Fish in the Sky

Farsælt komandi ár, everyone, or: Happy New Year!

As I mentioned recently, I had the pleasure of reviewing Fridrik Erling’s Fish in the Sky for the December issue of The Reykjavík Grapevine. The review has now been made available online, which you can see here. Or, you can just read the full piece below.

Some interesting links and background context, for those of you who might be interested:

  • Fridrik was a founding member of The Sugarcubes (with Björk, author Bragi Ólafsson, and current Reykjavík City Council member Einar Orn Benediktsson, etc.) before he decided to focus his attention on his writing.
  • Although he has worn many professional hats–biographer, screenwriter, and graphic designer, among others–Fridrik’s novels “…usually either depict children or are written for children, if not both.” See Hákon Gunnarsson’s article “At the Crossroads of Childhood: On the works of Friðrik Erlingsson” over at literature.is for a more comprehensive overview of his work.
  • Fish in the Sky was originally published in 1998 under the title Góða Ferð, Sveinn Ólafsson. The novel was translated by the author. As he says in his translation note (which you can read via the “Look Inside” preview on Amazon.com, here): “Halfway through this [translation] process, a translation by Bernard Scudder was brought to light. This translation was immensely helpful during the editing process.” Fridrik dedicates the English edition of the novel to Scudder, who died in 2008.
  • Fridrik was interviewed a few years ago by Groupthing when Fish in the Sky was published (in Britain, I think). The interview–conducted, it seems, by a teen interviewer–has some really interesting snippets about Fridrik’s work, his decision to leave music, writing for a youthful audience and more. Worth a watch.

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“To actually cease being a child, that’s probably the greatest experience in life.” So thinks Josh Stephenson, the unusually sensitive and observant teen narrator of Fridrik Erling’s Fish in the Sky, a recent English translation of his novel Góða ferð, Sveinn Ólafsson. Josh has just turned thirteen and, according to his mother, is “one year closer to being considered a grown-up.” But getting older isn’t helping Josh make sense of life—it only seems to be complicating things.

Like most thirteen year olds, Josh occupies a purgatory somewhere between innocence and worldliness, regularly bouncing between pure joy and deep despair as he tries to navigate the seemingly insurmountable problems that crop up around him. First, there are his parents: his mostly-absent father who spends nearly all of his free time with his girlfriend or drinking buddies and his ardently religious mother who is too exhausted from working two jobs to pay much attention to his problems. Added to Josh’s list of worries are his rebellious older cousin—a girl—who moved in with Josh and his mom and is living in his closet, a vindictive math teacher, humiliating gym classes, the possibility that he has fallen in love, and the horrifying fact that he has started to get pubic hair. “I’m like a piece of bread in a toaster,” he thinks. “No matter which way I turn, all around me are the glowing iron threads that heat me up until I start to burn around the edges.”

Fridrik captures the profound extremes that characterize adolescence with a balance of poetical empathy and sly humour, all delivered through Josh’s sometimes wry and often perplexed observations. Of an irritating but popular classmate, Josh reflects that “It is unbearable how shameless and disgustingly free of low self-esteem he is.” While guiltily thumbing through a nude magazine he admits to finding “…at least two really hot descriptions of copulation,” which he doesn’t entirely understand. There is self-awareness and self-depreciation in Josh’s flailing attempts to reconcile with the world around him that ring very true to the teenage experience.

Although he spends most of the novel navel-gazing, Josh does undergo a significant transformation in discovering the simple truth that everyone has problems (many of which are more serious than his own), and everyone feels alone in them. The universality of this theme is further underscored by the fact that in the English translation, Fish in the Sky has very few orienting details that identify it as occurring in a particular country or even a particular time period. It’s worth noting that Fridrik completed the English version himself with reference to a translation by the late, great translator Bernard Scudder, to whom he dedicated the book. All of the character names have been anglicised, and while certain small details may hint at the original version’s Icelandic origins, it stands as a story that could have happened anywhere, to any young person.

New Reviews: Fish in the Sky and The Greenhouse

(This post is being reposted from my other blog, Eth & Thorn.)

