My newest review (in The L Magazine) is of Icelandic author Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning. I’ll actually have a second review of the book published shortly, so I’ll dispense with giving much background about the book. But a little about the author, who should be familiar to many English-readers after the success of his novel 101 Reykjavík, which was also made into a popular movie. (Anecdotally, I might add that 101 Reykjavík is, after Independent People,the book that most people who I’ve had conversations about Icelandic literature with seem to know about.)
Anyhow, here are a few links of interest re: Hallgrímur, who in addition to being a talented author, is also a painter, translator, and newspaper columnist:
- Back in 2002, The Guardian asked Hallgrímur to list his top ten books. The list includes the aforementioned Independent People by Halldor Laxness, Ulysses by James Joyce, and Lolita by Nabokov. He also includes Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, which really made a lot of sense to me in terms of his own writing. Of that book, he commented:
“None of us could continue to write in the same way after this. At the time, I was preparing to write 101 Reykjavik and I have to say that American Psycho helped me a lot in finding the right tone. As I always find violence in books and films a bit silly, the strongest parts for me were the small bits on pop music: Genesis, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, etc. This was an absolute revelation.”
- He maintains a rather entertaining, (mostly) English language Twitter feed here.
- And lastly, a YouTube video of Hallgrímur performing his poem “Suit and Tie” about the Icelandic financial meltdown. Written and performed in English, this will give you a good sense of his rather lyrical and rhythmic use of language, which is one of the more enjoyable aspects of The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning.
The full text of my review is below.
Tomislav Boksic, or Toxic, is the go-to hitman for the Croatian mafia in New York. A former soldier, Toxic prides himself on his impeccable hit record, his “sex bomb” girlfriend, and his decadent Manhattan lifestyle. But when kill #67 turns out to be an undercover FBI agent, Toxic has to flee America, assume the identity of a televangelist named Father Friendly, and hide in Iceland, a country he only knows from travel advertisements of “lunar landscapes and sunny faces.”
In the wake of its financial collapse, Iceland has invested significant energies in exporting itself both as a tourist destination (think of all those alluring subway ads), and—justifiably—as a hotbed of cultural innovation. A new partnership between AmazonCrossing and the Icelandic Literature Fund is representative of this effort: The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrímur Helgason is one of ten Icelandic novels that the press will release in English this year. Hallgrímur previously gained attention in the U.S. with his slackers-in-the-city novel 101 Reykjavík, and Baltasar Kormakur’s subsequent film adaptation. (There’s a fun moment in Housecleaning when Toxic discovers “the most famous bar in the land, heavily featured in some hip movie years back”—referring to the iconic Kaffibarinn in 101 Reykjavík.)
Housecleaning shares much of 101 Reykjavík’s sensibilities. On one hand, both protagonists—with their respective rating systems for women—could use some feminist sensitivity training. On the other, both books make for great mini-guides to Icelandic culture. It’s a clever device in Housecleaning—Toxic is essentially a tourist, so there’s ample reason to share factoids about Iceland: the country has no army, prostitutes, or handguns; and on particularly warm days (60ºF), businesses close for a “sun-break” so that “employees can go outside and enjoy the heat wave.”
Housecleaning is also notable in that it wasn’t actually translated from Icelandic—Hallgrímur wrote the novel in English. The prose is rhythmic and fluid, and showcases his linguistic creativity. Toxic not only has a flare for descriptions (“her hair… has the color of butter fresh from the fridge”) but also converts all the Icelandic names and words he hears into a phonetic English hitman-ese: he hears a woman’s name, Gunnhildur, as “Gunholder.” The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning was written prior to Iceland’s meltdown, but these efforts to familiarize outsiders with Icelandic culture and situate the country in a greater global context feel particularly appropriate for the current moment.