This month, UK based Arc Publication will be publishing Drápa, Icelandic author and poet Gerður Kristný’s second book to appear in English. The book is a novel-in-verse that takes the form of a “drápa”—a verse form often found in Viking Age skaldic poetry. Although the form was originally used for laudatory poems that honoured kings, lords and gods, and told of their exploits and might, Gerður uses the form to retell the tragic story of a young woman who is lost and finally murdered in downtown Reykjavík. Fittingly, perhaps, as the book’s title offers up Gerður’s usual aptitude for wordplay with a second meaning derived from the Icelandic word “dráp” (“killing,” in English).
“The lives of people who find themselves on the outskirts of society have fascinated me for a long time,” the author says. “I was a reporter for ten years and would often take trips out to Litla-Hraun (Iceland’s largest prison) to interview the prisoners.”
“One time, a prisoner who had just been released from isolation confessed to a murder during one of my interviews,” she continues. “The police couldn’t get a confession out of him, and then had to read about it in the magazine. As a journalist, I also often had to read court documents and became enthralled with the grandiose language they use. It inspired me during the writing of Drápa—along with various other sources, such as PJ Harvey lyrics, ‘Kill Bill,’ ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and so on.”
In fact, the story told in Drápa is based on real events that Gerður came across in her work as a journalist writing about crime. “There was a young woman who was murdered by her husband in their attic apartment in downtown Reykjavík,” Gerður explains. “I interviewed him after he’d completed his sentence. At the time, he was still living in the same attic apartment. Eventually, he too was murdered there, many years later. I couldn’t get this sorry story out of my head, so I wrote ‘Drápa.’ There’s a great tradition for elegies in Icelandic poetry, and this is my elegy for the murdered woman.”
The plasticity of the poetic form
Despite being set in different worlds and thousands of years apart, Drápa has much in common with ‘Bloodhoof,’ Gerður’s previous publication with Arc Publishing. There she gave a voice to the giantess Gerður Gymisdóttir—the author’s namesake who is abducted and sold to the Asgardian god Freyr and whose story is told in the Poetic Edda.
“For a while, I was inspired by Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’ and thought that Gerður’s story was best suited for a novella,” Gerður admits. “But when I tried my hand at retelling the old legend in narrative verse I soon discovered that the poetic form can contain anything.”
The stories of lost and abandoned women
The two books are united by their sparse yet traditional poetic form and share a translator in Rory McTurk, but the subject of women being disregarded by society and abused by those closest to them is a major theme for both books.
“Gerður Gymisdóttir’s story is a clear case of human trafficking,” Gerður explains. “In Drápa, I combine my work as a journalist with my work as a poet to write about people who rarely get their stories told. The lives of these women are by no means unique. People are sold into slavery and sent from one country to another all over the world, and we hear new stories of women being murdered every day.”
Evil knows and sees evil
When it came to finding a narrator—someone able to gaze into the darkest corners of the city and give an unflinching yet tender account of events—Gerður discovered that even her long stint interviewing victims and violent perpetrators was not enough for the role.
“I have never been able to find a proper explanation for what feeds the evil in this world,” she ruminates. “You can’t just put it down to poor treatment and lack of social services—not when you consider the amount of people who have suffered great hardships but then go on to lead relatively good and decent lives. So, I decided to recruit the devil as my narrator. He spreads his wings and wanders through Reykjavík, telling the murdered woman’s story.”
Old gods and new
The devil is not the only deity in the book. God also puts in an appearance, although he offers mere indifference and is marked by a blemish familiar to those who know a little of the old Asgardian gods.
“The idea of God being a one-eyed deity came to me during a poetry festival in Nicaragua,” says Gerður. “I was sitting in a plaza listening to one poet after another read their poetry in various languages, and I happened to glance up at the sky and saw that it was a full moon. I thought of Odin, the one-eyed god of the Vikings, and decided to impose his blindness on the Christian God. It helped me explain why we humans get away with inflicting so much misery around us here on earth. God just can’t see us properly.”
Read more about Icelandic literature here.