thread count that this starving artist has ever owned. Kafkaesque yuks and keen insight are brought to you by the badass genius translator Lytton Smith—one of my favorite poets and author of the acclaimed debut The All-Purpose Magical Tent—and he uses all his creativity and rigor here, as well as his deep knowledge of Icelandic culture. Sturla’s inimitable voice can now infuriate and delight an American crowd.

And Agni just reviewed this, stating:

When we read as consumers we are consuming a product; but reading a novel like The Ambassador requires us to look at literature the way my father looks at ferries—to see an ingeniously designed, carefully constructed assemblage of parts, an assemblage that is good and valuable because it functions so well. Ólafsson’s novel has no flashy packaging—the main characters are devoid of youth, beauty, and conventional charm, the pacing is slow, and the plot wanders—but he has assembled these homely and mismatched materials into an exquisitely crafted novel that is gratifying to see at work.

One other bit about the book before we get to the sample. In The Abassador, everyone who attends this Lithuanian poetry conference receives a copy of The Season of Poetry featuring translated poems from a number of the conference participants. Well, Lytton actually recreated this book, which is available as a $.99 ebook and features “translations” from writers such as Jason Grunebaum, Jesse Ball, and Matthew Zapruder. So, for the price of a John Locke novel, you can get some faux-international poetry! (This actually is a brilliant collection—both the poems themselves and the games surrounding these poems are immensely satisfying.)

At long last, here’s a bit of The Ambassador. This is actually the editorial Sturla Jón Jónsson writes for the newspaper before taking off for the international poetry conference (after the jump):

Read More...

11 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Another thing I want to do this week (in addition to a special post about Icelandic cuisine) is highlight some of the as-yet-untranslated authors featured on the wonderful Fabulous Iceland site.

First up is Gerður Kristný, who I had the honor of meeting last time I was in Iceland. (Facebook friends go first! Besides, Gerður and her husband, Kristján Jónasson, are two of the nicest people ever.) She’s the author of 18 books, mostly poetry, but also novels, short story collections, and children’s books.

As mentioned on the Fabulous Iceland site, 2010 was a kick-ass year for Gerður. Over the course of 2010 she won three prizes: the Jón úr Vör Poetry Prize, the Guðmundur Böðvarsson Poetry Prize, and West Nordic Children’s Literature Prize. She has a new book of poetry out—Blóðhófnir (Bloodhoof)—which is based on an ancient Eddic poem and has been receiving a lot of praise. And that comment about being one of the nicest people ever? She also spent some time in Uganda recently working with the Icelandic branch of Save the Children.

Fabulous Iceland has a very nice interview with Gerður, which is where the following is pulled from:

Your newest book draws on ancient Nordic literature: The Lay of Skírnir in the Poetic Edda. Sixteen years before that, you dealt with the exact same work in the poem “Til Skírnis” (“To Skírnir”), which appeared in your debut. Did the material for Bloodhoof stay with you for all those years?

As a child, I fell in love with Norse mythology. I thought the stories were terrific. The tale of my namesake, Gerður, the daughter of Gymir, was an early favorite, so I lent her a voice in my first work, the poetry book Ísfrétt (Ice Report, 1994). Later, after turning in the manuscript of my first novel, Regnbogi í póstinum (A Rainbow in the Mail, 1996), I decided to celebrate by getting a tattoo. I had an old friend, the late tattoo-artist Helgi, tattoo Freyr’s sword on me. I’ve gone around armed ever since. I would later write a poem about Helgi, which appeared in Höggstaður (Weak Point, 2007).

The new book undermines the traditional reading of The Lay of Skírnir as a love poem. Instead, it highlights the coercion brought to bear on the giantess Gerður. Tellingly, equal rights have been a persistent theme in your work. There is a special kind of impact in subverting old traditions like this, isn’t there?

Equal rights are often mentioned in the pieces I’ve written for the newspaper Fréttablaðið during the past five years, but not in the poetry you are referring to. Scholars have covered The Lay of Skírni_r very well in the past few years, and no wonder – it’s a captivating poem that lends itself readily to interpretation. I find the coercion in _The Lay of Skírnir to be plain as day. Gerður Gymisdóttir has no more choice than the young girls I recently met in Uganda. Just like her, they were snatched from their homes and forced into the service of men. Skírnir bullied Gerður with threats, the worst of which was the threat of eternal loneliness, that she will only have death to look forward to. It’s understandable that this threat sways her. When I was little, I read that Gerður was counted among the Æsir – the Norse Gods – after arriving in their midst. At the time I thought that this must have been a great honor to her. However, if you read the poem you’ll see that she doesn’t want to leave her home and only gives in under extreme duress. The lay comes to a close when Skírnir informs the god Freyr that Gerður is on her way. I wanted to continue the story and relate what happened when Freyr and Gerður meet. And that’s what I did in Bloodhoof.

