Sometimes you find a literary gem all by yourself. Sometimes you need a helping hand. I’ve just read an incredible book Angels of the Universe by Einar Már Guðmundsson, the Icelandic author of novels, short stories and poetry; a book that made a lasting impression on the Icelandic nation, and all those who had an opportunity to read it in translation. Sólveig Pálsdóttir gave it to Jacky Collins, while she attended the Newcastle Noir 2016. I couldn’t wait to borrow it as I have only heard praise of this beautiful poignant cry for help.
The novel’s main character Paul tells his life story literally from the cradle to the grave, and describes how the shadows of mental illness fell over his life as the innocence of childhood and dreams of bright artistic future faded away. The bitterness of Paul’s fate, the permanent effect on his family and friends, the conditions on the psychiatric ward, the attitudes towards people who suffered with mental health problems. Some of the descriptions are heart-rending and shockingly reminiscent of the Middle Ages’ approaches to those who are different, vulnerable, have violent tendencies or are unable to fit within the society. Delusions run riots. Paul himself feels he’s channelling both Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, and his encounters with Oli Beatle, King Baldwin of the Brits or his childhood friend Rongvald, successful dentist and admirer of Sagas, only emphasise the difficulty of situation:
‘But just bear in mind that the madhouse is in a lot of places’.
The language flits from coarse and brutal to delicate and sensitive, as the narration takes in hilarious moments and bitter sadness. The dark painful sense of humour and laughing at absurdity of existence which seems pointless keep the characters alive in their strange world. Some critics compared Angels of the Universe to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Paul has been always struck by the American – Icelandic parallels:
‘I am a citizen of Reykjavik, born at the maternity ward of the National Hospital on Hringbraut on 30 March 1949, the same day that Iceland joined NATO. Nonetheless I do not intend to compare NATO to myself, its military might with my powerlessness, its headquarters with Klepp psychiatric hospital or the rehabilitation block. There is no denying, all the same, that just over forty years after my birth, when I packed my bags, and left this earthly existence, NATO was at a crossroads too.’
Einar Már Guðmundsson was awarded the Nordic Council Literary Prize in 1995, two years after the publication of the novel which was subsequently adapted as a film with the stellar cast. The film can be watched at the Icelandic Cinema Online page: Angels of the Universe.
The poet and translator Bernard Scudder brought Angels to English life, as well as the ever-present feel of Icelandic sagas which shaped psyche of Paul, his friends and fellow inmates. Scudder also translated books by the Icelandic Royalty Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, where the past and present of the country always mark the characters.
So there you have it. Crime fiction isn’t the only literary strand spreading its literary wings around the world, although it seems this one is best represented on the bookshelves and at book events. The Icelandic connections are vast and intriguing, and they bring various interesting themes to the audiences.
Together with Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Jónína Leósdóttir, the writer and former actress Sólveig Pálsdóttir will rule at The Ice Queens Cometh panel during CrimeFest in Bristol in May 2017. The fourth Ice Queen, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, due to appear again at Newcastle Noir 2017 in April, will finally become better known in the English-speaking world. Her first novel to be published by Orenda Books later this year, is being translated by Quentin Bates as we speak.
One last quote from Angels of the Universe:
‘Consequently I am not fond of the commonest form of biography in Iceland, in which the heroes are alive and kicking at the end of the book and strut off the stage like vain-glorious parish council chairmen. It is also an illusion that the Icelanders’ interest in the family backgrounds and genealogy is the product of an instinctive interest in their own origins and other people’s circumstances. I trace the interest in genealogy in Iceland to the lack of trees. Because of the sparsity of trees, people opt for family trees and find themselves forests among their forebears…’
You can always ask the Ice Queen…