Reviews

An Ode to Total Immersion

Land of Love and Ruins is an Icelandic meditation on the present that blurs the line between memory and fiction


Land of Love and Ruins

Publisher: Restless
Author: Oddny Eir
Price: $16.99
Format: Paperback
Length: 224 pages
Translated: Philip Roughton
Publication date: 2016-10
Amazon

The line between memory and fiction is often a thin one. Yet the space it delineates can also contain surprising depth.

Icelandic writer Oddny Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins pushes that line to its limits, and plumbs its profound depths to remarkable success at the same time.

The book takes the form of a diary chronicling a year in the life of its narrator, a 30-something Icelandic writer with lively political convictions and an inclination toward the mystical who’s just moved back home to her family after being separated. The bulk of the book focuses on her relationships with her brother (an archaeologist), her new lover (an ornithologist) and what family members she stumbles across in this mid-life-crisis year.

Eir’s use of the diary genre renders the work almost inevitably self-reflexive and inward-focused. It’s a quest for peace with oneself, and for the proper balance between one’s own identity and those of the people around you. When you fall in love after suffering heartbreak, how do you re-align your emotions with those of someone new after those emotions have already been so terribly damaged?

You can’t enter another person’s world too quickly; you’ve got to sift things out. I’ve often set out rather carelessly, say no more, over and out. When I saw him, I found him so grown-up and mature that I imagined he’d cleaned out all his old junk and rubbish. Disappointing to discover the infantile fluff still in his navel. But you never fully cleanse yourself of prehistoric shame and dirt. As soon as your heart opens, its waste pours out along with the love. But then it’s a good idea to keep pumping and pumping, replace your septic tanks and your connection with the sea, so that you can enjoy peace and quiet in your own house, your own privy place.

The diary-novel is set in the period immediately during and after the political turmoil of Iceland’s financial crisis. There’s a palpable sense of rage at the impunity and unaccountability of the wealthy and powerful; the protagonists are both driven by the sense of conviction that their political organizing can make a difference, and the underlying doubt that things will ever really change. There’s a back-to-nature vibe to the book, a very Icelandic sense that the financial crisis was a warning cry not to become too removed from the traditions that formed you and the natural environment that shaped you, no matter how attractive the flashing lights of big cities and the big bucks of land speculation might seem.

We’ve got to rethink the relationship between private ownership of the land and public ownership of resources. Finally, water is being legally classified as a resource. But what about the desolation, the beauty and the spiritual space, the atmosphere?

The fact that the two key characters in the narrator’s life -- her brother and lover -- are an archaeologist and ornithologist, respectively, lend themselves well to the book’s broader themes. ‘Owlie’, the archaeologist offers a useful entry to the narrator’s discussion of the cultural traditions that shaped Iceland’s past and present; ‘Birdy’ the ornithologist, offers a useful vehicle for her consideration of the sustaining importance of the natural world.

The setting shifts as the author alternates between contemporary reflections, flashbacks, and travel outside of Iceland. Eir, whose work tends toward the autobiographical, leaves the impression of having bound together a series of personal impressions and memories from different places and times. But the overall effect is not disjointed; the fact that the book as a whole adopts a reflective tone means that setting, space, time and other measures of continuity do not matter as much as tone and atmosphere. Indeed, it’s sometimes difficult to follow the progress of the narrative, but that doesn’t detract from the attractive prose and feeling that the entries evoke. Passages sometimes verge on the poetic, and a beautiful, satisfying insight can often be its own reward, no matter what it contributes to the broader narrative.

I remember that I had a good time in the Blue Mosque, thought of something very important there but don’t remember what it was; wrote it down but in what notebook, I don’t know. While there I had a passion for roses and the color blue, and was completely enthralled by the Mosque of Blue Roses. Came out of it with an Indian writer and we bought a warm-milk and lotus drink spiced with cinnamon and had a look at statues of holy men that appeared more akin to teddy-bears and discussed doctoral dissertations that grow so long they take revenge on novels. Also discussed literary diversity in the spirit of biodiversity. How can we nurture marginal forms in literature? Then I saw a wall covered with ivy, which probably inspired my passion for it, taking over from my rose-passion. I wondered how the strands crawled up along the continent, across all borders, over the bullet wounds on buildings and the ax scars on trees.

Perhaps there’s a message here: don’t worry about how the moments of your life add up to a coherent narrative, and where your life is going: just immerse yourself in the totality and beauty of each moment. Feel the earth around you; feel the lover beside you; feel the fresh ocean air drifting inside the lava cave in which you’re making love. The point is not to forget or ignore the future -- especially in a time of economic and political crisis -- but to recognize and fully appreciate the value of past and present moments in shaping that future and your response to its emerging needs.

To be able to live on the heath and say whatever you like! And look at whatever you like; do nothing but stare at the mountains. It should be small enough, your hut, that it’s impossible to do anything else in it but think and look at the mountains.

The value of the past and tradition is an underlying theme: the narrator goes off in search of her ancestors’ land and homes, and frequent references to the Icelandic sagas emerge in everyday activities. Yet Eir has written no blind paean to the past: Snoop Dogg has his role to play in her Icelandic present, as well. The book speaks, perhaps, to the very European tension between unity and particularity; the pressure to conform to the norms of all-encompassing political entities juxtaposed against the desire to retain a sense of the unique place that one's personal past and cultural traditions came from. The positive reception of the book within Europe suggests Eir has struck a nerve that resonates: her book won the Icelandic Literary Award in 2011, the Icelandic Women's Literature Prize in 2012 and the 2014 European Union Prize for Literature.

How much is real and how much is fiction remains unclear to the reader. Eir’s work blurs the boundaries, but like all good fiction this is merely another example of how real life experience can be used as the jumping-off point for imagination. Eir herself has organized environmental activism; her brother actually is an archaeologist in real life; she places herself in the text which nonetheless conveys the sense of a magical fantasy at points.

Land of Love and Ruin is a rewarding, if deeply reflexive little book. It pokes and prods at philosophy and sociology, but never excessively, always couching them in a framework of feeling and everyday life. The diary mode is again a useful vehicle for bringing together such varied directions: the narrator’s musings range from Icelandic sagas to Greek mythology; from Confucianism to Hannah Arendt.

I think that in the housing of the future, there needs to be a little healing nook where you can lie down as if under the grass or down in the ground and let the earth heal you. Then rise up. Christianity is perhaps first and foremost an admonition to ground yourself so well that the light can play around you without burning you up, an admonition to connect with nature, turn to dust each day and rise up from the dust, transcend the laws of nature with the help of the laws of nature. You mustn’t bury yourself alive, forget to rise up or bind yourself to the dust in melancholy surrender.

Land of Love and Ruins is a meditation on the present condition, on how our fragmented emotional selves correspond to our fragmented economies, on how progressive-minded, socialist and feminist selves can still find solace in old traditions and familial histories. “We discussed it up and down and came to the conclusion that the distinguishing feature of mature love is an understanding of the entirety, of the overall impact of all actions.”

There are no conclusions to be found in such a work, which borders the poetic and prose, memory and fiction. The pleasure here is to be found in the journey.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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