I am immensely proud to have two book reviews–of two separate books–published in two different English-language Icelandic publications this month. After writing about Icelandic literature from afar for so long, it really is very exciting to be taking part of the literary dialog from within Iceland.

One of the reviews is of Fridrik Erling’s Fish in the Sky, and is published in the current issue of The Reykjavík Grapevine. (That review is accompanied by a nifty little graph about the increase in Icelandic translations into English over the last three years which was created to go along with some data I compiled on this subject–all due credit to the very helpful translation databases maintained by Three Percent.) The Fish in the Sky review isn’t online yet, but I will post it when it is available, or you can download the .pdf of the issue here and find the review on page 19.

The other review, published in Iceland Review, is of Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s The Greenhouse, which was released in its first English translation in 2011. I actually reviewed the book when it came out for the above-mentioned site Three Percent, but liked it so much the first time that I was happy to provide a second review now. And actually, although I thought I would just skim through the book to reacquaint myself with it before writing the review, I ended up enjoying it so much the second time that I read it all over again in one day. So obviously, I’m a fan.

You can read the review on the Iceland Review website, here, and I’ve also pasted the full text below. (Full disclosure: some of the points covered in this new review are similar to those I raised in my previous piece. But there’s no sneaky business going on–I got permission for this beforehand.)

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Part road novel, part bildungsroman, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s The Greenhouse is a meditative story of love, death, fatherhood, and creating meaning in life even when it seems to be entirely dictated by chance. Published in English translation in 2011, it is the first of ten Icelandic novels that online retailer Amazon committed to publishing in the next year via its literature-in-translation press AmazonCrossing.

The Greenhouse opens on Lobbi, a young man to whom things seem to just happen—things which he is rarely equipped to handle. The last year has been particularly unsettling in this respect: first, his mother, with whom he was very close, died in a terrible car accident. Exactly a year later—after being unexpectedly conceived in “one quarter of a night, not even”—his first daughter was born. Feeling superfluous in the life of his child and misunderstood by his aging father, Lobbi is only really comfortable when he is gardening. And so, he decides to leave Iceland for an isolated monastery in a foreign country, hoping to restore a once-legendary garden to its former splendor and add to it a rare species of rose that he cultivated in his mother’s greenhouse.

Once Lobbi begins his journey, little goes to plan. He falls ill almost immediately after he departs and later gets lost and has to detour through a labyrinthian forest. He’s barely settled into his gardening routine at the monastery before the mother of his child arrives with his daughter, asking him to “bear [his] part of the responsibility” and look after the girl while she works on her graduate thesis. But instead of collapsing in this new role, Lobbi rises to the demands of fatherhood, and finds himself embracing such simple tasks as roasting potatoes and picking out hair ribbons.

Auður Ava is not only a fiction author, but also a practicing art historian. So it seems only natural that her prose is particularly visual in its descriptions, such as when Lobbi first arrives at his new village and sees the monastery on the edge of a cliff, “…severed in two by a horizontal stripe of yellow mist that makes it look like it’s hovering over its earthly foundations.” There is a tangible richness to each setting in the novel. Lobbi imagines the lava field where his mother died, visualizing a landscape of “russet heather, a blood red sky, violet red foliage on some small trees nearby, golden moss.” The cozy warmth of her greenhouse, a sofa among the tomato plants, contrasts with the forest Lobbi drives through “which seems endless and spans the entire spectrum of green.”

This evocative prose, fluidly translated by Brian FitzGibbon, provides a nice counterpoint to the simple but perceptive landscape of Lobbi’s continuous internal monologue. In the end, his own transformation mirrors that of his beloved roses, echoing his mother’s gardening philosophy: “it just needs a little bit of care and, most of all, time.”

It’s Fine By Me

Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been a big fan of Per Petterson since his affecting novel Out Stealing Horses was published in English translation in 2007. Following the astounding success of that novel, we’ve been lucky enough to have a good deal of Petterson’s backlist published in English, as well his most recent novel, I Curse the River of Time, which in my opinion, deserves all the praise received by Out Stealing Horses, and then some more.

