Friends and I spent a most memorable two weeks in Iceland at the beginning of September, 2017.  Not only was the scenery spectacular, the hiking great, the people friendly and smart, but the government fell!  Elections last Sunday, October 29th tweaked the composition of parliament but left all parties pushing and shouldering, much as the subterranean forces that make Iceland a place upon earth.

Today, news hit the wires that Bardarbunga, a giant stratovolcano, beneath the biggest glacier in Iceland, Vatnajökull — which we visited the edges of on a spectacular morning– seems likely to blow its ash sky high. (This is not the same volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, which disrupted air-traffic in 2010, and which, although in the same field as today’s,  is considered to be quite minor.)

While collecting my memories and sorting through photos I came across an unexpected book, not one in my usual train of thought (see the preponderance of posts here) but of immediate interest: Out of the Blue: Short Fiction From Iceland, 2017, University of Minnesota Press, edited by Helen Mitsios.  What a good companion for you, me or friends for some future trip!  The wonderful Whereabouts Press doesn’t have an Iceland volume yet, so turn to this.

The book is composed of twenty stories by as many authors, all alive and writing today.  Some are as short as a single page, one 15 pages and most about ten.  A few connect themselves to the great Icelandic Sagas but most are wry, amusing stories of life in modern Iceland, many of them in Reykjavik, the capital where one-third of the population lives.  In fact, these urban stories have more poets and writers as their protagonists than you are likely to find in such stories from other shores.  Long winters and long traditions of communal story telling, pride in doing it well, coupled to a modern sensibility makes this a fine introduction — though not a one about volcanoes, shaggy horses or near-death on a glacier.

I had my favorites, of course.  “The Secret Raven Service and the Three Hens,” one of those which links back to Viking myths of the past — “Ravens are emblems of the head god, Odin”–  begins a bit gruesomely but the fact that the witness, a young girl, is more curious than frightened, and nonchalantly brave, carries us through to the beguiling story she has to tell. I marked it with a big !

Others with children as the protagonists are somewhat un-nerving, at the edge of creepiness, but with the mark of authenticity, an observation in the world.

Others are more down home.  “One Hundred Fifty Square Meters” about a young couple negotiating a small rental and what it does to their personalities, will be familiar, but unique, to any who have shared tight quarters. “Travel Companion” tells the story of another mis-functioning couple as they keep in touch with text messages while she travels with friends, and he imagines her location and activities.   “Grass” is an amusing tale of a young poet who comes to mow the lawn for an older, established, female writer.  There are rewards and there is punishment.  “Laundry Day” has an ex-husband coming over to his former wife’s place, now with a new man, to do his laundry.  Awk-ward!

Some are quite slight, though fun: a pen, which in different writers hands produces poems of similar style; a Catalan, trapped on an Iceland bus on his way to the airport, desperately asking his left-behind lover if she will text him updates to the televised soccer game he is missing.

It’s interesting that all the stories are translated since any English speaker visiting Iceland would be forgiven for thinking everyone there is a native English speaker — some of them better than our own friends. But translated they are, about half by the same translator, Sola Bjarnadóttir O’Connell.  All read quite easily.  Many are in the first person narrative tradition, without complexities of stream-of-consciousness or un-marked time shifts.

There are some lovely images and devices, such as the young girl “who smiled with all her body at a young man, ” or later, a young man, “David [who] will yet emerge in the story on these pages.”

In almost everyone, however, there are little hiccups of locution, or register: a young girl thinking of her eyes as “peepers” and shouting “Fuck” in the same sentence; an overuse of -ly adverbs (distractedly, flirtatiously, beseechingly in close proximity;) dialog that doesn’t seem quite “as spoken.” Perhaps it’s just my ear that makes these sound odd:

“Standing there, outside, a coziness to looking around…”

or

“One might as well walk around in public with a toilet to the rear end.”

Some words are understandable in context, though we wonder if the English is a borrowing from some Icelandic term

“Gunnar Bjarni rabbits in broken German to the women under the next umbrella…”

Contrariwise, a reference to “a freezing plant” makes us wish for a little help: is this a green plant that is freezing, a manufacturing plant that is freezing for the workers inside or an operation that freezes other things, fish for instance?  Here local knowledge makes this easily interpretable.  The translated-to audience is slightly flummoxed.

An amusingly conceived story about Greta Garbo visiting Marilyn Monroe to bake together and read Icelandic sagas out loud, is marred by odd choices of language, like visiting Marilyn “on her home turf,”  or “flying over to the West Coast,” or “taking a cab over to Marilyn’s,” when most native speakers of English would simply say “to.”  As a sometimes translator myself, I am curious, about such infelicities:  are they from second language speaking translators, those who know a language 95% but miss the mother-tongue embedded subtleties? Or is there something similarly odd in the original language, here Icelandic, that is being represented?

There is nothing at all egregious in these words or phrases but, as in looking at a painting in which all the strokes are of similar direction and weight, our eye is stopped by one that is heavy, or cutting across the others, what is going on here, we wonder, if anything at all.  Is this blob and error,unnoticed, or meant to indicate something?

The other thing the reader will find, about which little can be done, is the place and proper names in the odd, Icelandic vocabulary: Amtmannsstígur, Skörð, Smiðjuvik,  Hildur, Hylunur, Njördur.  The problem is that if we don’t have a pronunciation guide, such words are hard to retain, to recognize when they appear again.  What’s a journey without a challenge, though?

Adventure is a good thing.  Travel makes us a bit less self-referential and Out of the Blue will take you there.  With a big volcano threatening to blow you’ll be safer with these companions just a page away.

 

Calf from Vatnajökull glacier

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