17 September 09 | Chad W. Post

The article I wrote for Publishing Perspectives about the Iceland Literary Festival (along with a video interview with Kristjan B. Jonasson, the head of the Icelandic Publishers Association) will go live tomorrow morning, but in the meantime, I thought I’d put together a short write-up of some of the interesting contemporary Icelandic writers I met at the festival last week. This is obviously an incomplete list, but if you’re at all interested in finding out about Icelandic literature, it will hopefully serve as a good starting point:

  • Kristín Ómarsdóttir has been a guest at the Ledig House and participated in the PEN World Voices Festival. So she’s not completely unknown in the States, although she has yet to have a book published in English . . . I think that’s going to change pretty soon though. Anna Stein is representing this poet, playwright, novelist, and art performer, and recently received an amazing sample translation of Kristin’s recent book Hér (Here) that is creepy and unnerving in a very compelling way. It opens with a soldier killing a family and his fellow soldiers in hopes of escaping the war and living a more peaceful life as a farmer. But it’s the scene with the eleven-year-old-girl and her barbies that’s really disturbing . . .
  • Steinar Bragi also hasn’t made his way into English yet, but his novel Konur (Woman) was a huge success, and quite controversial. It’s also supposed to be rather disturbing (the short sample I read hinted at some of the creepiness in this book), but in a much different way. From talking to others, it sounds like the sort of novel that pisses off a lot of its readers, but these same readers tend to praise the book in the end for having the power to piss them off so thoroughly. (Intriguing, no?)
  • Sjón is the author of a number of novels (including The Blue Fox, which was published in English by Telegram last year) and collections of poetry. But he’s probably most well known for writing the lyrics to a few Bjork songs, including “I’ve Seen it All” from Dancer in the Dark, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Phil Witte reviewed The Blue Fox for us a few months back, and called it “a pretty, touching, funny little book.” (Although he did have some issues with the translation.)
  • Gyrðir Elíasson has been published in English by Comma Press in the UK. I received a copy of his short story collection Stone Tree when I was in Reykjavik, but haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Bragi Olafsson gave it some high praise though, and said that Gyrðir’s writing was very quiet and subtle, and that his most recent novel was amazing.
  • Bragi Olafsson is one of Iceland’s most talented authors, and I’m not just saying that because he’s an Open Letter author. We published The Pets last fall to great acclaim, and will be bringing out The Ambassador next year. But it’s his novel that’s coming out in Iceland later this fall that has a lot of people excited. . . . A much longer work than his previous novels, the section I’ve read from this is incredible. Reminds me a bit of Flann O’Brien’s work, with a number of digressions and a somewhat absurd plot revolving around a guy who inherits a bunch of shoes. Hopefully we’ll be able to run a full review of the Icelandic edition in the near future.
  • Andri Snær Magnason works in a number of genres and mediums and is a really nice, really funny guy. He wrote a kids book that was going to be translated into English, but the Canadian publisher wanted him to remove a) the reference to eating seals and b) all the mentions of friends hugging. Totally mental, and we assume it’s because they were afraid of what Midwesterners would think. (And yes, I’m from the Midwest, so I know you’re not all crazy.) But Andri’s big work is Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation, a book about the crazy free market economics that severely damaged Iceland and the impact these political and business deals have had on the environment of this beautiful, peaceful nation. Dreamland was recently made into a full-length documentary (I have a DVD copy and will write a review next week), a trailer for which can be found here. Andri also deserves a special shout-out for taking me on a tour of the totally abandoned “Financial District.” (And really, those aren’t unnecessary quotes—on a map of Reykjavik, there are various areas that are labeled. Places like Down Town, Up Town, Skyline, and “Financial District.” When I asked people about the quotes around this one particular part of town, they told me that it was intentionally ironic and due in part to the fact that the largest glass building in Reykjavik—a building that was supposed to serve as the HQ for the banking sector—is completely empty. It’s beyond spooky.)
  • Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is a crime writer with two titles available in the U.S.: Last Rituals and My Soul to Take. As most everyone knows, Scandinavian crime fiction is a hot commodity, what with writers like Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, etc., etc. During Kristjan B. Jonasson’s speech about the future of publishing in Iceland, he pointed out that Icelandic crime fiction didn’t even exist until 1997 or so. And that when he first read an Icelandic crime novel, he thought it was “total bullshit,” since there is no crime in Iceland . . .

More information about these and other Icelandic authors can be found at the Icelandic Literature Fund website (Agla at bok at bok.is is the person to contact for sample translations, etc.) and the Fabulous Iceland site that was set up to promote Iceland culture in advance of their being Guest of Honor at the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair.


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