Graywolf Press has now brought out a translation of It’s Fine By Me, Petterson’s third novel, which was originally published in Norway in 1992. I reviewed the novel for Three Percent, which you can either read on their website, or see in full below.

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It’s Fine By Me
Per Petterson, Translated by Don Bartlett

On an early morning in Oslo in 1970, Arvid Jansen shimmies up his high school flagpole and replaces his nation’s flag with that of the Viet Cong. Confronted by the headmaster in front of his classmates, Arvid takes the opportunity to expound on the evils of the U.S. occupation of Vietnam and Norway’s complicit foreign policy, all the time being observed from a far corner by his good friend Audun Sletten. “I guess it’s all very important,” Audun shrugs, “but I am up to my neck in my own troubles, and it almost makes me want to throw up.”

Frequent readers of Per Petterson have by now come to know Arvid Jansen rather well. In typical Petterson fashion, Arvid’s life has been examined in alternating atemporal versions set forth in In the Wake and, most recently, in the masterful I Curse the River of Time. Arvid is often the vehicle through which the author explores and recasts episodes of his own past—“[h]e’s not my alter ego, he’s my stunt man,” Petterson stated in a 2009 interview with The Guardian. Vulnerable, self-absorbed, and made miserable by hindsight, Arvid is an incredibly sympathetic character. If for no other reason than this, then, English readers should be delighted to now have access to one of Petterson’s early novels (first published in Norway in 1992): It’s Fine By Me.

Arvid is a prominent character in the novel, but it isn’t his story. Rather, it’s that of his troubled friend Audun, a young man who, with his “real problems”—a violent and drunken father who is, luckily, often absent; a beloved but drug-addicted younger brother, killed in a car accident; a lonely single mother struggling to support her children; and numbing jobs with long hours and little respect—is the actual embodiment of the working class hero that Arvid has so frequently wished to be. But as seen through Audun’s eyes, there’s nothing in the least romantic about his situation in life.

“It’s fine by me,” (reminiscent of Elliot Gould’s own cynical chorus of “It’s okay with me,” in Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye) is Auden’s go-to retort, forced in its apathy when pretty much everything that he remarks on is anything but. In fact, Audun cares a great deal about what happens around him—cares about his sister who he thinks may be in an abusive relationship, cares about a neighbor whose brother is getting into drugs, cares about Arvid and his family, cares about doing well in school, and literature, and Jimi Hendrix, and woodsy hideouts where he felt safe as a child. But isolating himself and not caring—or at least giving the appearance of not caring—is far easier and exposes him less.

Although there actually is quite a lot in the way of plot happenings, It’s Fine By Me is a rather familiar, somewhat anticlimactic coming-of-age narrative where the ‘what’ matters far less than the ‘how.’ This is by no means Petterson’s strongest novel, nor should it really be expected to be—it was, after all, one of his first. But although the flashbacks and overlapping memories fold together less seamlessly than in other Petterson novels, although the emotional pitch is generally less subtle (lots of capital letter exclamations when people are angry), and the visual metaphors more overdetermined (a beautiful runaway horse, turning just before it knocks over young Audun and Arvid), the novel is still compelling, and sometimes even quite funny. (A scene in which Audun and Arvid have to figure out how to put gas in Arvid’s father’s car is particularly delightful.) Petterson’s characterizations are always both sharp and empathetic, his prose measured, poetic, and visual. One feels connected to Audun—truly concerned for him—and yet, due entirely to Petterson’s writerly sleights of hand, the reader can distinguish between what has become entirely compressed and unified in Auden’s mind: run-of-the-mill teenage angst and real, emotional (and physical) trauma.

Through it all, Petterson allows for a quiet hopefulness, the possibility a better future for Audun. There is resonance in the clichéd assurances of a sympathetic neighbor: “You’re not eighteen all your life,” he tells Audun. “That may not be much of a consolation, but take a hint from someone who’s outside looking in: you’ll get through this.”

