Between Comfort and Threat, Thriving and Despair: Stories From Iceland

The affluence enjoyed by many in these pages pales before the ultimate mysteries suffusing the island.

The experimental and restless tone of these selections stresses the uncanny and the upended.

For all the attention given Icelandic music, scenery, and travel lately, its translated literature lingers in fourth place, at least. A couple of crime novelists follow the Scandinavian boom in gloom and morbidity. Yet, the depth of this island’s contributions to the short story remain little plumbed over the sea. Its 1955 Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness, has had some of his many epic works find success in English over the past two decades, but even his shorter tales languish untranslated and neglected in our language.

Helen Mitsios edits Out of the Blue, the first anthology of Icelandic short fiction translated into English. Its 20 new selections range in length from a single page to many, and many indeed feature what she labels as a native “regard for entertaining conversation.” She repeats the familiar lore of the oral tradition and the sagas being passed down for a millennium, and the fond factoid that Icelanders read (and write per capita) more books than any other nation.

“The collection transports readers to Iceland’s timeless and magical island of Vikings and geographical wonders,” promises the cover blurb. But little emerges for the careful reader of this collection from that medieval era, or about the haunting or dazzling raw and fiery landscapes. These voices speak from their homeland, where both these legacies may seem truly mundane. Thus, these stories refuse to romanticize the fabled past or the frenzied present. Indeed, many protagonists and storytellers within seem jaded. They’ve been unmoored by the whirlwind which propelled Iceland to the heady air of economic peaks, only to crash down suddenly in the banking crash a decade ago.

In his fragmented forward, the poet-novelist-lyricist who goes by the name of Sjón concludes: “Perhaps it is because philosophy reached these shores comparatively that Icelandic writers have never felt bound by the truth. While recognizing no literature except that which springs from reality, they reserve the right to distort the truth according to the demands of their tales.” The experimental and restless tone of these selections stresses the uncanny and the upended. They follow Sjón’s sly reflection more faithfully or waywardly than Mitsios’ recital of well-worn tourist tropes and touts.

Indeed, the central preoccupation with articulating unease infuses this slim volume. Mitsios compares their contents to “the lyrics of a good country-western song.” Regret, revenge, and recrimination reoccur. Fidelity, fun, and feasting more rarely.

The first story, “Self-Portrait” by Halldór’s granddaughter Auður Jónsdóttir, captures vividly the mid-life crisis of a harried mother on vacation in the South of Italy. “She’s not the same person who left anymore; she can’t see home the same way again.” With ex-pats adrift in Southern California and the South of France, the next two entries in this collection continue such themes, if less successfully. Given the self-generating acclaim and grants afforded many recipients among the estimated one-tenth of the population who will find their work in print during their lifetime, quality control lags behind such a rapid rate of production. Some stories fall flat, too much the product of workshops rather than life. The title of this anthology also feels tired and, alas, stale.

Luckily, enigmatic endings linger in more than one entry. Einar Örn Gunnarsson’s “The Most Precious Secret” conjures up the spirit of Anaïs Nin, if less for the erotic than the artistic content. Kristín Eiríksdóttir’s “One Hundred Fifty Square Meters” combines the concerns of a generation raised on Craigslist and now on the dole or working dreary jobs with an encounter with a Cold War past of an island caught between superpowers. A couple move into a flat, a coveted find in crowded and costly Reykjavík. They must share it with the spirit of a vanished tenant. His preoccupations ensnare one of this pair and in so doing, Kristín evokes the predicament of Iceland’s geopolitics and its geography.

Such attenuated connections to departed specters or disturbing partners enliven some of the best stories here. Gyrðir Elíasson’s “The Black Dog” puzzles; Andri Snær Magnason’s “Grass” recalls a sly folktale. Two longer selections sustain skillful moods of tenderness amidst dissonance. Þórunn Erlu-Valdimarsdóttir’s “The Secret Raven Service and Three Hens” takes the Norse norms of fate and places them in our own times. Ólafur Gunnarsson’s “Killer Whale” mingles joy and despair into a memorable Saturday afternoon. As the “Raven” narrator realizes, fate grips every creature, down into the dark. “My raven’s beak is specially designed to pluck one of my eyes out! My hand is specially designed to pick fruit at the supermarket.” This story works. It captures now, as filtered through then.

Fanciful excursions naturally encompass the narratives chosen by tellers eager to adapt venerable modes to contemporary Icelandic settings. Þórarinn Eldjárn’s “Scorn Pole” finds its characters rummaging around their memories of Egil’s saga, “some pretty savage stuff we had learned from television”, and bits scavenged from televised pop depictions of the occult. These restive fellows summon up a structure to invoke the old powers, in a land where Christianity barely registers anymore, and where incantations may come quickly bidden and almost habitually or unconsciously to the lips of men and women in their moments of fear or stress. This generates an uncertain set of possibilities, as the affluence enjoyed by many in these pages pales before the ultimate mysteries suffusing the island.

As its title promises, Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s “The Universe and the Deep Velvet Dress” indulges in an astronomical parable. This last story in this anthology ends with the protagonist listening “to the creaking of distant windows as winter darkness tightens around them.”

While the fictional craft remains uneven for some of the unnamed entries in this collection, Out of the Blue merits notice among foreign readers curious about this now-trendy destination. Alongside the celebrated creative achievements of this place and its people, the art of the story continues to grapple with conditions far changed from the sagas, yet nevertheless constrained by the elements which surround the fragile compounds in the pampered capital. From this tension between comfort and threat, thriving and despair, these Icelandic writers take odd inspiration.

RATING 6 / 10