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20 September 2016 @ 10:10 am
Review of "Reply to a Letter from Helga" by Bergsveinn Birgisson, pub. AmazonCrossing 2013  

The most important thing about this novella - and it is one in length, rather than a novel - is its narrative voice. Bjarni is an old man, a widowed sheep farmer in a very isolated rural part of Iceland, writing a letter to the woman he loved many years ago but did not marry, and who moved to Reykjavik. A lot of the time he talks in proverbs, anecdotes and quotations from, or references to, Icelandic literature, and his imagery and vocabulary are drawn from the landscape and culture about him, so that it's natural enough for him to liken his lover's breasts to two nearby tussocks, or remark that his late wife was "tremendously good at distinguishing sheep, meaning she knew which heads belonged to which lambs even after they'd been singed and boiled". These are the things that matter to him, and since, like many Icelanders, he is also steeped in classical Icelandic literature and folklore. these references come naturally to his voice as well. There is a glossary at the back, for those not acquainted with the sagas. I'm not sure how this aspect of his voice will play with them, but for those of us who do know that marvellous branch of literature, it's a bonus that deepens and colours the old man's voice.

Having said this, he is in some ways a limited narrator: his feeling for the culture and landscape around him is acute but his views on town life and the modern world in general are little more than uninformed prejudice. His author is well aware of this, I'm sure; we are not meant to see purely through Bjarni's eyes. His reason for not following his lover Helga to town was not love for his wife but love for the landscape and culture in which he was brought up. It is made clear that this was in some ways almost literally a dead-end choice; his marriage is sterile, his way of life dying on its feet and the future - his future - looking at him from Reykjavik via a TV screen. Nevertheless, as Quentin Crisp once said, most of us end up doing, if not what we like, at least what we prefer, and so did he.

The translation, in US English, reads well enough in the prose but very awkwardly in the verses the old man quotes, If these were all amateur verses, it might be deliberate, but those by noted poets read just as stilted. It is, I suspect, simply that the translator normally works only in prose and is not himself a poet; it's really a different kind of translation, where one must often sacrifice literal accuracy of meaning for the sound the man wanted to make. One other thing - reviewing this via Vine, I have a proof copy which does not give the name of whoever was responsible for the beautiful illustrations, looking like woodcuts, which head each chapter. I trust this has been rectified in the pukka version, because they are outstanding, as you can see in the one I've headed this review with.

The author's afterword mentions that he grew up surrounded by storytellers, and there are indeed some marvellous anecdotes woven into this book, my favourite perhaps being that of the old man whose wife dies in a hard winter when her corpse can't be moved from her remote farmhouse. In his practical way, the widower preserves her body (for a spring burial) where he preserves everything else, in the smokehouse.

We helped him take her down off the crossbeam, and the entire time we were busy with this, Gisli spoke to Sigridur as if she were still alive and kicking. 'Well, my dear, they've finally come to get you. Now you're going to go for a little boat trip, my good woman.' That's how he spoke to this woman, whose dead body he'd so affectionately prepared for burial. Gunnar of Hjardarnes couldn't refrain from saying something that we were were naturally all thinking, as we lifted her carefully from the cage and over into the coffin, her skin rosy brown, smelling like the best smoked lamb meat. I swear she had a smile on her face. Gunnar said, 'Well, mate, I don't know what you say, but I think Sigridur has never looked better!'"

Not all the writing works that well, and I do think the obligatory sheep-shagging incident contrived and predictable. But overall this is an unusual and engaging novella, about a man whose inner life is more expansive than his outward circumstances. In his own words, he has "big dreams on small pillows"