Though the Icelandic Christmas book season is over, the next few months mark the release of many Icelandic translations into other languages by publishers across the world. One such is Hallgrímur Helgason’s 2011 novel ‘Woman at 1,000 Degrees,’ published by Algonquin Books in the US, and Oneworld Publications in the UK.
“Ideally you want to just move onto the next thing and not get stuck on your old books,” says Hallgrímur. “But getting published in the US is a big package, so I’ve spent some time revisiting the book over the past two years. I was very lucky to have a great translator in Brian FitzGibbon, but even so, my text can be challenging. Sometimes I had to step in and help, explain things, or try to find an adequate solution myself. Then came fact checking and copy editing. Even after 14 drafts, the American detail doctors were able to find some inaccuracies.”
The prickly US reader
Though Hallgrímur’s vast bulk of work is widely translated across Europe, most English speakers will be familiar with him through his 20-year-old slacker-opus ‘101 Reykjavík,’ the novel behind Baltasar Kormákur’s cult-classic film of the same name.
“I’m excited to see how the reaction will be in the States,” Hallgrímur says. “I sometimes get the feeling that US readers can take offence if things are too cruel or sarcastic. It’s the opposite of Germany, for example, where they can’t get enough black humour. Sometimes it’s even too much, like they only want me as a comic writer. I guess there’s a scarcity of humour in Germany.” He laughs. “It’s a burgeoning market; they’re hungry for anything funny!”
Fact vs. fiction
The woman that the novel’s title refers to is one Herbjörg “Herra” María Björnsson; a bed-bound eighty-year-old who lives in a rented garage with only a laptop and a hand grenade for company, readying her cancer-ridden self for a final cremation while unapologetically narrating her winding and contrary life-story. From the get-go, Hallgrímur made it clear that Herra had a true-life inspiration—a vivacious octogenarian who he happened to meet over the phone while doing political call-outs during municipal election season some years ago. He’s also done his utmost to proclaim the book be a work of fiction, not biography, but still, the novel caused an uproar upon its publication. The family of his muse was none too pleased with the depiction of their then-deceased relative, reigniting yet again the debate of author responsibility when it comes to fact vs. fiction.
“I actually had an idea to publish a new version with alternating yellow and white pages, so people could see what was fact and what was fiction,” Hallgrímur jokes. “To me, it’s all fiction—even if you’re playing around with facts—but the more fiction feeds off life, the stronger it gets. Life is always grander and stranger than anything you can make up. An author has to write fact as if it’s fiction and fiction as if it’s fact. You have to make the reader go: “Wow! This is really happening!” That’s the trick: fusing the two together until the reader is pulling their hair out trying to decide what’s true and what’s not.”
The wait for the Big Icelandic Novel
He’s optimistic about the future of Icelandic fiction but also hungry for what’s waiting around the bend, urging new authors to take more chances. “It would be great to see some bigger and broader novels,” he says. “There were only 2-3 ‘big novels’ this Christmas; that’s not a lot! The rest is poetry and novellas and smaller novels. We can be pretty impatient as a nation. People say: I want a new book to curl up with on Christmas Eve, and they want to be able to read the whole book that night. It all seems a bit rushed and sometimes writers get pressured into releasing their books too early. That’s something I’ve tried to fight against in my work; holding on to my books for longer to make sure they’re ready.”
The Costco colony
He’s also eagerly awaiting writers seeking material in the yet-to-be-mined ore of recent Icelandic history. “Despite some attempts, we still haven’t gotten the big Financial Meltdown novel,” he laments. “Maybe more time needs to pass, but by now it’s almost ten years. The financial meltdown is like our WWII; there’s so many stories there. Everything collapsed almost overnight. I’m currently working on a novel that reaches a bit further back than that; trying to search for the national psyche and look at Iceland in a larger context. To show that moment when we emerged from the turf huts into modernity, at the beginning of the last century; how we were these helpless little pushovers on the world stage. We must remind ourselves every now and then that we used to be a colony full of poor and uneducated people.” He grins. “A lot of progress has happened here but still, that gormless pushover who’s just happy to be able to go to Costco is not that far off.”