Wednesday, April 18, 2012

I Need Someone to Go on a Little Journey for Me

First published on THE MANTLE
That is what the Bishop of Reykjavik told the “Undersigned” (from then onwards known as “EmBi”: Emissary of the Bishop) in Halldór Laxness’ strange novel Under the Glacier. I had begun reading the book in 2009 and it took me slightly over three years to finish a “simple” 200-pages novel.
I guess that in order to write a review of a work of literature like this, one has to let go of everything that one knows about literary reviews (based mainly on theoretical prejudice) and adopt a singular point of view in which the plot, characters and the actual dramatic climax is not the most important element or lens.
In Under the Glacier this and that happens. Blah blah blah. The end is like this. The beginning is like that. Such and such dramas.
The story could be quite simple: The Bishop of Reykjavik sends a young theologian to investigate the status of Christianity and strange events in a town at the top of a mountain in Western Iceland, at the entrance ofSnæfell glacier.
But the events are so strange that EmBi’s travelogue – and this is all what the novel is – becomes an epic legend about religion, reality and storytelling itself. The bishop instructs EmBi: “Don’t forget that few people are likely to tell more than a small part of the truth: no one tells much of the truth, let alone the whole truth. Spoken words are facts in themselves, whether true or false. When people talk they reveal themselves, whether they’re lying or telling the truth.”
A stream of consciousness would be so unfitting a term. The idea of stream of consciousness doesn’t tell stories as much as capture situations and conditions. What storytelling is is better captured by Hannah Arendt:
 “It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication the last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment”.
Susan Sontag tells us in the introduction to the novel’s English translation that the long prose fiction called the novel has yet to shake off the mandate of its own normality as promulgated in the 19th century. She goes on to add that narratives that deviate from the artificial “norm” of the novel and tell other kinds of stories are considered bizarre and mentions some of those genres:
Science fiction
Tale, fable, allegory
Philosophical novel
Dream novel
Visionary novel
Literature of fantasy
Wisdom lit
Sexual turn-on

Then concludes by saying: “The only novel I know that fits into all of them is Halldór Laxness’ wildly original, morose, uproarious Under the Glacier.
It would be difficult to read Laxness without being familiar with Icelandic saga and the Icelandic tradition known as “kvöldvaka” (or the night-watch, similar to what is called in Yemen “samar”). In many farms in Iceland during the long winter nights, members of the household sat in the common room as they listened to Icelandic sagas read aloud, folktales about mysterious women, ghosts and magic or rhymes.  
Stories about the creation of the world – in which Snæfell glacier and the entrance to the volcano underneath are the center of the universe – figure prominently in this tradition. And this is how Laxness’ novel ought to be read: As if it were one long story told orally during a night-watch: “The difference between a novelist and a historian is this: that the former tells lies deliberately and for the fun of it; the historian tells lies in his simplicity and imagines he is telling the truth”.
Can Christianity survive in the glacier? This question is answered by the priest of the Snæfell: “The closer you try to approach the facts through history, the deeper you sink into fiction.”
The only fitting review I could find for Laxness’ novel was a poem of Laxness’ predecessor, the poetJónas Hallgrímsson, written in 1837. Hallgrímsson like some of the characters that people Laxness’ curious novel was a poet andscientist, interested in the mysteries of the universe – like a good Icelandic storyteller – and who used his extensive knowledge of science and nature to describe Icelandic nature in his poetry.
He even wrote a cosmological treatise: On the Nature and Origin of the Earth” that leave us without knowing whether it was scientific prose, a legend or a poem.  His poemThe Vastness of the Universe,”based on one of the young Schiller, begins with a stanza that recreates the ambition of Laxness, more than a hundred years later:
Eg er sá geisli,
er guðs hönd skapanda
fyrr úr ginnunga
gapi stökkti;
flýg eg á vinda
vængjum yfir
háar leiðir
I am the speeding
spark of light
flung by God
from the forge of Chaos.
I soar on wings
swifter than wind
above the paths
of the pulsing stars.

A collection of different reviews of Under the Glacier is available here: Laxness in Translation

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