Category Archives: Icelandic fiction

The creature must take care not to forget that the man is a hunter.

The Blue Fox, by Sjón and translated by Victoria Cribb

Most literature, for me, works as well as an ebook as it does as a paperback. Sometimes better, particularly if the book’s on the bulky side.

Not all literature though, and particularly I increasingly find not poetry. Poetry depends not just on words but also on placement on the page, on the sea of white around the little islands of black text. Layout, in poetry, is critical.

The Blue Fox isn’t poetry, but it’s close. In a fascinating interview with The White Review Sjón talks about how the book was structured almost as if it were music:

Sjón — I think the fact that I can take the form of the string quartet and use it as the basis of a novel is another proof of how dynamic the novel is. I’m sure that a composer writing a string quartet can learn something from a movie or the structure of film. It was music that gave me the idea of constantly breaking up the narrative. THE BLUE FOX would be a completely different novel if it were chronological. In it, there are constant cliff-hangers and repeated refrains – I’m playing with the element of two melodies that come together but never fully, only in the end finding a solution. It was very interesting that the first people who commented on the book were composers. They said it was very clear to them that I was always playing with volume of information versus text, which is the same thing they do – volume of tones versus time. You can take a melody and stretch it over five minutes, or compress it down to three seconds. They were very much aware of how I was playing with text versus information.

Information versus text. Text versus information. The Blue Fox is a tone poem in book form, a 112 page crystallisation of music on a page. I’m getting ahead of myself though, because I still haven’t said what it’s actually about.

BlueFox

The Blue Fox consists of two different, but connected, narrative strands. In the first a hunter pursues a blue fox, a rare and valuable prey. Their contest, his for a valuable pelt, hers for her life, takes on a mythic air as Sjón fills each page with just a few lines of text letting space and silence surround the sparse words.

Here’s how it opens:

Blue foxes are so curiously like stones that it is a matter for wonder. When they lie beside them in winter there is no hope of telling them apart from the rocks themselves; indeed, they’re far trickier than white foxes, which always cast a shadow or look yellow against the snow.

A blue vixen lies tight against her stone, letting the snow drift over her on the windward side. She turns her rump to the weather, curls up and pokes her snout under her thigh, lowering her eyelids till there’s the merest hint of a pupil. And so she keeps an eye on the man who has not shifted since he took cover under an overhanging drift, here on the upper slopes of Asheimar, some eighteen hours ago. The snow has drifted and fallen over him until he resembles nothing so much as a hump of ruined wall.

The creature must take care not to forget that the man is a hunter.

Each section of the book comes with dates attached, the first being three days from 9 to 11 January 1883. It’s rooted therefore in the actual: an actual hunter; an actual fox; a particular place and day with particular weather. It couldn’t be more specific.

At the same time though, the sense is of a more timeless encounter. Man and fox both seem archetypal: at this point he is simply “the man”; she “the vixen”. They appear to have emerged from a folktale or saga.

His guts rumbled and the man discovered that he was hungry; he hadn’t tasted a bite since gorging himself on boiled fish before he set off, but that was more than twenty hours ago.

He had eaten a bit of ice since then, truth be told, but that was dull and insubstantial fare. He opened the bag:

Hand-thick slabs of lamb, rye cakes with sheep’s butter, sour as gall, topped with mutton sausage, a dried cod’s head, pickled blood-pudding, dried fish, curd porridge and a lump of brown sugar.

Yes, all this was in his mess-bag.

As you read there’s a sense of themes emerging not in the familiar literary sense, but in a musical one. Phrases recur, such as the title of this review, and that entire first quoted passage above is used twice, verbatim. It’s prose as melody, repeated refrains.

