Friday, 18 September 2009

Hallgrímur Helgason: The Author of Iceland - 1

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.

The following excerpts (together, they make up Chapter 33) relate to Laxness's time in Moscow during the 1930s.

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.

‘Hail to thee,’ I say to him. But he doesn’t hear, so far away. ‘Koba!’ I call. Then try: ‘Sosso!’, ‘Joseph!’ Then finally, ‘Stalin!’ but then recollect myself and remember Jóhanna who is sleeping, or not sleeping, on the ground floor here. The lodger who makes a noise. The lodger with bats in the belfry. Suddenly started invoking the Man of Steel in the middle of the night, and without having paid the rent, too. Still, I’m not really sure that she expects me to pay it. When I came upstairs this evening she lay in my bed with her hand under her chin, and for the first time she looked at me, before saying mockingly:

‘Do you know Davið Stefánsson?’

‘Yes, I’ve met him,’ I replied, not knowing where to put myself, and finally sitting down on a fusty, decayed upholstery-chair facing the bed. She lay there like a little girl trying to be provocative. One of the strangest things I have ever seen. The old crone smiled at me like a frog at a fruitfly. I guess she expected me to jump on top of her like a dog on a bitch.

‘He’s good-looking, that Davið.’

Did she really think this was the right way to chat me up?

‘Yes, he… was good-looking.’

‘Yes, that’s true. He’s a getting on a bit now, is Davið,’ she said, looking at me with eyes that said: ‘But you’re still young.’ How old was she, anyway? Eighty?

‘Aren’t you going to be with me this winter?’ she went on.

‘This winter? Aye… I don’t know…’ I said, trying to look out of the window as though I was expecting a coasting vessel.

‘Well, you might be wanting to go to bed, maybe?’

‘Yes, maybe… maybe I’ll just take a nap,’ I replied as dispassionately as I could, and noticing that Stalin was still standing up there on the shelf. The damned devil. With that infernal Georgian grin. I looked at the woman, this old object lying on ‘my’ pillow. She frowned again:

‘Well, you just go right ahead. I don’t need much space.’


‘I won’t be needing much space myself.’

What exactly was she, this old woman? She flitted her eyelids, two ancient moths. I looked at the Leader again. He’d grown awfully small, the poor fellow. I could stand up and take him in one hand and throw him out of the window. But I’d never be able to do that. You don’t throw Joseph Stalin out of a window, not from the second floor.

‘He’s smoking,’ I said.

‘Eh?’ said the old woman.

Stalin stood smoking incessantly, spitting now and then. He stood on top of the Lenin Mausoleum, together with all his men. On Red Square, 7 November 1937. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Revolution. I stood there like a Nordic mouse. We stood there like a hundred thousand mice staring up at the cat, the one with the hunting whiskers. The Georgian tom. He looked out across the herd and made his choices. Suddenly two soldiers came up to us on the platform, cleared a way through to some kind of box of honour, to a small, bald man with a sharp nose and a Napoleon forelock, and made him accompany them up to the mausoleum, to the leaders. Someone whispered: ‘Bukharin’. I recognized the name. Six months later he had been shot. But now he was raised up to the high seat. The cat wanted to smell the mouse.

We stood there, the two of us, Kristján and me. Me and Stjáni. Kristján Jonsson. He was seven years older than me, a definite and determined leader in the Communist Party back home, and employed here on its behalf in the House of the Comintern, as a kind of telegraphist whose job it was to send the party line home. The Moscow line. I looked up to him, though looking up to people never quite suited me. He was an enthusiast, powerfully built and pleasant-natured, with fair, tousled hair that rose like flames from his fiery red head, alert, straightforward, a good dancer with a zest for life, a mimic, the only real humorist in the party. A good lad. With his heart in the right place. His name was on the lips of all Icelanders during the Nóva dispute in Akureyri in March 1933. Red Stjáni cut to shreds the rope the White gangs intended to use in order to keep the workers away from the pier. And in the siege that followed he slept for two nights standing up, the story went. All the way until a final victory was won against the ‘employers’ gang’. How colourful words were back then.

(to be continued)

translated from Icelandic by David McDuff

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