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.”