There is a strong element of horror in your poetry. Does fear fascinate you?

My world of poetry has always had very strict border patrols. However, fear was an early settler, settling into its deepest crevices. It’s stayed there ever since; I don’t think I’ll be evicting it by now. In any case, there has to be room for the whole spectrum of emotions. [. . .]

18 works in 16 years. Is more on the way?

There sure is! In late January, my musical Ballið á Bessastöðum (The Bessastaðir Ball) will premier on the main stage of the National Theater. It’s adapted from two of my books: The Bessastaðir Ball (2007) and Prinsessan á Bessastöðum (The Bessastaðir Princess, 2009). After that, there are at least two novels waiting to be finished, and I have quite a bit of unpublished poetry. In December, I’ll be heading off to a poetry festival in Bangladesh, and no doubt some of the things I’ll see there will find their way into poetry. I’ll bring a notepad along, sketch down ideas, and when I get home I’ll see if they’re worth anything.

10 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In addition to featuring various Icelandic tunes this week, I also want to highlight a number of works of Icelandic literature that are available in English translation. And since Halldor Laxness is Iceland’s one and only Nobel Prize winner, he seems like the perfect author to start with.

Laxness was born in 1902 and died in 1998, and wrote dozens of novels, story collection, and volumes of poetry during that time. His most well-known book is probably Independent People, a novel about Icelandic farmers in the early part of the twentieth century. But rather than focus on that particular book, I’d rather highlight Under the Glacier, translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson, and which is available in a pretty Vintage edition with an introduction from the late Susan Sontag.

First, check out the jacket copy:

Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness’s Under the Glacier is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, a wryly provocative novel at once earthy and otherworldly. At its outset, the Bishop of Iceland dispatches a young emissary to investigate certain charges against the pastor at Sn?fells Glacier, who, among other things, appears to have given up burying the dead. But once he arrives, the emissary finds that this dereliction counts only as a mild eccentricity in a community that regards itself as the center of the world and where Creation itself is a work in progress.

What is the emissary to make, for example, of the boarded-up church? What about the mysterious building that has sprung up alongside it? Or the fact that Pastor Primus spends most of his time shoeing horses? Or that his wife, Ua (pronounced “ooh-a,” which is what men invariably sputter upon seeing her), is rumored never to have bathed, eaten, or slept? Piling improbability on top of improbability, Under the Glacier overflows with comedy both wild and deadpan as it conjures a phantasmagoria as beguiling as it is profound.

And if that isn’t compelling enough, here’s the opening of Sontag’s introduction:

The long prose fiction called the novel, for want of a better name, has yet to shake off the mandate of its own normality as promulgated int he nineteenth century: to tell a story peopled by characters whose opinions and destinies are those of ordinary, so-called real life. Narratives that deviate from this artificial norm and tell other kinds of stories, or appear not to tell much of a story at all, draw on traditions that are more venerable than those of the nineteenth century, but still, to this day, seem innovative or ultra-literary or bizarre. I am thinking of novels that proceed largely through dialogue; novels that are relentlessly jocular (and therefore seem exaggerated) or didactic; novels whose characters spend most of their time musing to themselves or debating with a captive interlocutor about spiritual and intellectual issues; novels that tell of the initiation of an ingenuous young person into mystifying wisdom or revelatory abjection; novels with characters who have supernatural options, like shape-shifting and resurrection; novels that evoke imaginary geography. It seems odd to describe Gulliver’s Travels or Candide or Tristram Shandy or Jacques the Fatalist and His Master or Alice in Wonderland or Gershenzon and Ivanov’s Correspondence from Two Corners or Kafka’s The Castle or Hesse’s Steppenwolf or Woolf’s The Waves or Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John or Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke or Calvino’s Invisible Cities or, for that matter, prono narratives simply as novels. To make the point that these occupy the outlying precincts of the novel’s main tradition, special labels are invoked.

Science fiction.