Icelandic Folk Legends

As you’ll have seen from the post below, I’m not updating this blog as frequently these days, the better to focus my attentions on learning Icelandic and getting settled in Reykjavík, my current hometown. Nevertheless, I won’t pass up the opportunity to post the occasional casual book review here, as well as what published ones I am able to write–keep an eye out here for my forthcoming review of Benjamin Stein’s The Canvas (in The L Magazine) as well as Per Petterson’s It’s Fine By Me (on the website Three Percent).

I’ve been making frequent visits to the Reykjavík Public Library these days, and on my last trip ran across Icelandic Folk Legends, translated by Alda Sigmundsdóttir. Readers of this blog may remember Alda as the author of The Little Book of Icelanders and also the blogger behind the very entertaining and informative blog The Iceland Weather Report.

Icelandic Folk Legends was actually a much earlier project for Alda; it was first published in 1997 and then a second edition was published in 2007 (this is the edition I read). Although another print run doesn’t seem likely, Alda has now reissued the collection as an e-book, with two additional stories, as well as an introduction and “a “field guide” to the apparitions.” You can read more about the e-book and purchase it on her website, here. The collection also received a very positive review in The Reykjavík Grapevine when it was reissued in 2007; you can read that review here. Below you’ll find my own (casual) review of the collection.

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One of the strengths of Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s short essay collection The Little Book of Icelanders is its intimacy, the fact that in reading you feel as though you are listening to someone relate the quirks of neighbors and friends over a cup of coffee. It seems no surprise, then, that part of what stands out about Alda’s translations in the concise and plainly-worded collection Icelandic Folk Legends is the immediacy of the stories. Right from the start, you’re told that some of the stories explain how places currently in existence were named, that there are differing accounts of what precisely happened in some instances, that certain features of the tale have led people to believe that it is meant to represent such and such a farm or mountain pass. An example from the last lines of the story “Þorgeir’s Bull,” which tells of a sorcerer who creates a menacing magical bull endowed with many forms and powers, the better to harass the woman who turned down the sorcerer’s offer of marriage, his neighbors, and eventually he himself:

“It is said that the bull outlived Þorgeir, for he had not managed to slay it before he died. Some say that when he was on his deathbed a grey cat–some say a black pup–lay curled up on his chest, and that would have been one of the bull’s guises. Some people claim that the bull was created at the beginning of the 18th century; others that is was near the middle of that same century.”

Public debates about whether a mythical bull had been created at the beginning or in the middle of the 18th century might not generally be of that much relevance to the author–or the reader. But in these stories, it very much matters, because while called ‘folk tales,’ these stories are really all being presented as truth. A further illustration of this is in the fact that most of the stories are about characters whose full names are known, but when it happens that the names of characters aren’t, no fake character names are inserted. The statement “their names are not known,” then adds to the sense of veracity overall–the narration is sticking to plain facts here, and not even making up names for the sake of simplicity.

There’s little to no embellishment within the text–no introduction to explain folk traditions to the reader, no real attempt to create follow more traditional patterns of Western narration–you’re not really going to find the exposition, rising action, falling action, and dénouement here. This is not uncommon of orally-based storytelling, of course, but the abruptness of certain tales may surprise those who are more familiar with retellings which attempt to round out story lines for contemporary readers. Instead, there is a sort of layering effect: as you read more of the tales and are more immersed in the rural village and farm settings, becoming more familiar with what kinds of occurrences are possible–such as hidden people taking humans into their homes inside of boulders; witches riding horses’ thigh bones for their annual Christmas meeting with the devil; charms which spirit away whole flocks of sheep–the happenings become less fantastical feel more true, more possible.

