Tuesday 25 April 2017

Body and Soul

Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland, edited by Helen Mitsios, with a foreword by Sjón. University of Minnesota Press, 183 pp. 

In addition to being an enjoyable read, this anthology of recent short Icelandic fiction in English translation gives an overview of contemporary prose writing from a part of the world where writing, and the profession of writer, are traditionally held in high esteem. The Icelandic author is a representative of his or her nation, travelling the globe with some of the same nonchalance that the ancient Vikings brought to their more goal-oriented excursions.

Some reviewers of the collection have expressed regret that a number of the stories are set not in Iceland but abroad – mostly in regions of southern Europe. Yet given the history of Icelandic culture, with its openness to Roman and Hellenic influences, this does not seem unnatural. The Icelander abroad is a chameleon-like figure, at once distinctive and transparent, changing according to surroundings, and abandoning foreign cultures and languages as quickly as adopting them. 

Auður Jónsdóttir’s ‘Self-Portrait’, the opening story in the book, is a study of the tension between the fragile consciousness of the vulnerable outsider and the actually threatening nature of a foreign environment. The Sardinian beach resort, with its heat, its homeless people and Mafia operatives, turns out to be more forbidding than the austere northern climate it was supposed to replace and compensate for – in the end it’s a threat to the self, and needs to be rejected.

In Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s ‘Afternoon by the Pacific Ocean’ the film stars Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe, both of Nordic descent, read Joyce and Icelandic sagas together on an afternoon picnic under the Californian sun:

Marilyn lay down on her side in the fetal position, and with one hand under her cheek, she looked wide-eyed at Greta, who opened Egil’s Saga. They were at the part where Egil wants to marry Asgerdur after returning from a successful raid. Greta started reading with Marilyn watching her. The sun over the Pacific pierced through the curtains of the big window and bathed the actresses’ feet in golden rays.

The stories set in Iceland – and there are more of them in the volume than some reviewers have implied – blend elements of nature, psychology and society to create an inner and outer portrait of individual people whose lives are at once conditioned and set free by a sense of being at the margins, yet able to look into the depths in a way that is unusual and uncanny. The father in Ólafur Gunnarsson’s ‘Killer Whale’ is gripped by a death wish that is linked to archetypical figures of Icelandic natural and human history:

“No, they’re loners,” Olaf said. “They live in their own herds, by themselves. They don’t mix with other whales. They attack them. They feed on them.”

Likewise Gyrðir Elíasson’s ‘The Black Dog’ focuses on a negative, destructive element in Icelandic folklore and national psychology: in a Kafkaesque parable, the author’s own depression materialises in the image of a dog that ‘for some reason’ can be seen ‘only in mirrors’.

Not all of the narratives dwell on the darker side of human nature, and instead explore the quirkier regions of the supernatural. As Sjón points out in his foreword, in place of philosophy and metaphysics medieval Iceland had poetry and tales – ‘debates on the interaction between body and soul, for example, could be conducted through the medium of verses or stories about birds.’  Óskar Árni Óskarsson writes about a pen that possesses a magical power, granting the gift of originality to its poetry-writing owners as it passes from hand to hand – a cheap, unremarkable Biro. And again in parable form, Magnús Sigurðsson presents a series of dream-like narrative reflections, one of which centres on a play between the Latin word lego, ‘I read’, and the etymology of the Danish toy manufacturer Lego.

For the most part the translations by several hands read well, with the occasional lapse where the process becomes too literal a transposition of Icelandic syntax and phrasing. 

In general Helen Mitsios is to be congratulated on having compiled a highly readable and often entertaining miscellany of writing from a European literary culture that is still not as well known to the rest of the world as it ought to be. The characters of these short stories inhabit a realm that lies somewhere between fiction, mythology and poetry, and everywhere in them there is the sense of a lone, reflective wanderer, observing and noting inner and outer realities. It’s almost as if the same narrator were somehow present throughout the entire volume. As a result, the stories are best read in sequence, almost like a collective novel rather than as isolated texts: I found it the most satisfactory way to absorb this fascinating and eminently re-readable book.

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