Tale, fable, allegory.

Philosophical novel.

Dream novel.

Visionary novel.

Literature of fantasy.

Wisdom lit.

Spoof.

Sexual turn-on.

Convention dictates that we slot many of the last centuries’ perdurable literary achievements into one or another of these categories.

The only novel I know that fits into all of them is Halldor Laxness’s wildly original, morose, uproarious Under the Glacier.

Sontag loved a lot of books, and is quoted on a ton of them, but regardless, this is some pretty high praise. And her introduction carries on for a number of pages, explaining how Under the Glacier fits into several of these categories—“Science Fiction,” “Philosophical novel,” “Dream novel,” “Comic novel,” and “Visionary novel.” In many ways, Laxness is the one Icelandic author everyone should read, and if you’re going to start anywhere, why not start with a fairly wild 240-page novel that blew away Susan Sontag?

Just to give you a taste, here’s an extended quote from the beginning of the novel:

The bishop summoned the undersigned to his presence yesterday evening. He offered me snuff. Thanks all the same, but it makes me sneeze, I said.

Bishop: Good gracious! Well I never! In the old days all young theologians took snuff.

Undersigned: Oh, I’m not much of a theologian. Hardly more than in name, really.

Bishop: I can’t offer you coffee, I’m afraid, because madam is not at home. Even bishops’ wives don’t stay home in the evenings any more: society’s going to pieces nowadays. Well now, my boy, you seem to be a nice young fellow. I’ve had my eye on you since last year, when you wrote up the minutes of the synod for us. It was a masterpiece, the way you got all their drivel down, word for word. We’ve never had a theologian who knew shorthand before. And you also know how to handle that phonograph or whatever it’s called.

Undersigned: We call it a tape recorder. Phonograph is better.

Bishop: All this gramophone business nowadays, heavens above! Can you also do television? That’s even more fantastic! Just like the cinema—after two minutes I’m sound asleep. [. . .]

Bishop: What do you say to putting your best foot forward and going to Snaefellsjokull to conduct the most important investigation at that world-famous mountain since the days of Jules Verne? I pay civil service rates.

Undersigned: Don’t ask me to perform any heroic deeds. Besides, I’ve heard that heroic deeds are never performed on civil service rates. I’m not cut out for derring-do. But if I could deliver a letter for your Grace out at Glacier or something of that sort, that shouldn’t be beyond my capacities.

Bishop: I want to send you on a three-day journey or so on my behalf. I’ll be giving you a written brief for the mission. I’m going to ask you to call on the minister there, pastor Jon Primus, for me, and tell him he is to put you up. There’s something that needs investigating out there in the west.

Undersigned: What’s to be investigated, if I may ask?

Bishop: we need to investigate Christianity at Glacier. [. . .]

What I want to know, because I happen to be the office boy at the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, is first of all why doesn’t the man keep the church in good repair? And why doesn’t he hold divine service? Why doesn’t he baptise the children? Why doesn’t he bury the dead? why hasn’t he drawn his stipend for ten or twenty years? Does that mean he’s perhaps a better believer than the rest of us? And what does the congregation say? On three successive visitations I have instructed the old fellow to put these matters right. The office has written him all of fifty letters. And never a word in reply, of course. But you can’t warn a man more than three times, let alone threaten him—the fourth time the threat just lulls him to sleep; after that there’s nothing for it but summary defrocking. But where are the crimes? That’s the whole point! An investigation is called for. There are some cock-and-bull stories going around just now that he has allowed a corpse to be deposited int the glacier. What corpse? It’s an absolute scandal! Kindly check it!

13 April 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As announced yesterday, Icelandic author Gyrðir Elíasson has won the 2011 Nordic Council Literature Prize for his short story collection Milli trjánna.

From the Adjudicating Committee (! — great name . . . we don’t use the word “adjudicating” near enough in our modern vernacular):

“The Icelandic author Gyrðir Elíasson has won the Nordic Council Literature Prize 2011 for his short story collection Milli trjánna for stylistically outstanding literary art which depicts inner and outer threats in dialogue with world literature.”