There is also a wry, underlying sense of humor that runs through many of these tales, with one–“Kráka the Ogre”–standing out the most in this respect. This story tells of “…a menacing creature…[with] a penchant for the masculine sex and an aversion to being alone.” As such, Kráka regularly kidnaps farmers and shepherds and takes them back to her cave for company. In two instances the abductee refuses to eat anything except some very difficult to obtain delicacy (12-year-old cured shark; fresh buck’s meat) and so Kráka goes on long journeys to find these foods only to discover that her ‘guest’ has escaped when she returns. (We’re told that while running after the first man she yells out to him, “‘Here is the shark, Jón; cured not 12 but 13 years,’ to which he made no reply.”) Later we’re told that this lonely villain “was planning a large Christmas celebration which she took great pains to prepare for. The only thing that was missing, in her opinion, was a bit of human flesh, which she considered the greatest delicacy.” It’s not said who was going to attend the ogre’s Christmas party, but just the fact of it, alongside the missing hors d’oeuvre of human flesh (I pictured an ogre in an apron), seems so wonderfully absurd.

The one thing that I think this collection is missing is an explanation of where the source material was derived from. Alda is listed as the translator, not the author, so these are apparently not her own retellings. I would be very interested to know from what source these stories were collected, whether they were brought together from many collections or one, and whether or not these are stories that many Icelandic readers are familiar with, or just representative of the folk tradition in Iceland.

(These questions might be answered in the new e-book introduction, of course.)

From Arizona to Iceland: A Summer 2012 Reading List

In honor of the summer solstice today, I thought I’d put together a list of books I’m very much looking forward to reading this summer. A few of these are new releases (or soon-to-be releases), a couple are older titles. All of them should be entertaining, which is what you obviously want in a summer book–a blazing sun and 50%+ humidity can make it hard to focus on denser tomes–although not everything on this list is, perhaps, a traditional ‘beach read.’ I seem to have also planned myself an armchair world tour, starting in the U.S. and working my way half way around the world before I’m done.

Any particular book that you, dear readers, are looking forward to dipping into whilst poolside this summer?

The American Southwest

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

NYRB is bringing out this title by Hughes, a New Mexico-based mystery writer and critic (1904 – 1993), in July. I am not familiar with Hughes’ work (she was the author of 14 noirs and detective novels), but am intrigued by at least two other of her better-known works, the quirkily titled The Cross-Eyed Bear, and In a Lonely Place, which was made into a film with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. The Expendable Man seems like a good place to start, though, particularly because I’m always on the look-out for books that accurately capture Arizona (my ‘homeland’). And the plot doesn’t sound half bad, either. From the description on the NYRB website:

“It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumably educated, civilized man.” And Hugh Denismore, a young doctor driving his mother’s Cadillac from Los Angeles to Phoenix, is eminently educated and civilized. He is privileged, would seem to have the world at his feet, even. Then why does the sight of a few redneck teenagers disconcert him? Why is he reluctant to pick up a disheveled girl hitchhiking along the desert highway? And why is he the first person the police suspect when she is found dead in Arizona a few days later?

Switzerland, (East) Germany, Israel

The Canvas by Benjamin Stein (Translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen)

I was delighted to receive a review copy of this title, forthcoming from Open Letter Press in September 2012. The book, which I’ve just started, is a sort of literary “Choose Your Own Adventure” loosely modeled “on the true story of Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose fabricated 1995 Holocaust memoir transfixed the reading public.” The Canvas contains two interconnected narratives which tell the respective tales of Jan Wechsler, a Jewish publisher and writer living in Berlin who receives a mysterious suitcase one Shabbos afternoon, and Amnon Zichroni, an Orthodox student of the Talmud who was born in Israel and is then sent to live with an uncle in Switzerland.

Part of the fun this book promises is the format–the two stories begin opposite and upside down from one another and read toward the center of the book. As it explains on the cover, “There are two main paths and intertwined side-trails running through this novel. Behind each cover is a possible starting point for the action. Where you begin reading is up to you, or to chance.”(For what it’s worth, I started with Jan Weschler’s story and already know that one of his opening chapters–in which he talks about the way books, particularly borrowed ones, are inexorably wrapped up in past memories–will remain with me for a long time. It’s just wonderful so far.)

