Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Hallgrímur Helgason: The Author of Iceland - 3


Little Nína was down on the floor and wanted to get up on the chair between Lena and me. Her mother helped her and then said, a bit too loudly and clearly: ‘Stand on the chair, Nína!’ in Swedish, three times, until Kristján hushed her up, looking quickly around him. ‘Stol, Nina!’ sounded dangerously like ‘Stalina’.

‘It’s very important to be able to keep quiet here. But don’t tell anyone,’ he once told me with a serious look. He had lost some of his earlier playfulness. One summer ago, at Siglufjörður, he’d been the most entertaining person in the north of Iceland and had turned into his favourite character, Bourgeois Bourgeoisson, at Hotel Hvanneyri every night. In one sweep his face was transformed into that of an obese herring speculator who talked like an elderly Mongol on his third glass: ‘Listen, my lads, we don’t always need to be locked in battle like this, you know, the only difference between you and me is that… I’m fat and you’re thin. Otherwise our aims are exactly the same: to build up Bourgeois Bourgeoisson Incorporated.’

One evening a famous actor was standing at the bar. Stjáni: ‘There you see one of our foremost actors. He always acts at the front of the stage. And in the film that Knudsen made last year he put all the other actors in the shade during the filming because he always stood at the front, always right in front of the camera!’ We all laughed and the actor turned round, I felt sorry for him, he came over to the table where we sat. ‘Look! He’s trying to push himself forward again!’ I felt sorry for anyone who tried to get the better of Red Stjáni. He could outwit them all. And always so flaming red in the face. But here in Moscow he’d become a different man.

Axel Lorens. Room 247, Hotel Lux, 10 Gorky Street.

What was more, I had to call him Axel, even though we were sitting alone in the park, the last evening of summer, and I fresh from the train, having just told him all the new from home, all about the violence at the docks up in Skagi and the disputes in the party. I concluded with one of Bourgeois Bourgeoisson’s most famous lines: ‘One man’s profit is the bread of all.’ He made no reply, looked in front of him and said at last: ‘Yes. It’ll be nice to get home.’

We sat there in Moscow’s Ring Road Park, in the autumn of 1937: two soldiers of truth in that war of words that was now being waged all over the world, two evening-sweaty Icelanders determined to lift the Icelandic people from herring level to the next one, two sold souls beneath the Gogol Monument. But how could a man be anything else but a communist in the years after 1930? No one could be neutral in the class war. Only the most depraved villains could remain at home standing on their balconies, looking down on the workman who was toiling to dig a ditch for the sewer, to shovel away their for one króna an hour. No one walked unmoved from an unemployed family’s house in Reykjavik during the years of the depression, lacking WC and shower, with frost-patterned windowpanes and porridge served for dinner, the smell in your coat all the way down Laugavegur. To be a communist was to be a human being.

And we went east. To the model state. A journey of pilgrimage. Redeemed men in jobtraining in Heaven. How could we ever have suspected that we had landed in Hell?

For seven months I lived in the greatest realm of darkness in human history, and came back with a gospel-like manuscript about ‘the perpetual Sunday school that stretches from the Baltic to the Pacific’, where the greatest educational project in history was underway, where the schoolmaster ‘summoned by means of Marxism millions upon millions of people out of the darkness of stupidity and despair.’ In reality it was the greatest theatrical performance in history, a performance that deceived not only those who watched it but also all those who played a role in it, painted scenery, controlled the stage lights, whispered the correct line. Even the principal characters swore loyalty to the author in their final statements, which were, however, pure spinning, spun from a blind derangement of despair, confessed to their non-crimes and were then shot, to thunderous applause. I was in the courtroom. For ten days I sat following the trial of Bukharin and his comrades, and never suspected that that it was all a theatrical performance. The devilish spider had spun such an ingenious web that every fly that was caught in it continued to spin that web, which finally reached across half the planet. Koba sat in the middle of the web; alone in that pyramid he had spent his life constructing, making half of mankind construct it for him, as a mausoleum for himself, the great Pharaoh in leather boots: a monument to the next thousand years.

(to be continued)

translated from Icelandic by David McDuff

The Author of Iceland - 1
The Author of Iceland - 2

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