The second narrative strand features a biologist, Fridrik Fridjonsson, who has to bury a young woman named Abba that he took in some years before as his maid. Abba was destitute when he first met her, an outcast from the local community. Fridrik had only briefly returned to Iceland to settle some family affairs, but recognised that Abba had Down’s Syndrome and from compassion decided to stay and to protect her. The parish then was served by a Reverend Jakob:

This incompetent minister was so used to his parishioners’ boorishness – scuffles, belches, farts and heckling – that he affected not to hear when Abba chimed in with his altar service, which she did both loud and clear and never in tune. He was more worried that the precentor would drown in his neighbours’ spittle. This fellow, a farmer by the name of Gilli Sigurgillason from Barnahamrar, possessed a powerful voice and sang in fits and starts, gaping so wide at the high notes that you could see right down his gullet, and the congregation used to amuse themselves by lobbing wet plugs of tobacco into his mouth – many of them had become quite good shots.

Four years later Reverend Jakob died, greatly regretted by his flock; he was remembered as ugly and tedious, but good with children.

His successor was Reverend Baldur Skuggason, who introduced a new era in church manners to the Dale. Men sat quietly on the benches, holding their tongues while the parson preached the sermon, having learnt how he dealt with rowdies: he summoned them to meet him after the service, took them round the back of the church and beat the living daylights out of them. The women, meanwhile, turned holy from the first day and behaved as if they had never taken part in teasing ‘the reverend with the pupil’. They said it served the louts to whom they were married or betrothed right, they should have been thrashed long ago; for the new parson was a childless widower.

Reverend Skuggason swiftly banned Abba from the church, seeing no place there for what he termed “‘the ravings of an idiot'”. Although Abba “knew no greater happiness than to dress up in her Sunday best and attend church with other people”, Reverend Skuggason would not tolerate her and none of his flock cared enough to speak on her behalf.

Reverend Skuggason is the hunter, bringing the two strands together in one man. He denies Abba; he pursues the fox; he is a priest but he knows no pity.

The Blue Fox builds its mood slowly, and its few revelations come all the more powerfully for that. Sjón brings the harsh landscape and the harsh people it breeds both to freezing life. It’s notable that the only one of them to show any mercy is Fredrik, who left for Copenhagen and never meant to return.

Two narrative strands then, and two tonal strands too. The utter factuality of dates, lists of packed provisions, medical diagnoses; but simultaneously a changeling woman come in from the woods and befriended by a traveller, a huntsman and a fox of unsurpassed rarity, beauty, cruelty, hypocrisy, innocence, kindness.  History and fairy tale, intertwined and inseparable.

Other reviews

The Blue Fox has been generally pretty well received (though many reviews contain some fairly hefty spoilers so it’s worth being a bit careful which you read, you should particularly avoid the one in the Independent which in a fairly short piece still somehow manages to give away every story development in the book). Two reviews I was particularly impressed by are Scott Pack’s here at his Me and My Big Mouth blog, and Sarah Hesketh’s here for ReadySteadyBook.

I’d also recommend this interview with Sjón by Stu at his Winstonsdad’s blog. Sjón explains among other things that The Blue Fox is in part inspired by Schubert’s string quartets, and describes the music that inspired his other books.

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Filed under Icelandic fiction, Novellas, Sjón

Someone, wearing an anorak, knocked on my door at lunchtime.

The Pets, by Bragi Ólafsson and translated by Janice Balfour

Comic novels struggle to be taken seriously. Howard Jacobson recently won the Booker of course, but that’s a definite exception and as Jacobson himself noted he’d been waiting a fair while for the honour.

The book I’m currently reading is JG Farrell’s Troubles. It’s brilliant (so far anyway). It’s extremely well written and it’s extremely funny too. Why shouldn’t it be? There’s no conflict between quality and comedy.

The Pets is a story about a man, Emil, who returns home from a flight abroad to find an old acquaintance waiting for him. It’s not a welcome reunion. What do you do though when you don’t feel able to say to someone that actually you’d rather not talk to them? That question is the essence of the whole book. 