Norway

It’s Fine by Me by Per Petterson, Translated from the Norwegian by Don Barlett

I believe that this book was already published in English in 2011, but Graywolf Press is bringing out another edition this coming October. It’s Fine by Me finds frequent Petterson stand-in Arvid Jansen (the narrator from the remarkable I Curse the River of Time and also In the Wake) in his youth, befriending Audun, a troubled new kid at his school who shares Arvid’s love of authors like Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. Per Tim Parks in The Guardian:

“…this edgy bildungsroman makes explicit what many will already have suspected: for Petterson, the craft of writing, of carefully reconstructing life’s precariousness in sentences as solid and unassuming as bricks, is itself a way of building shelter. For those who see danger everywhere, literature is a place of refuge.”

I think Arvid Jansen is a marvelous, complicated character, and I think Petterson has done a remarkable thing in carrying him through multiple novels and multiple points of his life. (Also interesting is the fact that (I think) Arvid doesn’t actually narrate It’s Fine by Me–I think Audun does.) I’m definitely looking forward to this one.

England

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
Another NYRB title, Angel is the story of a dreamy shopgirl in Edwardian England who rises above her circumstances to become a successful author wealthy manor-mistress. I’ll be coming to this book with prior–although perhaps inaccurate–expectations: it was the basis for François Ozon’s opulent, lavishly campy romp of a film, starring Romola Garai and Michael Fassbender. I don’t know how the movie relates to the source novel yet, but on its own, its a rather delightful feat of melodrama, if you’re into that sort of thing, which I certainly am.

Based on what I’ve read about Taylor and Angel–Sam Jordison’s recent post in The Guardian’s Books Blog, “Rediscovering Elizabeth Taylor–the brilliant novelist,” is good for quick context–I won’t be surprised if the novel strikes a more serious, reflective tone, but either way, I’ll definitely be interested in comparing the original and its adaptation.

Iceland

The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness (Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson)

I’m slowly but surely working my way through the cornerstones of Icelandic literature–the Sagas and the novels of Iceland’s only Nobel laureate to date, Halldór Laxness. Thus far, I’ve read The Great Weaver from Kashmir, one of Halldór’s early novels and certainly an interesting introduction to his oeuvre, even if it isn’t one of his ‘larger’ works. I’ve also read (and loved) Under the Glacier, which contains one of my all-time favorite quotes: “Remember, any lie you are told, even deliberately, is often a more significant fact than a truth told in all sincerity.”

I’ve read about half each of Independent People and Iceland’s Bell, and was greatly enjoying both when I got distracted in my reading–not finishing in these instances is not indicative of the books’ quality, for sure. But until I get the beginning of both of these half-read novels out of my head so that I can start them again fresh, I would like to read another one of Halldór’s ‘lighter’ novels. The Fish Can Sing, set in the small settlement of Brekkukot and told through the eyes of the orphan Álfgrímur, who–from what I can tell from pieced-together summaries–spends the book reflecting on his simple upbringing, storytelling, and the larger, (Danish) world outside of Brekkukot . I believe there’s an opera singer involved, too.

This is perhaps a measly pitch for reading the book, but it sounds wonderful to me. There’s a good review by M.A. Orthofer over at The Complete Review, and that site also archives a number of other reviews of the book, too.


The Brummstein

My newest review, of Danish author Peter Adolphsen’s The Brummstein,  is actually a little dusty at this point–it was published on Three Percent in May. But I think it’ll still be of interest, especially since the book was actually published in July of last year, so this wasn’t an of-the-minute review anyway.

I think Adolphsen is a fantastic author–his obvious fascination with the natural world and geological processes, paired with a real respect for form and brevity–gives his work a unique twist, too. The Brummstein was written before Machine, which was Adolphsen’s first work to be translated into English, and while I do prefer the latter, I think that this one has some definite merits that make it a worthy read.

To get the full effect, I’d suggest you take an afternoon–it won’t take longer than that–and read both books back to back. They won’t be your typical “summer reads,” but will certainly be entertaining and worth your while.

