A frank and poetic meditation on nature, relationships, and the choices that define us, Bergsveinn Birgisson’s ‘Reply To A Letter From Helga’ paints an unflinching portrait of Bjarni, an elderly man on the verge of “the Great Relocation congenital to all men” who is ready to finally face the defining decision of his life and respond to a letter left unanswered for so many years.
When, in his youth, his lover Helga offered him the chance to follow her to a new life in Reykjavík, Bjarni chose instead to remain on the farm which had been in his family for generations, choosing his love for the land over romantic love and companionship. This decision was, and remains, a fraught and painful one for him. Even so, he maintains a clear sense of pride throughout the novel, a strength of purpose which separates his story from more conventional narratives of love lost. “I thought of what kind of person I would become in Reykjavík,” Bjarni writes.
Could I love you…under such circumstances? Is it so certain, Helga, that everything would have been fine for us? I would have dug a ditch for you and filled it back up again, the same ditch all my life…But abandon myself, the countryside and farming, which were who I am; that I couldn’t do.”
While his brief, but passionate, affair with Helga provides the basis for his reflections, his other lifelong love, “the district where my forefathers had lived for an entire millennium,” is what gives him purpose. For Bjarni’s message is as much a love letter to the country and to a nearly forgotten way of life as it is a paean to Helga. His language is simple but always richly sensual, particularly in its descriptions of nature, and its evocations of desire and longing. Often these elements combine, as when he describes the “Helga Tussocks,” which, “with their smooth, flat tops and steep, rounded sides, are made from the same mold as your breasts, by the same creative hands.”
Bjarni’s recollections also dramatise the seasonal rituals and complex relationships in a small, rural village, alighting on yearly sheep round-ups and ram exhibitions, on taciturn men sagely discussing politics at the local co-op, on the regular meetings and heated debates of the district Reading Club. (Bjarni has been an avid reader all his life, and quotes poetry, sagas, and psalms throughout the novel. This English translation includes a glossary of works cited, making for an excellent primer to great Icelandic literature.) His stories are not all happy ones: “I’m not saying that everything is so heavenly [in the country] and the people are utter angels,” he says. “Of course there is rumormongering and jealousy and all sorts of other hogwash. But these same people loan you a tractor tire in a pinch.”
‘Reply to a Letter from Helga’ is a rare novel in its capacity to measure and examine regret, courageous in its recognition that loving another person is not always enough in itself. “Love is also in this life I’ve lived here in the countryside,” Bjarni writes. “And when I chose this life and pursued it and didn’t regret it, I learned that one should stick to one’s decision, nurture it and not deviate—that this is an expression of love.”