This is the story of Paul. He was born in 1949, on the day that Iceland joined the NATO alliance. And he believes that being welcomed into this world by protests and tear gas must mean something. Everything in Paul’s life could appear comfortingly normal – his childhood in Reykjavík, his youth, his family and friends – if he didn’t always jump forward to his present reality as a schizophrenic in Kleppur, a mental health institution in Reykjavík. And when teenage Paul meets Dagný, who is the initial cause of his final breakdown, the first signs of mental disease already show. As his illness slowly takes over his normal life and sanity, the descriptions of a life as an institutionalized person increasingly overshadow the memories of his normally appearing youth.
Paul introduces many different characters of his life to the reader, one of them being King Baldwin, who advices Paul to watch over the angels who are guarding him. He also vividly describes his friends from the mental health hospital, like Oli Beatle, who believes that he wrote the Beatles’ songs and Viktor, who talks and behaves as if he was an old English nobleman. Or Peter, who is waiting every day for a call from the University of Beijing that will confirm his doctorate degree.
Trying to escape from their reality in Kleppur, these friends seize every opportunity to go out to town and forget about their sickness, the medication and the alienation from society. In a surprisingly sane vision of things, they fool around and make jokes about themselves and other people and have a good time. This moving novel is filled with beautiful, tragic metaphors and images. Some of Paul’s adventures with his fellow institutionalized friends are even utterly comical and hilarious. But it’s hard to give in to ones laughter given the bitter and capitulating tone of Paul’s descriptions. He is in a state of pitiful disorder and, consequently, his memories are always interrupted by the harsh descriptions of painful and inhuman medical treatment and imprisonment. And in the end, when Paul is fey and disconnected from this world, the words of King Baldwin will echo in the reader’s mind: ‘You haven’t looked after your angels’.
Einar Már Guðmundsson is one of Iceland’s most famous writers. He dedicated this book to his deceased brother Páll and poetically processed in it his own experiences with Páll’s mental illness. He clearly gave the world one of the most acclaimed Nordic novels in recent times, which was awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Price in 1995. In his German translation from the same year (the one under review now) Bernard Scudder manages to convey metaphors and pictures beautifully.
- By: Einar Már Guðmundsson
- Publisher: Mál og Menning, English edition first published in 1995
- Translation: Bernard Scudder, 1995