The Great Weaver of Kashmir

In 2008, Archipelago Books published the first English translation of Halldór Laxness’ first novel, The Great Weaver of Kashmir. I had started Halldór’s most famous novel, Independent People, shortly before, but hadn’t had a chance to finish it when I started reading Kashmir. So I actually had a rather unusual experience with Laxness (for an English speaker) in that his first novel was the first of his books that I read.

In the intervening years I’ve read Under the Glacier and have come to really love Halldór’s work. It’s rare to find an author who can convey such empathetic observations and theological discussions while still being laugh-out-loud funny. Kashmir is not nearly as polished as Halldór’s later work, but it is a really wonderful read, and highly recommended. (It was shortlisted for The Best Translated Book award in 2008, if that adds to the appeal.)

You can read the full text of my review below, or on Three Percent, here.

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If the international community recognizes Iceland for something other than Björk, vikings, and glaciers, it is undeniably the country’s historic and richly diverse literary tradition. Deemed by the Swedish Academy to be the “cradle of narrative art here in the North,” Iceland not only has the legacy of the sagas to its credit, but also a remarkably active community of poets and storytellers. As Icelandic author and journalist Birna Anna Bjornsdottir has noted, bibliophilia is part of the national character, and writing is an activity frequently practiced by “non-professionals”:

We sometimes claim that everyone in Iceland is a writer. Sure, it’s hyperbole, and as such slightly out of character for a literary tradition long characterized by understatement and restraint. Still, approximately 1,000 books are published here each year for a population of about 290,000, one book per 290 persons . . . The mailman moonlights as a veggie chef, and the DJ teaches kindergarten during the day. Both have a couple of books of poetry out . . .

But if Iceland is a nation of authors, it is still a relatively isolated one, with only a fraction of its works translated into other languages each year. Even Halldór Laxness, the so-called “bard of the Icelandic people” and recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1955 (Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate, keep in mind), has faced a relatively sparse translation rate. Of the 51 novels he produced in his lifetime (not to mention the plays and poetry), only a handful have been translated into English. Which makes Philip Roughton’s forthcoming translation of Laxness’s “first important novel Verfarinn mikli fra Kasmir (The Great Weaver from Kashmir) very exciting.

But The Great Weaver from Kashmir should not be mistaken for a “posterity” translation. A novel which captures the conflicting passions and pitfalls of youth into one tragicomic character, Kashmir can be read as a revisionist approach to Siddhartha—a rendering of one man’s search for spiritual enlightenment becoming confused and complicated by the zealotry and naivete of youth. Its protagonist, Steinn Elliði, is a self-aggrandizing, willfully divisive, and talented young poet who leaves Iceland on an impassioned, though obscure, quest. “In search of perfection” and planning to author “fifty perfect poems for God,” Steinn is the embodiment of adolescent enthusiasm—a man-child who believes himself to be uniquely capable and uniquely misunderstood. In a particularly delightful scene, Steinn rhapsodically enumerates his great potential for his foster-cousin, Diljá, who has been in love with him since childhood:

“. . . I’ve made a pact with the Lord about becoming the most perfect man on earth.”

“Why do you want to become so perfect?”

But he would not grant an answer to such an ignorant question. “I have vowed to leave no further room in my soul for anything other than the celebration of the spiritual beauty of creation . . . I am betrothed to the beauty on the visage of things. I intend to travel back and forth through existence like a jubilant monk of the world who beholds the smile of the Holy Mother in everything that exists. My bread and wine will be the glory of God on the face of creation, the image of the Lord on the Lord’s coins. I am a son of the Way in China, the perfect Yogi of India, the Great Weaver from Kashmir, the snake charmer in the Himalayan valleys, the saint of Christ in Rome.”

“I think that you might have lost your marbles!” said the girl, and stopped to look in his face, because she understood nothing.

Rather than resulting in any real sense of enlightenment, Steinn’s journey becomes progressively dispirited and confused. He cuts off already strained relationships with relatives and acquaintances, and travels alone, flirting with debauchery and misadventure throughout England and Italy. Eventually turning to the advice of a Benedictine monk, Steinn is baptized into the Catholic church and plans to join the monastic order himself. This decision reads as a horrible misstep, a tragic act of evasion, where the traditions and rituals of religious faith buffer Steinn from the emotional trials that face him in his life.

When awarding Laxness the Nobel Prize, E. Wessén stated that “All his important books have Icelandic themes.” The Great Weaver of Kashmir, however, should not be read as an “Icelandic” novel, particular to the trials and experiences of an Icelandic man. As a contemplation of the irrevocable mistakes one can make before he understands the consequences, and an empathetic portrait of youth gone astray, The Great Weaver from Kashmir is a novel that should resonate with audiences the world over.

The Pets

I reviewed Icelandic author Bragi Ólafsson’s comic, existential novel, The Pets, for The L Magazine when it was translated into English in 2008. It is a wonderful book, and one which I still find myself thinking about years later.  The original review isn’t available on The L website anymore, but the full text is below.

(It bears noting that at the time of this review, I didn’t quite understand how Icelandic patronymic names work, so I refer, in error, to Bragi as ‘Ólafsson’ within the review. This is not actually correct, as Wikipedia will explain in delightful detail.)

You might also want to check out an interview that Open Letter did with Bragi in 2008, and a review that The Believer published at the same time.

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The Pets
By Bragi Ólafsson, Translated by Janice Balfour
October 2008, Open Letter Press

The Swedish Academy’s Horace Engdahl recently asserted that “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature…” The statement may have ruffled those hoping to see Roth or DeLillo finally honored, but Engdahl makes a valid point. Out of the 290,000 books published in the U.S. last year, only about 350 were new works in translation. (This is, of course, a loose estimate—no one’s keeping exact records.)

