The virus strikes even the vig­i­lant

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY JANE SMI­LEY

A woman and her fam­ily fol­lowed all the rules, but she still wasn’t safe.

When I was in Ice­land about a year ago, one of the things my hosts and I talked about was how among the younger gen­er­a­tion of Ice­landers, Ice­landic is be­ing re­placed by English as a first lan­guage. The rea­son, they said, is the In­ter­net, gam­ing and, pos­si­bly, tourism. There are maybe 400,000 speak­ers of Ice­landic; for most in­ter­na­tional In­ter­net con­tent providers, it does not make sense to trans­late their prod­ucts into Ice­landic. What might be lost if Ice­landic fades away is Ice­land’s unique and pow­er­ful lit­er­ary cul­ture — the me­dieval sagas, the po­etry of its many po­ets and the nov­els of au­thors like Hall­dor Lax­ness, one of my fa­vorites. I re­mem­bered this dis­cus­sion as soon as I be­gan read­ing Audur Ava Olafs­dot­tir’s “Miss Ice­land” be­cause she does a bril­liant job of con­vey­ing, sen­tence by sen­tence and word by word, the ex­otic na­ture of Ice­landic life, its harsh­ness, its con­nec­tion to the land and to his­tory, and its amus­ing qual­i­ties (in­clud­ing the vivid­ness of dreams — when I was in Ice­land in 1977, I had the most vivid dreams of my life). The first of th­ese ex­otic de­tails is that on the day the nar­ra­tor’s mother sees an ea­gle fly­ing over the fam­ily farm, she goes into la­bor, and her daugh­ter, three weeks pre­ma­ture, is de­liv­ered by a lo­cal vet­eri­nar­ian who has come to in­sem­i­nate a cow.

Olafs­dot­tir’s novel is not au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal — most of it takes place in 1963, when Olafs­dot­tir,

born in 1958, was 5. But she must have been a very ob­ser­vant child, be­cause the dis­tinc­tive na­ture of ev­ery scene and ev­ery char­ac­ter takes hold of the reader im­me­di­ately. The in­fant is named Hekla, after an ac­tive vol­cano that her fa­ther is ob­sessed with (and that he takes her to visit dur­ing an erup­tion, when she is 41/2). Her mother tells her that after the visit, “You spoke dif­fer­ently. You spoke in vol­canic lan­guage and used words like sub­lime, mag­nif­i­cent and gi­nor­mous. You had dis­cov­ered the world above and looked up at the sky. You started to dis­ap­pear and we found you in the fields, where you lay ob­serv­ing the clouds; in the win­ter, we found you out on a mound of snow, con­tem­plat­ing the stars.”

When Hekla moves to Reyk­javik at 21, she is al­ready read­ing “Ulysses,” even though her English is “poor,” as she ad­mits. Reyk­javik is both a gos­sipy town and a lit­er­ary hotspot — every­one knows where Hall­dor Lax­ness lives and keeps an eye out for him. The po­ets gather reg­u­larly at a well-known cafe. Hekla is glad to be in town, but she is per­sis­tently ques­tioned by men who want to know what she is read­ing, what her plans are, what she does for a liv­ing. One man keeps push­ing her to be­come “Miss Ice­land,” a beauty queen. The women are not so cu­ri­ous — her best friend is a young woman she grew up with, now a mother, who can­not stop talk­ing in a jumble of sen­tences about her love of moth­er­hood and her ha­tred of it. She be­comes the model of whom Hekla does not want to be.

Her new friend Jon John, a semi-clos­eted gay man, works on a whal­ing ship (“They take such a long time to kill those gi­ant crea­tures, the mor­tal bat­tle can last a whole day”). Jon John is pe­ri­od­i­cally sui­ci­dal be­cause of the bul­ly­ing and dis­dain he en­coun­ters, and not only from his fel­low whalers. Hekla, per­haps like the vol­cano she is named for, is pro­duc­tive — she works as a server ev­ery evening, writes ev­ery day. Even­tu­ally, she links up with a poet about 10 years older than she is; un­be­knownst to her poet-lover, she pro­duces a novel while he pro­duces a cou­ple of poems.

Hekla un­der­stands that in early 1960s Ice­land, be­com­ing a writer is not what a beau­ti­ful young woman is sup­posed to do, but ev­ery time the man who wants her to be­come Miss Ice­land prods her, she res­o­lutely turns him down.

The sex­ism and ho­mo­pho­bia Olafs­dot­tir por­trays were not un­usual for the time, but she sur­rounds it so pre­cisely with de­tails about life in Ice­land that it seems to glow with re­newed fer­vor. Jon John and Hekla do not stay in Ice­land — Jon John feels that do­ing so would kill him. When they move to Den­mark, Olafs­dot­tir’s style be­comes even more dy­namic and telling: “We step off the train at night. It’s still dark so we sit on a bench in the wait­ing room of the sta­tion, wait­ing for the fire­ball to rise above the curved hori­zon and the world to as­sume a form. Then we take our cases and walk down to the beach and lie in the sand.”

Den­mark turns out not to be the place they thought it would be — what hap­pens at last is be­liev­able but shock­ing. But the marvelous irony is that, yes, Hekla does get her story, her ob­ser­va­tions of Ice­land, Den­mark and the peo­ple around her, her feel­ings and her sense of ded­i­ca­tion out into the world.

Hekla un­der­stands that be­com­ing a writer is not what a young woman is sup­posed to do.

MISS ICE­LAND By Audur Ava Olafs­dot­tir Grove. 256 pp. $16


“Miss Ice­land” au­thor Audur Ava Olafs­dot­tir of­fers an exquisitel­y de­tailed por­trait of mid-cen­tury life in that Nordic is­land na­tion.

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