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By examining the minute connections, unlikely coincidences, and painstaking natural processes that give shape to the daily world, the work of Danish author Peter Adolphsen encapsulates—both in form and content—Blake’s image of “a world in a grain of sand.” This has never been more literally true than in his most recently translated work, The Brummstein. Beginning in 1907, and ending over eighty years later, the novella follows a mysteriously humming stone found deep within a Swiss cave through its series of unlikely owners: a hapless German anarchist and his young Jewish sweetheart, a retired ticket clerk at a railway station lost & found, an orphan boy living alone in the woods, an avant-garde artist, and a museum curator. In following the ownership of the stone, The Brummstein also traces a crash course through European (German) history—in less than 80 pages, the reader experiences both World Wars, Spanish Flu, the rise of the Soviet GDR, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, rather than focus on a larger, more sweeping narrative, The Brummstein is told on a much more personal, human scale.

Adolphsen has not yet been fully translated into English, but a good start has been made with the 2009 translation of his excellent novella Machine, and excerpts from his collections Small Stories I and Small Stories II, which were included in 2011’s Best European Fiction Anthology. Readers familiar with these other works will recognize many of the author’s prevailing thematic interests, as well as his favorite formal constraints in The Brummstein.

The book starts with a playful explanation of “the constant orogeny of the Alps,” and how the formation of the earth might be conceptualized on a time-line. “. . . if we apply the famous metaphor which depicts the Earth’s age as a calendar year,” the narrator begins,

when dinosaurs became extinct on Boxing Day, hominids emerge on New Year’s Eve, and when, at the time of writing, ten seconds have passed since the Roman Empire’s five seconds expired, then these events took place on December 19 and 23 respectively. In the West, the process of comprehending this vast expanse of time commenced just one and a half geological seconds ago . . .

There’s a PBS-narrator quality to Adolphsen’s explanations of the natural world, which manage to be clinical and dignified while simultaneously geeking out about how awesome geology is. (Machine, with its first page explanations of the petrification of a prehistoric horse, which eons later becomes a drop of gasoline, maintains the same delightful tone.)

But the book’s concern is not really the Brummstein—the mysterious humming stone that an amateur explorer looking for the entrance to another world finds at the beginning of the story is basically a MacGuffin. This has been true for many other “lives of objects” narratives as well—Jenny Erpenbach’s Visitation and Nicole Krauss’s Great House come to mind—and is not in itself that unique a premise. What makes The Brummstein special, then, is Adolphsen’s incredible specificity and gift for compressing deeply incisive observations into just a few short passages.

It’s rare that the full emotional weight of a relationship or a life can be concisely summarized—just think of how bland many obituaries are. But this is precisely what Adolphsen excels at. Consider a passage in which we’re introduced to Georg Wiede, an elderly retiree in Germany during WWII. After his apartment was destroyed by Allied air raids, Georg moves to a railway station lost and found hut:

It wasn’t until December 1943 that Georg finally overcame the inhibitions which had so far deterred him from helping himself to the lost items. He was driven by a noble motive: hunger. One of the suitcases might contain a tin of goulash or a bag of boiled sweets. He organized clothing such as coats and hats in neat piles at one end of the hut, making sure that each item retained its original ticket. Then he turned his attention to the suitcases, briefcases, et cetera. One by one he placed them on the table, and feeling like a surgeon with a patient on the operating table, he opened them up and laid out the contents in regimented lines. Then he returned the items in reverse order less anything he needed, which included two fountain pens, a small pile of books, a little money, some clothes, and an antique pocket watch. Whenever he took something, he would replace it with a small note with a brief description of the object and the following sentence: “I, Georg Weide, took this item of lost property in a time of great need.”

When it doesn’t work, The Brummstein tends to undercut its emotional resonance with an unsettling sense of absurdity that borders on nihilism. More than one character is dispatched in a freak accident—for instance, a married couple survives Spanish Flu only to be crushed by a chaise lounge falling from an apartment window. The narrative also drops off abruptly and unresolved, which may be alluding to the continuation of the story outside of the novella, but instead feels slightly apathetic.

If, in the end, The Brummstein has some shortcomings, these are mostly recognizable only in comparison to Adolphsen’s more polished Machine which, it should be noted, was written a few years later. Overall, it is a remarkably creative, unique, and resonant work, which can—and should—be read in one satisfying sitting.

