From Iceland — Modern Stories From A City That Is Barely A City: Our Review of ' The Book Of Reykjavík'

Modern Stories From A City That Is Barely A City: Our Review of ‘ The Book Of Reykjavík’

Published September 7, 2021

Modern Stories From A City That Is Barely A City: Our Review of ‘ The Book Of Reykjavík’
Valur Grettisson
Photo by
Art Bicnick

How does one describe a city that is barely a city? Reykjavík was a town for most of the 20th century. Suddenly, the city moniker crept up on us. There was an announcement in the late 80s. A headline announcing there was finally a hundred thousand of us living in the same area and so, technically, we were officially a city—although we had been calling ourselves a city since the 60s. It felt like a message; we now belong to something more than the mountains and the glaciers and the baren wastelands and the endless northern wind.

Small city plus two million

The Book Of Reykjavík” tries to capture the essence of this small metropolitan city, which transformed once again, only a decade ago, when over 2 million travellers poured onto the streets of Reykjavík. The people of Reykjavík finally understood the exhausting feeling of thousands of strangers making eye contact on the streets; how your soul becomes like a torn sail after a quick walk through the downtown.

Complexed metropolitan

“The Book Of Reykjavík” is compiled by ten Icelandic authors and the same number of short stories about the inner life of Icelanders living in this odd locale, which is now home to roughly 200 thousand, if you count the populations of the surrounding suburban areas. We often make jokes about this in Iceland, Reykjavík is two streets in Tokyo. It’s not even a neighbourhood in New York. Still, the complexity of this city is like a metropolitan of millions.

Lonesome death of the old times

The short stories in “The Book Of Reykjavík” are penned by Iceland’s best authors. Many from the younger generation that lost its connection with the old farmers’ society a long time ago. Although, there are also stories to be found from more mature authors, like Einar Már Guðmundsson, who endeavours to explain in “The Gardeners” how farmers tried to find their place in this new world, and delve into the lonesome death of the old times.

Losing connection

The young authors are more focused on the inner life of the average resident in Reykjavík. Friðgeir Einarsson, one of the authors, draws up a city that he does not know, and in some ways echo’s Einar Már’s short story in a modern way. The protagonist returns home for his mothers funeral, only to find out that he has not only lost a mother, but perhaps his connection with this small city.

We also are burdened with grim feelings about being alone in a big crowd as well as just finding love.

Great care and deep thought

The stories are written by very well known Icelandic writers and it’s a good compilation of authors, age and gender. Vera Júlíusdóttir and Becca Parkinson edited the book and they seem to have done so with great care and deep thought.

The stories are well translated by Iceland’s best translators and it showcases pretty well much of the best that is happening in Icelandic literature right now. For example, at least six of the ten authors have received the Icelandic Book Prize at one time or the other. It’s a very ambitious offering.

The forewords are written by none other than one of Reykjavik Grapevine’s favourite authors, SJÓN and Vera does a good job explaining the aesthetic of the stories in her Introduction to the book.

A good place to start

The “Book of Reykjavík” is, first and foremost, an excellent place to begin if you want to get to know Icelandic modern literature as it becomes more and more of an urban literature, unlike everything that was written most of the 20th century while Icelandic authors focused a lot on the life of farmers and the past. It gives the reader a deep vision into the mindset of Icelanders in this small city. Overall, this is an easy, fun read, giving readers a deep understanding of the modern lives and thoughts of people in Iceland.

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