In response to this longstanding trend of literary xenophobia, the University of Rochester launched Open Letter, a press dedicated entirely to translated literature. Their first season of releases is an excellent primer for the reader looking to expand her horizons, particularly Bragi Ólafsson’s absurdist comedy (and possibly the funniest novel to be narrated from under a bed), The Pets.

Emil S. Halldorsson is a man beset by happenstance. He’s just happened to win a million króna in the Icelandic lottery, just happened to meet a woman on a plane who he’s “adored from a distance for nearly fifteen years,” and just happened to walk off with the eyeglasses of an eccentric linguist. But none of these random occurrences are nearly as disruptive to Emil’s apathetic existence as the arrival of Havard Knutsson, an Id-fueled persona non grata who literally drives Emil into hiding.

As Havard wreaks havoc on Emil’s life—breaking into his home, rifling through his belongings, inviting strangers over, and compromising his romantic relationships—Ólafsson creates a strangely sympathetic Catch-22. Having hidden from Havard rather than confronting him in the first place, it becomes increasingly difficult for Emil to take any action at all. “I have become the guilty party…” he laments, even as his invader helps himself to cognac and cigars.

And yet, the reader is also forced to consider Emil’s complicity, the responsibility that he bears for his own undoing. “Why on earth don’t I do something? What is wrong with me?” Emil bemoans, a pitiful (but certainly relatable) picture of self-loathing inaction.

Delightfully funny and unexpectedly complex, The Pets introduces American readers to a fresh voice and perspective, and provides ample incentive for us to crawl out from under the bed.

House Lights

I reviewed House Lights by Leah Hager Cohen for the literary review site Gently Read Literature in October 2008. The full text of the review is below, or you can read it here.

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In the opening pages of Leah Hager Cohen’s House Lights, Beatrice Fisher-Hart recalls a moment during her workday as a ‘historical interpreter’ at a restored Underground Railroad station. During a routine tour, a little boy asks Beatrice personal questions about herself, rather than about the character she is representing. “It threw me,” she recalls,

having him break the fourth wall, as they would have said in my acting class, having him crack everyone’s willing suspension of disbelief. It was as if someone had switched on the house lights in the middle of a dramatic performance, suddenly illuminating the larger reality in which the play was being staged.

While the metaphor that immediately presents itself in the passage is, of course, the analogy drawn between a theatrical performance and Real Life, House Lights’ strength as a novel lies in its ability to transcend this somewhat bland metaphorical framework and reach instead towards a surprisingly textured and subtle reflection on relationships, culpability, and one’s ability to forgive. Beatrice’s coming of age is intertwined inexorably not in her ability to take on a role and play her part. Rather, it becomes her central goal to be like the little boy in the above anecdote—to shatter the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that defines her family life and history. To be, above all things, ‘an actor’—a force of action, an instigator. “My dream is to act, I had written,” she reflects mid-way through the novel, “and I believed I meant acting as in theater,”

The words sound different to me now, as I look back on who I was then, fast approaching my twentieth birthday…playing the same role I had performed all my life, and all the while so critically unable to act.

 House Lights pivots around Beatrice’s discovery that her father, a noted psychologist and professor, has a history of sexually harassing his clients and students. Although information about his conduct has been carefully slanted and, more often than not, withheld from Beatrice (who meanwhile constructed an image of her father as a “beautifully, effortlessly moral” man), when one of his dissertation supervisees furnishes tape-recorded proof of his behavior, she is forced to reckon with not only her image of her parents, but also of herself. “I felt sullied by what I was learning about my father, about my mother’s complicity, and, worst of all, what felt like my own complicity, too,” she explains,

Not because I’d known; I hadn’t. Simply because I had loved him, and us, had believed in and been buttressed by my ready belief, the story of us Fisher-Harts being nobler and smarter and finer than average.

What Cohen emphasizes throughout the course of the novel is that complicity—in the form of either “ready belief” or a lack of action—is an offense on par with the transgressions that her characters spend the novel struggling to understand and overcome. House Lights reads as a repeating cycle of action met with inaction: a character is wronged by someone close to them, but then exacerbates and complicates the situation by refusing to face the problem head on, by even ignoring it all together.

Beatrice’s mother Sarah enacts this cycle most fully throughout House Lights. As a child, Sarah was practically abandoned by her mother, the “legendary actress” Margaret Fourcey, who sent her to live with relatives while Margaret pursued her career, remarried, and had another child. As an adult, Sarah cuts off almost all contact with her mother, stifling any possibility of resolution with her, even when Margaret attempts to reconcile. Beatrice herself replicates this cycle with her father, leaving home shortly after she finds out about the accusations made against him, and refusing to accept his apology when he finally does offer it.

Having made a concerted effort to do away with artifice and a mythologized sense of her family’s superiority, Beatrice cannot set these recognitions aside. Her point-of-view seems to constrict at the very moment that it expands, allowing her to see her parents for the flawed people that they are, but not able to forgive them their fallibility. But forgiveness, House Lights asserts, is not a matter of ignoring wrongs or pretending that time can ever truly eradicate certain emotional wounds. Rather, within the novel, forgiveness becomes the ability to be empathetic with those who have inflicted the most harm to you: “…This much is clear,” Beatrice says of her father, “it isn’t and never will be all right with me, the choices he’s made as a father. Which is different from hating him. Which does not preclude compassion.”