Here’s a bit from Jón Yngvi Jóhannsson’s write-up of Milli trjánna:

If anyone wonders where August Strindberg ended up after his death, the answer can be found in Gyrðir Elíasson’s latest collection of short stories, Milli trjánna. Here we meet Strindberg sitting all alone in the canteen in IKEA in Iceland surrounded by shoppers stuffing themselves with Swedish meatballs and cowberry jam. The short story is called Inferno, of course! In some of the book’s other short stories the reader meets the saddened musical brothers who are burying their father, the undertaker, amongst the potatoes in his kitchen garden, another musician who discovers a blank gravestone in his boxroom and last but not least, a black dog. The characters and the surroundings have become familiar to Icelandic readers with a knowledge of the author’s previous works but will probably seem a little strange to foreign readers.

The short stories are woven into each other, and there are references to Gyrðir Elíasson’s previous writings as well as older literature, not least Nordic. From the beginning of his career Gyrðir Elíasson has built up a unique universe, a world where individual texts are reinforced by the whole that they form a part of, almost as if all his production is a colossal borderless text that grows with each new poem or tale.

It’s worth noting that in 2008, Gyrðir Elíasson’s Stone Tree was translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb and published in the UK by Comma Press.

And for more info on Icelandic Literature, be sure to check out Fabulous Iceland a special website that was created to promote Icelandic lit and culture before the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair, where Iceland will reign supreme as the Guest of Honor.

5 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The call for submissions for the 2010 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation was posted last week, and this year the focus is on translations from Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic.

This prize was launched two years ago to encourage the development of young literary translators. Applicants must be under the age of 30 on the date the prize is announced (in this case May 14, 2010) and if selected, they are expected to be able to complete their translation by October 2010.

Every year the Foundation chooses a different language/region to highlight: in 2008 it was German, and last year was Spanish. Personally, following my trip to Iceland and the grand success of Jan Kjerstad’s books, I’m very interested to see how this year’s award turns out. (Coincidentally, of the winner and two honorable mentions named in 2009, we’re publishing both Juan Jose Saer and Sergio Chejfec, although we have yet to sign on either Roanna Sharp’s or Emily Toder’s translations.)

Applications are due by February 13th, 2010, which gives interested translators a decent amount of time to get all the necessary materials together . . .

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.

21 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Sjon’s The Blue Fox, which was translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb and published last year by Telegram Books.

Sounds interesting, even if our reviewer Phillip Witte has some mixed feelings:

I picked up The Blue Fox on a continuing kick for Icelandic literature having recently finished Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets (published by Open Letter). I was pleased to see a cover-commendation from Icelandic singer Björk, whose association with the author, Sjón, is through several projects including the 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, in which Björk played the lead role, singing lyrics by Sjón, both of whom received Oscar nominations for their involvement. Sjón has also written the lyrics to a number of Björk’s other songs including several from her greatest album (in my opinion), Homogenic.

Needless to say, the decision to put the word of an international pop celebrity on the cover of The Blue Fox may seem to be a mere publicity ploy—and, at least in my case, without shame I admit it succeeded. Unfortunately, my experience of the book does not live up to Björk’s high commendations. She calls it “a magical novel which presents us with some of old Iceland in an incredibly modern shape.” I do not dispute Björk’s analysis, but I assume that she read it in the original Icelandic, which leads me to believe that the translation is less than outstanding. Indeed I often felt while reading the book that the language was vague or marginal, perhaps sidestepping a difficult turn of phrase here and there. Also it tends to use more clichés than seem to fit the idiosyncratic tone of the work, such as “dead as a doornail.”

And yet, there are moments in which the language seems crisply tuned to an surprising level of clarity and emotion . . . [click here for the rest.]

21 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I picked up The Blue Fox on a continuing kick for Icelandic literature having recently finished Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets (published by Open Letter). I was pleased to see a cover-commendation from Icelandic singer Björk. . .

Read More...

10 December 08 | Chad W. Post |

For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.

The Great Weaver from Kashmir by Halldor Laxness, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton. (Iceland, Archipelago)

The Great Weaver from Kashmir is the first of four books from Archiipelago that made the Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, and the only Icelandic book to make the list. (Considering the fact that only four books from Iceland were published in English translation this year, that’s not a bad ratio.)

In addition to being the only Icelander to make our list, Laxness is also the only Icelandic author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was given this distinction in 1955, not too many years after the publication of Independent People and Iceland’s Bell, two of his most well-regarded novels.