Really it’s no small risk one takes, boarding an airplane. For three hours (not to mention on longer trips) one is locked in a tight, uncomfortable space, way above any civilization, with unpredictable people, who could drink themselves senseless or spill their food and drink over you—and the only place of salvation is the toilet.

The flight’s as bad as Emil fears. He’s seated next to a man called Armann Valur who refuses to take the hint when Emil plugs in headphones. Armann insists on conversation but he has nothing interesting to say. It’s not all bad though because an old object of Emil’s desire, Greta, is also on the flight.

Emil met Greta years ago when they were both teenagers. He saw her slip into a bedroom with a boy at a party and come out later with tousled hair. He wanted her but never got her. Now he has another chance – they fall into conversation and she agrees to visit him at home later that night. He doesn’t mention that he already has a girlfriend. He was feeling a bit ambivalent about that relationship anyway.

When he does get home though he gets some disturbing news. A man came round looking for him earlier wearing an anorak and carrying a plastic bag full of beer. He soon realises who that man was. Years ago Emil housesat in London for a friend of his father’s. Emil took along a coworker from home that he’d got to know – Havard. It was only later he realised that Havard had some serious psychological problems.

I haven’t heard from Havard for about five years, since we sat in the kitchen on Brooke Road in Stoke Newington and I gave him four hundred pounds to go away. Go away as far as possible, much further than just out of London, preferably to another country. And he said—with a grin fueled by the two or three pints of Special Brew he had drunk before lunch—that if I could give him four hundred more then he would never show his face again.

Emil didn’t give him the four hundred more. He should have.

Soon after Emil arrives home Havard returns. Emil doesn’t want to see him so he pretends he’s not in, and when Havard climbs through the window that means Emil has to keep pretending not to be home or explain why he didn’t answer the door. Emil hides under the bed. Havard decides to wait, and in the meantime invites some people over.

Emil isn’t really a bad man, but he is a bit of a coward. His girlfriend wants them to have a more serious commitment to each other. He’s not sure about that, but he doesn’t want to say that to her. He doesn’t pick up the gifts she asked for in London but he doesn’t break up with her either. Armann is a pestering bore, but Emil doesn’t want to tell him to shut up. Havard is profoundly disturbed and potentially dangerous, but all those years ago back in Stoke Newington Emil ignored all the signs until it was too late.

Tragicomedy is tricky stuff, but that’s what’s happening here. Emil doesn’t really deserve to be trapped under a bed as increasing numbers of people come into his home, drink his duty free alcohol and criticise his music collection. Then again, the pets didn’t deserve what Havard did to them either:

For some reason he thought it was highly appropriate to play the ukulele for the iguana. It was meant to be some kind of “Galapagos atmosphere,” as he called it, but the sound he produced was as sad as the fate the Mexican iguana was to meet three weeks later.
 

I love that quote. It’s so foreboding and yet so absurd at the same time. That’s the essence of this novel. There’s a vein of menace that runs through much of it, but it’s coupled with pathos (Emil, Armann and Havard are all in their different ways a bit pathetic) and Emil’s compromises are ones that most of us make to some degree.

When I was a kid my parents routinely pretended not to be home to unwelcome visitors. We’d sit there, unmoving, waiting for whoever was outside to go away. Often the TV would be hurriedly switched off. Sometimes we sat for a long time, because whoever was outside had heard the TV being switched off and was annoyed at being ignored and so kept on banging to be let in.

I’ve tried to ignore people on planes by focusing on a book, but then put it down when someone clearly wanted to talk. I’ve preferred to be polite rather than assertive. That’s not even necessarily a bad thing. Is my desire to be left alone really more important than someone else’s desire for a bit of company? Is it altruism though that’s motivating me, or fear of seeming rude?

Most of us I suspect have known people who knew their relationships weren’t working out but didn’t want to be responsible for the breakup. I can understand that (though I’ve seen it result in some very unpleasant passive-aggressive behaviour). I’ve been on both sides of that conversation and while being dumped is no fun at all at least afterwards you can blame the other person. If you’re the one doing the dumping it’s hard to feel good about yourself.

