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'Wayward Heroes' and Cold War Iceland

Wayward Heroes, for all its tangled itinerary, endures in this long-awaited translation as a cautionary tale for all who flock around despots or who applaud the cries of die-hards.

Wayward Heroes

Publisher: Archipelago
Length: 500 pages
Author: Halldór Laxness
Price: $20
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-10

After the international success of his bitter Icelandic evocation of a stubborn farmer in Independent People, Halldór Laxness (1902-1988) found himself as isolated as his protagonist from sustained success. That 1933-34 novel won him a Book-of-the-Month selection in the US in its 1946 appearance in English, with the royalties and acclaim that sales of nearly half a million garnered. It helped him win the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet, Halldór (I follow his homeland's convention in using given names, as his "surname" is a pen-name derived from his family's farm "of Laxnes") as a Communist and a longtime defender of Stalin, earned the censure of J. Edgar Hoover.

Until two decades ago, most of Halldór's novels languished out of print in America, or as untranslated. Now, Philip Roughton, arguably the best choice to render the idiosyncratic style of Halldór into our language, tackles what his diligent 2004 biographer Halldór Guðmannson labels "his most difficult novel". This review provides some of the background that's lacking within this new edition. Roughton appends a few sparse notes about allusions, but that is all. Challenges await readers of Wayward Heroes, if they are unfamiliar with the saga-hoard.

To begin with, take the original title. Swedish critic Peter Hallberg explained Gerpla as derived from garpur, or warrior, and its -la suffix makes this a titular saga. Halldór's frequent translator, Magnús Magnússon, complicated this. He suggested "Heroica" as fitting the jibe Halldór implies at the venerable story form, but I'll invent my own coinage for "hero rogue, herogue", for fun.

Whichever way one prefers, Roughton's choice of Wayward Heroes improves on that previous title in English, The Happy Warriors. Although linked to Al Smith and Hubert Humphrey, this phrase dates back to Wordsworth's approving praise for a man of arms. It may have also been influenced by Cold War geopolitics when the first version appeared in our language. When nobody could be found for an English translation from the Icelandic, in 1957 Katharine John was found to adapt the 1952 Gerpla via its Danish version. From what I can determine from passages examined by Hallberg, Roughton improves on the stately, muffled pace of John. Roughton prefers a sardonic, sharpish, or snarky voice.

This mood may stem from the author's middle-aged doldrums. Despondent over the post-war barriers placed by publishers and politicians against his popularity in Red circles, Halldór courted controversy doggedly. His homeland notoriety, cocky persona, and defiant Marxism rankled many neighbors, as in his 1948 send-up of Iceland's capitulation to an American military base and NATO, The Atom Station (translated 1961). That polemic roused opposition in the four-year-old republic, and the author was forced to compromise. Grimly, Halldór labored four years on Gerpla.

In this biting northern exposure to the Icelandic sagas, audiences may be chilled by Wayward Heroes. Halldór's frosty air stings. Early on, the pair of Þorgeir Hávarsson, more a killing machine devoid of comprehension than a noble aspirant, and his sidekick, Þormóður Kolbrúnarskáld, a middling bard, find themselves scolded. "In none do the Viking ideals of piracy and pugnacity wax stronger than in old widows in remote valleys. In our day and age, little distinction is to be had in costuming oneself like a long-dead sea-king from Norway -- there's far more to be found in following the example of the lord of Rome, who offers good men profit through peace. Yet many might excuse you for the deed you now have described -- stupid man that you are." Halldór employs a chronicler's voice to comment on the foibles of his protagonists, contrasting their quixotic (the adjective fits) pursuit of the outmoded ideals, reduced in Þorgeir's clumsy pursuit to a dour, often deadpan critique of fanaticism.

Halldór's radicalism (notwithstanding his desire for fine clothes, swank hotels, paramours, a country retreat, and fancy cars) earned the teller his own disdain from many of his compatriots. Yet this novel's tone may reflect his growing unease with doctrinaire Stalinism, amidst the "Doctor's Plot" in the USSR percolating prior to Gerpla's appearance, and the intransigence of Halldór's attempts to extend his American breakthrough, foiled by the FBI. Far as these situations roam from a tale reviving the Fóstbræðasögu ("Foster Brothers' saga") in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (ca. 1230), Gerpla sustains Halldór's mission. It resembles social analyses by contemporaries John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, and Upton Sinclair. Beneath a take-down of feudal fealty, commentary on modern hero worship surfaces. As Halldór grew more critical of those on both sides of the Iron Curtain, from his perch in Iceland, observing superpowers, he sharpened his critique of group-think.

Ideals curdle. Þorgeir boasts to his scraggly few followers: "We shall procure wares in valiant fashion: claiming stockfish, whale oil, woolen cloaks, homespun, and tusks from farmers, and forcing those of means to buy peace with whatever valuables -- gold and silver -- they possess. When we have gained ample spoils, we shall kill our men and trade our wares for weapons and shares in a ship, and sail to foreign lands." The weight of forced tribute paid a warlord, as under capitalism or totalitarianism, burdens those in Viking Age Iceland, where anarchic loyalty was granted for a local ruler. The eventual breakdown of this system has been blamed on the inevitable power struggles and concentration of wealth, tipping control to those most cruel and conniving, despite settlers' idealism.

