In my job as the managing director of the U.S. Arctic Program at WWF, I’ve had the good fortune to travel in the Arctic, visiting urban centers and rural communities, as well as some very remote and wild natural areas. Recently I’ve been asking my friends and colleagues from the circumpolar region to recommend books that in some way typify their countries’ history and culture.
This is the first of a regular column that features literature of all kinds, from classic to contemporary, including a mix of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, from the eight Arctic nations. This month’s column focuses on Iceland, a nation with an independent mindset, land of the Vikings and home to the Althing, the world’s first parliament.
I travelled to Iceland twice in 2014. Once in September to meet with fellow WWF colleagues from around the Arctic and again in November to attend the Arctic Circle conference. An Icelandic friend provided me with a proposed walking tour of Reykjavik and a long list of background reading. Although the Sagas are Iceland’s cultural cornerstone, I read contemporary stories: Independent People, The Whispering Muse and The Blue Fox.
If anything unites these books, it is the sense of place shaping each narrative and its characters. In each story, the landscape influences the characters and their experiences, from the families struggling to earn a living in Independent People to the mystical vixen scurrying across the moors in The Blue Fox.
Halldor Laxness wrote Independent People in 1946 and it was translated into English a decade later. The novel, which received the Nobel Prize in 1955, was the first to put an Icelandic author on the map of modern literature. National pride in Laxness’s literary success is palpable; bookstores prominently display his novels and tourists can visit the Laxness Museum in the writer’s former home.
The story is set in the early 20th century, on the wind-pummeled ridges of Iceland’s sparsely peopled landscapes. The terrain is severe: “Crags soar up from the landslides in sheer castellations … and down from this gully in spring cascades a waterfall, long and slender. Sometimes the south wind blows the spray up over the brink again, so that the waterfall flows backward,” writes Laxness. The rocky hillside pastures and small farms, or “crofts,” form the backdrop for a rich exploration of human nature.
Laxness’ narrative opens with the tale of an ancient sorcerer and an evil woman, whose dark forces, local people believe, may still curse the land. Bjartur, the main character, is a sheep farmer who cannot be troubled with such nonsense. Although focused on practical aspects of daily life, Bjartur is both exasperating and pitiable, and is obsessed with his farm.
He is so determined to accumulate the wealth he needs to fully own his property and to be free and clear of debt, that he seems unable to love his children. As they toil in meadows and bogs and daydream of better lives, he insists that they, too, devote their bodies and minds fully to the physical labor of daily farm life. When his wife Rosa dies in childbirth and nearly loses the baby, Bjatur shows a rare hint of compassion: he names his newborn daughter Asta Sollilja, “little flower.” But the tenderness is short lived.
Bjartur is stubbornly set on being self-sufficient. “Independence is the most important thing of all in life. I say for my part that a man lives in vain until he is independent. People who aren’t independent aren’t people,” he tells his family, early in the book. With time we see that Asta Sollilja, will show herself, also, to be independent, resulting in even greater suffering for herself and her father.
The Whispering Muse
The Whispering Muse is a different sort of fish tale. Written by Sjon, who is also a poet, the book is a strange and wonderful mix of Greek mythology and World War I history that also pokes a bit of fun at Nordic culture. It tells the story of Valdimar Haraldsson, an Icelander transplanted to Denmark, who believes firmly that Nordic peoples are superior, and that this superiority is attributed to fish consumption.
Most of the story unfolds in the 1940s aboard a merchant vessel, the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen, as Valdimar sails from Copenhagen to Turkey, at the invitation of the ship’s owner. Though Valdimar is pleased to be seated at the captain’s table for the voyage, something is amiss. He is struck by the lack of fish in his first meal and is miffed when it is not on the next meal’s menu. To rectify this problem, he catches a cod by leaning over the ship’s railing to reel in a large fish and proudly delivers it to the ship’s chef.
Whether or not his assigned table mates are happy with the meals – poached fish one evening, fish stew the next – is unclear. But for Valdimar, all is right in the world again – at least, for a while.
The trip takes a turn for the worse for Valdimar when his lecture on fish and culture is postponed due to the late-night, long-winded storytelling of one of his dining companions, Caeneus, the ship’s second mate. The garrulous Caeneus regales the captain’s table with tales of his sea adventures, which are, in fact, the exploits of his namesake from Greek mythology. But Valdimar is bored, even annoyed, by these stories. He experiences a breakthrough when he retires to the bar with Caeneus for a drink and conversation. Greek mythology and contemporary life intermingle again when Valdimar learns a secret and steals a small treasure. Although he is a changed man when he returns to his life back in Denmark, his belief in the superiority of fish, and of the Nordic people, remains steadfast.
The Blue Fox
For a short, but riveting read, try The Blue Fox, also by Sjon. Part mystical tale, part parable, the story is a fantasy in which kindness and cruelty are recognized by the laws of nature. In the opening lines we meet a clever vixen: “Blue foxes are so curiously like stones that it is a matter of wonder.” The second part introduces an unassuming man, Fridrik Fridjonsson, who rescues and cares for a woman with Down syndrome. As the two threads weave together against a backdrop of the moors and slopes, where plovers, bees and grasses reclaim the earth, virtue is rewarded and vice punished.
Snow Blind by Ragnar Jonasson.
Ari Thor leaves his girlfriend in Reykjavik to take a job with the police department in the isolated village of Siglufjordur to jumpstart his career. At times, Ari is overwhelmed by the endless snowbanks and blizzards that engulf this tiny northern town. Readers, too, may feel suffocated by the raw Icelandic winter and the author’s refrains of white, windy surroundings.
I Remember You by Yrsa Sigurdardottir.
Katrin and Gadar are intrigued by the idea of buying a “fixer-upper” on the beautiful but remote island of Hesteyri. Before long they find that managing a rustic home on the sea is stressful – and life-threatening. The descriptions of the wildlife, natural landscapes and foreboding weather are intriguing; storms move like a “black, vertical curtain, against which the feeble moon was powerless.”