Some people, like Havard, never worry about social embarassment. They never pretend to be out, or pretend something is going ok when it isn’t. Others, like Emil, would rather hide how they feel than risk unpleasantness. Most of us are somewhere in between. Here Ólafsson takes the two extremes and brings them together. Havard is a sort of anti-Emil. His nemesis. 

The line between tragedy and farce is always narrow. In a way it’s a question of importance. If what’s at stake really matters then it’s tragedy. If it all ends in blood and ruin it’s probably not going to be that funny (not intentionally so anyway, The Duchess of Malfi though can go that way). If what’s at stake is petty, but important to the characters, that’s farce.

I heard about The Pets over at Guy Savage’s blog here. I don’t think it’s a well known novel in English, and I think it should be. While writing this I also found a review by Stewart of Booklit here which is worth reading for a still positive but less enthusiastic perspective.

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Filed under Ólafsson, Bragi, Comic fiction, Icelandic fiction

a typical clumsy Icelandic murder

Tainted Blood, by Arnaldur Indridason

After finishing Gordon Burn’s Alma Cogan I needed a distinct change of pace. I don’t know why crime thrillers should be relaxing, but for me at least they are. With snow heaped outside it seemed as good a time as any for Arnaldur Indridason’s well received novel Tainted Blood.

Set in Iceland in 2001, it opens with Detective Erlendur being called to a flat where an elderly man has been murdered. The crime looks like a robbery gone wrong: there’s been another recent assault on an elderly household and the murder weapon is an ashtray that belonged to the victim and was already at the scene.

There are some anomalies though. There’s no sign of a forced entry, and much more strangely than that there’s a three word note left on the victim’s body. A note written on paper also already present at the scene. Who smashes a man’s brains in then stops to find paper and leave a message?

What does the note say? Well, rather annoyingly Indridason doesn’t tell us for more than two thirds of the novel. He’s prone to an old thriller trick which I’ve never been fond of. He withholds information from the reader that is clearly possessed by the viewpoint character so as to build suspense.

I don’t care about working out what’s really going on. I don’t read thrillers to puzzle out whodunnit. I read novels like this to relax and be told a story. The trouble is that when an author artificially holds back information it breaks the flow (and not in a good, forcing me to engage with the language or narrative, way). I can see the joists and beams holding it all together.

Anyway, that complaint aside it’s soon apparent that the case isn’t as simple as it seems. The victim has a hidden photograph of a child’s grave from the 1970s, but he had no family. He had a massive collection of exceptionally hardcore and unpleasant pornography (I’m going to get some hits from some very disappointed people who put that phrase into their search engines…) on his computer. He was also accused, many years ago, of carrying out a particularly brutal rape but was never convicted.

Erlendur begins to investigate, following up leads and investigating the victim’s life. Simultaneously he has to juggle his own problems with his estranged junkie daughter who has recently returned home and a missing bride case he’s taken on as a favour to his ex-wife.

As another aside, what is it with these literary detectives and their failed marriages, drug-addled children and side-cases? Erlendur’s not a badly drawn character (though it’s not a complex portrait) and is fairly convincing as a policeman but it would be nice for a few more of them to have successful marriages, affectionate children and competent superiors. I appreciate the life of a policeman can inflict real harm at home, but some of them must cope.