Here, the humiliations escalate, in a society cutting itself off from its pagan forebears. The freshly baptized mock "these two frozen-turfers agreeing to go halves on the lice crawling on them, and said such losers would likely never have any other other loot to share." Indeed, lots of lice feature in these pages. Wayward Heroes conveys a meager depiction of any goods the hapless pair accumulate, and across the harsh landscape, vermin multiply as whales beach and rot beside forlorn homesteads. Farts and flensing knives total riches the inhabitants present to the dogged two warriors, as their scanty booty.

When conflict rises, this depiction rivals the original sources in its arch account. "In Iceland, battles were conducted according to an Old Norse practice," the omniscient reciter relates. Then, "men would pair off and hammer away at each other as long as their struggle lasted, using shoddy, blunt little axes, for the Norsemen were poor smiths, forced to use poor-quality metal." Halldór as with his fellow-citizens was schooled in their literary forebears' gallant legacy. But he suspected monomania.

"Trolls take your valor and your warrior fashion." Even this old woman in Normandy lashes out against the two bandits. "And as for your murderous deeds, they are worthy of praise by none but the fools who sniff along after you, whom you call your skalds." Without divulging plot points, midway the buddies are separated, and Þormóður must search out his companion's fate. The saga incorporates both the story by Snorri mentioned above and the paean to Norway's king, later canonized Ólafur Haraldsson, Óláfs saga helga wedges itself into Gerpla's middle section conspicuously, but this interpolation attests to the saga-structure accurately, when cameos appear and digressions ramble on.

This content allows the long-lapsed Catholic convert Halldór to get in plenty of jibes at what he regards as a life-dooming Christian mindset, enforced by a relentless, mind-numbing regime. The future saint "declared nothing to be better than torture and flame for persuading people to repent and to reform and for bringing them, through vivid visions, to an understanding of their salvation that Christ granted men, particularly if the leading peasants were roasted alive, mutilated, or beheaded."

But Gerpla wisely departs from excoriation as its central motif. Passages of beauty amid icy decay persist. So does Halldór's echo of the rhythms energizing his own language, a thousand years on. Irish slave Kolbakur at Þormóður's settlement, dragged as were so many to Iceland by raiders, hears from the poet's wife and his own mistress a burst of Old Norse versifying. "I am the bane of a hero's or a skald's glory, the wispy fetter forged for the Wolf from cat's tread, fish's breath, and bird's spittle. I am the wall standing between the skald and the seductive sea-voyages, between him and the clamor of battle and the favor of kings -- and therewith: a reputation that never dies." While parts of this novel slow and the direction wanders along with Þormóður's own perambulations far from his home turf, Roughton sustains a steady pace. The intricate Icelandic re-invention pioneered by Halldór has stymied translators (as the earlier version demonstrated), but here, the heft of the original dark satire resounds.

In one of the narrative's most gripping scenes, the by-now doddering poet ventures into the Arctic's northern fastness. Wounded while battling the Inuit, Þormóður cannot grasp their kindness. "It was bewildering to him how this Greenlandic rabble completely lacked any eminent men who are capable of taking advantage of those beneath him." This clashes with an earlier celebration of the Norse model, one that Halldór saw mirrored in his own nation's connivance in surrendering to NATO. In the custom of Scandinavians, "the scoundrel who had the greatest stamina and best success in decimating the populace in a particular place should have that name" of king. So proclaims the father of St. Óláf.

In this new age tired of skalds if not swords, Þormóður finds his repertoire of pagan champions outmoded. The fashion turns to sacred miracles and monk's chants. "The Norwegians feel quite strongly that they can do without any long, complicated poems croaked out ad infinitum by a beggarman from Iceland." The wandering minstrel concludes his pilgrimage in search of old gods at the side of Óláf the king, the night before battle at Stiklestad. Their vigil elicits from the ruler, facing rebels, a plea addressed to a cairn where a vision of Christ with two Norse predecessors beckons. He begs the spirits to take the hand of "this inglorious arsonist, bereft of the backing of champions and the service of clerics, devoid of women's love and skalds' praise, a man friendless and alone. Your names are worthless to me, but your comfort is everything." This poignant vignette lingers long after dusk.

Halldór deftly kicks out the fastidious trappings from his heritage immediately following this scene. Yet the delicacy crafting so much of the telling of this conflated and overlapping saga-pair testifies to the admiration the experimental author possessed, in his maturity, for the images and the vocabulary he sought to transform from a rural and hidebound form of expression into a living language for today's ideas, places, and politics. While he removed any word not traceable to the 11th century, this novel speaks to us today. Wayward Heroes, for all its tangled itinerary, endures in this long-awaited translation as a cautionary tale for all who flock around despots or who applaud the cries of die-hards.


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