Great Weaver is one of Laxness’s first novels, written in 1927, but never before translated into English. It reads like a first novel—somewhat autobiographical (Steinn, the main character in the novel, converts to Catholicism, as did Laxness) and put together in a raw, somewhat innovative way that illustrates Laxness’s burgeoning talent. For me, it calls to mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, which breaks into play format at one point and feels like it was written by a novelist still trying to figure out what you can do with a novel.

The plot of Great Weaver centers around the aforementioned Steinn, who, at the opening of the book is a young, romantic poet about to leave Iceland for an extended stay abroad, where he hopes to become “the most perfect man on earth.” In a traditional romantic young man way, he thinks this can be accomplished through poetry and rebellion (especially against religion) and pursues a destructive bohemian lifestyle before attempting to commit suicide and undergoing a sea change leading him to join a monastery. Back in Iceland, he’s got a young woman named Dilja waiting for him, and their remote, sordid love affair is the main tension of the book.

What I think is most interesting about this book is the way that it mixes other forms and not terribly necessary information along with this primary storyline. Right after developing the anxious relationship between Steinn and Dilja, and Steinn’s eminent departure, Laxness leaves all that behind to give us a series of letters from Steinn’s mother about an affair that she had. And the way that Dilja’s story and Steinn’s develop in parallel is very well done. The characterization is strong (although Steinn remains a sort of enigmatic, troubled figure throughout—another element that makes the book compelling), the translation very fluid, and the descriptions of Iceland and Icelandic life very informative.

Larissa Kyzer wrote a full review of this title for us a while back, which is much more comprehensive than my description above and is also worth reading for the quotes from the book.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Iceland on an editorial trip. It was a wonderful experience, and in addition to finding out about a number of authors, publishers, etc., I also had the opportunity to see a few interesting sites, including Þingvellir (or “Thingvellir”), which is a geologically and historically famous site, and the setting for part of this novel, and the Halldor Laxness museum, which is remarkable in part for the outdoor swimming pool he had and the lectern that he stood at to write. Since international literature is a great way to encounter other cultures, I thought it might be interesting to include both of these relevant links.

22 February 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Literary Saloon has a link to this article from the Finnish press stating that Finland lost out to Iceland for 2011 Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Iris Schwanck, the director of the Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI) was informed on Wednesday of the negative decision by Jürgen Boos, the director of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

“The negative decision is a major disappointment, because the programme Finland offered was excellent, and because the popularity of Finnish literature is just now showing a strong upward trend in Germany”, noted Schwanck.

Apparently, there were non-literary factors at work in this decision:

Nokia’s decision to close down its factory in the German city of Bochum has aroused plenty of negative feelings against Finland in Germany, as has been regularly reported on these pages.

“In fact, Jürgen Boos admitted that the Bochum situation did not make the atmosphere favourable for Finland. However, he offered us another opportunity to apply for the guest of honour position for 2013-2014”, reported Schwanck.

That’s unfortunate for Finland—and FILI, which is one of the best literary cultural organizations in the world—but great news for Iceland, which is very deserving of the honor.

3 December 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

From PW:

William Morrow publicist Danielle Bartlett wanted to promote the U.S. debut of popular Icelandic novelist Yrsa Sigurdardottir by doing an in-flight book signing of her murder mystery, Last Rituals. She contacted Icelandair’s media relations manager Debbie Scott. From there, the idea morphed into a four-day trip for six journalists, arranged and paid for by Iceland Air, in which the writers spent time time with Sigurdardottir visiting locations relevant to her book.

Maybe Open Letter should arrange something like this for Bragi Olafsson’s book The Pets. Too bad 90% of The Pets takes place under the protagonist’s bed. . . . That probably wouldn’t work out too well . . .

(Bragi was the bassist in the Sugarcubes though, so in reality there should be some interesting stories to hear/places to visit.)

10 September 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The Reykjavik Lit Festival runs from September 9th through the 15th, and the full schedule of events is available online.

As pointed out in this overview, the “biggest” international name is Coetzee, but personally I’d love to see the events with Bragi Olafsson (Open Letter will be publishing his novel The Pets on our first list), Einar Mar Guðmundsson, and Guðbergur Bergsson.

The festival concludes with a seminar in English translations, which looks incredibly interesting, and includes presentations by Jón Karl Helgason on perspectives on contemporary Icelandic literature and publishing, and Guðbergur Bergsson on the psychology of the translation.

Too bad Hugleikur Dagsson isn’t included this year . . . His Should You Be Laughing at This? is one of the funniest, and most offensive, comic books I’ve ever read.

....
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