The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning (Review #2)

Hallgrimur Helgason (via Iceland Review)

I reviewed Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning twice: for The L Magazine in March and most recently, in a slightly extended piece for Three Percent. The newest review is in full text below; you can also read it on the Three Percent website here.

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Former soldier and current hitman for the Croatian mafia in New York, Tomislav Bokšić, nicknamed Toxic, has dispatched roughly 125 people. It’s a fully ingrained way of life for Toxic—he feels “restless if three months go by without firing a gun”—and takes pride in his professionalism. As a “triple six-packer,” he even holds something of a record in the business: his last 18 consecutive hits have not only been completed successfully, but each was accomplished with a single bullet apiece. But as Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning opens, Toxic is in trouble: “Hit #66 was a miss,” he says.

Don’t get me wrong. I got the bullet into the guy’s head safe and sound, but there was some serious aftermath. The mustached Polish guy turned out to be a mustached FBI guy. What was supposed to be a bright and sunny murder in broad daylight became a nightmare.

Which is how Toxic ends up going into hiding, fleeing his cushy life in New York City and heading back to Croatia to maintain his “LPP, or Lowest Possible Profile.” But even that plan goes awry and instead of heading back to his homeland, the beleaguered hitman ends up on a plane to Iceland under the assumed identity of a Southern televangelist named Father Friendly.

The second of ten Icelandic novels to be published in English by Amazon’s internationally-oriented publishing imprint, AmazonCrossing, The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning is a darkly comic novel which commingles irreverent indifference with sincere introspection and the possibility of redemption. As Toxic settles into his exile on “Lilliput Island”—a country he discovers has no handguns, no army, and hardly any murders (but plenty of good crime writers—there’s actually a list of Icelandic crime authors worked into a conversation)—he reflects back on his life as a killer, both as a soldier during the Yugoslavian civil war, as well as a contract killer. And while it wouldn’t really be true to say that Toxic feels a deep remorse for his actions, in the course of the novel, he is able to both reconcile with his past and plan ahead for a very different future.

While The Hitman’s Guide has much to recommend it in terms of plotting, pacing, and characterization, it is particularly interesting on a more “meta” level as well. For one, since Toxic arrives in Iceland with little to no previous knowledge of the country and culture, the book acts as something of a crash course in Icelandic society and idiosyncrasies. Sometimes, his observations about Iceland are more factual: he learns that it was originally christened by Irish monks, that Iceland has no prostitutes, and that “the beer costs a bear.” In other cases, the observations are a little more (self-)mocking (“According to Icelandic house rules, you’re allowed to enter in your shoes if they cost more than two hundred dollars”), and a bit opaque for someone unfamiliar with say, Iceland’s satirical contestant in the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest. But however these cultural snippets are conveyed, upon finishing the novel, the reader comes away with a fairly strong, if somewhat slanted, sense of Reykjavík and Icelandic culture.

Another interesting feature is the author’s use of language. Hallgrímur originally wrote The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning in English rather than Icelandic, and has an almost playful approach to rhyme and description throughout the novel. Toxic refers to a contender for his girlfriend’s affections, an Italian mafioso, as “the Talian Mobthrob.” In another passage, he describes the late-setting sun: “At 10:33 the sun is still burning on the horizon like an orange lantern at an outdoor Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn.” The descriptions don’t always hit their mark—there are a few too many laboriously detailed passages about female anatomy, and sometimes the imagery borders on overwrought (“The Balkan animal, which is my soul, is always hungry for prey”), but overall, the prose and dialogue is fresh and expansive. There are also a host of phonetic jokes about Icelandic words and names that Toxic mishears and then renders into stilted English, making countless puns on street names around the capitol; Icelandic phrases are renamed into things like “Guard the Beer,” and Reykjavík’s famous Kaffibarinn becomes “Café Bahrain.”

Both The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning and Hallgrímur Helgason seem assured to find a dedicated audience in the United States. As of this writing, the novel is among Amazon’s Top 20 Mysteries and Thrillers (although neither genre seems to really fit the book). Perhaps its success will allow for more of Hallgrímur’s Icelandic language novels to make it into English translation in the future.