Saturday, 16 April 2016

The Painter and the Sinner


These books by Iceland's Ólafur Gunnarsson appeared from Forlagið in 2012 and 2015. Together they make up a single novel, called The Painter and the Sinner. Gunnarsson works in the shadow of the Icelandic sagas and the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, and this new work is perhaps the most powerful he has achieved to date. Its blend of Nordic folk narrative, European Künstlerroman, Dickensian character study and Russian family and crime novel passes through an idiosyncratic and eclectic vision of reality which, though tinged by twentieth century literary modernism, reaches back into history, establishing connections that can sometimes seem unfamiliar and unfashionable, yet are nearly always imbued with the shock of the new.

Málarinn, The Painter, tells the story of an artist, husband and family man who commits art forgery and child murder, while Syndarinn, The Sinner, depicts the complex interweavings of the relationship between two strong and conflicting aesthetic personalities, again in the context of the family novel and the Russian quest for forgiveness. There is much discussion of ethics, theology, art, philosophy and politics, but always within the framework of a forward-moving narrative that never slackens its pace. As a whole, the book strikes one as a not-too-distant relative of twentieth century European works like The Magic Mountain and even, fleetingly, of Kafka's The Castle, yet its distinctively Icelandic tone, characterization and natural description help to grant it the status of a highly original work that forms a consistent fulfilment of the author's development all the way from the early parable Gaga, through the allegorical Trolls' Cathedral and the historical novel The Ax and the Earth.  A 14,000 word synopsis of the entire work can be read here.

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