by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir Translated by Brian FitzGibbon
If it’s possible to claim a ‘trend’ based on what is as yet a rather small sample size, an interesting one seems to be developing in the domain of Icelandic literature in English translation. Until recently, these translations basically occupied either side of the ‘high’ literature/genre fiction spectrum—basically, Halldór Laxness and Sjón on one end and Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurdardóttir on the other. But the last five years have seen the area in the middle fill in a bit more, introducing English translations of absurdist quasi-sci-fi novels (Andri Snær Magnason’s ‘LoveStar’), novels dealing with Iceland’s transition from rural to urban culture (Bergsveinn Birgisson’s ‘Reply To A Letter From Helga’), and surrealistic short stories (Ólafur Gunnarson’s ‘The Thaw’), among others.
At the same time, there has been a sudden rise in the translation of another beloved fiction genre—the road novel. For instance, earlier this year, Steinunn Sigurðardóttir’s ‘Place Of The Heart,’ the story of a mother journeying to the East Fjords with her drug-addicted daughter, was released, and Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson’s forthcoming ‘Last Days Of My Mother’ will find a son and his cancer-ridden mother “embarking on a schnapps-and-pint-fuelled” journey to Amsterdam. Likewise, both of author Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s English translations—2011’s ‘The Greenhouse’ and 2013’s ‘Butterflies In November’—fit quite neatly in this emergent category.
‘Butterflies In November’ opens with a slew of unexpected, suddenly life-changing events. First, the nameless narrator, a freelance proofreader and translator who is fluent in 11 languages, “several of which are Slavonic,” runs over a goose on her way to a client’s home. This ostensibly bad omen—geese, the narrator learned from a recent proofing job, practice “lifelong fidelity to their mates”—only just precedes her being dumped by both her husband and her lover in the same afternoon. But fate doesn’t seem to be finished yet: she also simultaneously wins a summerhouse in a raffle and “hit[s] the biggest jackpot in the history of the Icelandic lottery,” takes temporary custody of her best friend’s four-year-old hearing-impaired son, and decides to embark on a spontaneous winter vacation to the village in the East Fjords where she once spent summers with her grandmother.
It’s quite a lot to happen to one character in the less than 100 pages, “[a]bout as likely as you meeting an elf on a rockslide on the national Ring Road,” the narrator remarks. “But…under certain circumstances and for the chosen few, a remote possibility can become a concrete reality.”
‘Butterflies in November’ was written five years before ‘The Greenhouse,’ and reads as something of a companion piece to the latter. And although neither is particularly wedded to specific genre conventions, both novels are hybrids in their ways, ‘The Greenhouse’ a bildungs-road novel and ‘Butterflies in November’ treading a line between travel narrative and chick-lit. Both are musings on self-discovery, both demonstrate a real love of cookery (‘Butterflies in November’ even has an appendix, “Forty-Seven Cooking Recipes and One Knitting Recipe” to compliment various scenes in the novel), and both find the main characters suddenly in charge of a child they are completely unprepared to care for. (It bears noting that few authors can write a young child as convincingly as Auður Ava, although the children in her novels tend to be unusually precocious and well behaved.)
Given the various similarities, it’s hard not to compare the two books, and ultimately, it’s ‘The Greenhouse’ that comes out a stronger piece of work. Perhaps this is just a function of the main character’s confessed flightiness—“Despite my mastery of many languages,” she admits, “I’ve never been particularly apt with words, at least not eye to eye, woman to man.” Indeed, her personality and motivations are often rather difficult to pinpoint. She’s clearly a loyal friend and, as we begin to learn more about her through short interspersed flashbacks, she’s someone who has reason to hold herself somewhat aloof. She’s also not nearly as clueless about kids as she feels. But there is an unmoored quality to her interactions with other people—not least her many, but usually unexpected and unsought-after lovers—which makes her difficult to relate to.
Moreover, although we know her to be a very accomplished and intelligent woman (although it would be great to actually see more of her linguistic skills come into play in the story), those observations that she does verbalise about herself, about love, or about women in general, tend to be a bit underwhelming. Consider: “It is no small feat for a woman to have to stick to the right-hand side of the road; that’s where reason reigns, not the heart.”
Nevertheless, there is a quirky charm at work here, both in the plot and in the writing itself. The narrator and her young companion repeatedly run into an Estonian choir that seems to be tracking them through the middle of nowhere. They put up for the night at a small geo-thermally heated farm that advertises “cucumbers in unexpected places,” and a fellow guest is described as “wriggling” inside her dress, “an eel in floral slippers.” The travellers are surprised by a group of hunters on a foggy moor and share an unexpected picnic. And progressively, the narrator does begin to gain some grounding, some more concrete sense of herself and what she wants out of life and from others around her.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that everything resolves itself neatly by the story’s end—nicely enough, although a viable partner presents himself, the story’s conclusion isn’t hinged on a new romance beginning. Rather, it is her journey—both physically and spiritually—that is just getting started. “There’s no hurry,” she thinks, standing on a beach before getting on the road again. “Plenty of time ahead and vast expanses of sand.”
‘Butterflies in November’ was translated by Brian FitzGibbon and published by Pushkin Press in late 2013. It is Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s second novel to be translated into English and its film rights have also recently been sold. Auður Ava’s third play “Svanir skilja ekki,” (‘Swans Don’t Understand’) premiered at the National Theatre of Iceland in February 2014.