The virus strikes even the vigilant
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.