Indridason’s style is straightforward and efficient, as you’d largely expect. There isn’t a huge sense of place in the novel (originally written for a home audience who’d have known most of the locations) but it’s all very easy to picture and it’s no surprise that it was later turned into a film. Here’s a fairly typical descriptive passage:

The rain poured down on Erlendur and Sigurdur Óli as they hurried out of their car, ran up the steps to the apartment block on Stigalhid and rang the bell. They had contemplated waiting until the shower ended, but Erlender got bored and leapt out of the car. Not wanting to be left behind, Sigurdur Óli followed. They were drenched in an instant. Rain dripped off Sigurdur Óli’s hair and down his back and he glared at Erlendur while they waited for the door to open.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of that (and I found this a very easy book to read, there was no stopping and thinking about the prose as with Ann Quin’s Berg say). Arguably it’s a lot of words to tell us it’s raining and they got wet because they didn’t stay in the car but of course Indridason is also telling us something about the character of each of the men.

As Erlendur digs deeper the case gets nastier. I won’t share too much here of how it develops, but it becomes clear that the victim had been a rapist, possibly more than once, and that other aspects of his past may also be very ugly. Evidence comes out of past police corruption, horrific mistreatment of a rape suspect, congenital diseases and the increasing suspicion that if ever a man deserved his fate this man did his. None of which removes the need to find his killer.

Mostly this is a very matter of fact novel. Here for example is a description of a minor character:

The doctor lived in a town house on the west side of the Grarfarvogur suburb. He no longer held a regular medical practice. He welcomed Erlendur at the door himself and showed him into the spacious hallway that he used as an office. He explained to Erlendur that he now did occasional work for lawyers on cases of disability assessment. The office area was simply furnished, tidy, with a little desk and typewriter. The doctor was a short, rather thin man with sharp features. He had a sprightly manner about him. He carried two pens in the breast pocket of the shirt he was wearing. His name was Frank.

At times though again there’s a needless obscurantism. There’s a character named Marion Breem, a potentially real name in Iceland but one that carries no gender signifiers. It’s never made clear if Marion is a man or a woman or what he/she looks like. Marion is an old influence on Erlendur and intended as something of a mysterious presence, but so mysterious that the reader doesn’t even know his/her gender? Equally, it’s over 30 pages in before Erlendur is described (long after he’s been introduced). I just couldn’t see the point in these tricks in what is otherwise such a straightforward narrative.

That’s a fair amount of criticism there, so I’ll turn to what does work and why I might read the sequel (though I fear there’s at least six in this series now). I watched a while back the Wallander stories on tv, with Kenneth Branagh. They weren’t bad, but they were very far fetched with this ordinary Swedish policeman cracking cases which went to the heart of Swedish government or attempts to destabilise the world financial system.

There’s none of that here. Erlendur’s case is unusual, it’s different enough to merit being the plot of a thriller, but it’s not world changing. It’s small and tawdry with old secrets having been left to rot and still causing harm years later. There’s a depressing tone to it all, but not without elements of hope too. What’s really going on is desperate and sad, but Erlendur is at least revealing such truth as can be revealed and things may (though may not) improve with his daughter.

I enjoyed Tainted Blood overall. For me it has some real flaws, mostly arising from its reliance on authorial tricks that frankly it just doesn’t need. For all that though it’s a cleanly written crime novel with a reasonably engaging protagonist and a satisfying plot. It’s what I wanted when I picked it up, and if you’re a crime fan it’s a solid read within that genre. It’s just not going to do anything to push the boundaries of the genre.

Tainted Blood was translated by Bernard Scudder and won the CWA Gold Dagger award, which isn’t an award I’m familiar with but others may be.

Tainted Blood appears to be out of print at the moment, though I believe it’s available for Kindle. Kimbofo wrote a glowing review here, much more positive than mine, which as ever is worth a read. I also found this review of a more recent book in the series, by Black Sheep Dances (a very interesting looking blog that I need to read more of having recently found it). BSD’s reaction seems quite similar to mine – reservations but an interest in possibly reading another.

Finally, Tainted Blood was originally known by the title Jar City, which personally I think is a much better name both generally (Tainted Blood is pretty dull as titles go) and for this book specifically. It’s also the title of the film based on the book.

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Filed under Crime, Icelandic fiction, Indridason, Arnaldur