translated from the Icelandic by Bernard Scudder
The only other book I’ve read in which Iceland is featured is one of Josie Dew’s cycletouring classics (non-fiction). So it was fascinating to read the fictional tale of a man born a poor but literate farmer, who feels the class system holding him down at every turn. The Danish overlords have passed a law called The Great Edit which stipulates harsh punishment for the “morally-lax” Icelandic people. Our hero Gudmundur’s best friend and mentor, the Reverend Einar Arnfinnsson, who loves the ladies, eventually gets one pregnant. Unfortunately Einar’s fall causes the fall of our hero too. But since Einar’s uncle is an important Bishop somewhere, Einar is reinstated after a while, while our relatively poor and friendless hero is locked away in Copenhagen’s Blue Tower.
Gudmundur’s biggest fault seems to be making enemies through rising on his own merits rather than nepotism or class favoritism. And his habit of vigorously defending himself in satirical poetry when bullied.
I wish the novel had provided me with a more rounded picture of Icelandic life (traditional costume, foods, etc.) but it was still an interesting chunk of history that not much has been written about. At least in English. (The novel was written in the late 90’s –this shouldn’t really have an apostrophe, but I put one in anyway because the zero looks like an “s”–punctuation should clarify, not confuse through sticking to arbitrary rules–).
When I was a child, my mother read Dr. Zhivago and I remember her complaining about all the Russian names and how hard they were to keep straight with the patryonymics and stuff. This novel is a bit the same way–although some of the names are comic to English ears, like:
- Professor Ole Worm of Copenhagen
- The Althing (a parliament of some kind)
- The village of Thingeyrar
It’s all the fault of Grettir’s Tussock, a hillock on Gudmundur’s home farm of Bjarg, which supposedly holds the head of one of Iceland’s greatest heroes.