From Iceland — Troll's Cathedral

Troll’s Cathedral

Published September 4, 2009

Troll’s Cathedral

Trolls´Cathedral (original Icelandic title Tröllakirkja) is the first part of an acclaimed trilogy by author Ólafur Gunnarsson (the two other being Potter´s Field and Winter Journey, respectively). The novel was published in 1992 and nominated for the Icelandic Literary Prize the same year. The story takes place in 1950´s Reykjavík and tells the tale of architect Sigurbjörn Helgason who has high dreams for building a massive and imposing cathedral on top of Skólavörðuholt (where Hallgrímskirkja church now stands) that will echo the shapes of the Icelandic landscape. He starts his own construction firm along with (and mostly financed by) his friend Guðbrandur, who is a master carpenter. Their first project is for the first franchised department store in Reykjavík. But things do not go according to plan, and Sigurbjörn soon finds his world crumbling as his marriage starts failing, his family life falls to pieces, the debts pile up, and yet Sigurbjörn strives to keep up appearances.

The novel has received almost unanimously good reviews, both in Iceland and abroad. It paints a very clear and interesting picture of Iceland´s and Reykjavík´s growing pains as the Icelandic society rapidly changed and the capital transformed from town to city. The story of Sigurbjörn is an epic tale of one man´s downfall, and his fate follows a universal theme that could surely be translated and understood in any culture.

That said, I have to admit that although Sigurbjörn’s fate is tragic, I did not feel for him very much. Perhaps it is one of the traits of the epic that the narrative seems to hold the reader at arm’s length, creating distance between reader and characters. But maybe it was just because I found Sigurbjörn´s character to be self-centred, nasty and extremely dislikeable. And the same goes for other characters in the novel. Even when Sigurbjörn´s obnoxious eleven-year-old son is sexually assaulted and beaten, I could have cared less. The only character I felt remotely sympathetic towards was Guðbrandur, who is truly a victim of Sigurbjörn´s extravagant dreams.

But perhaps it is this distance from the characters that gives the underlying narrative the universal appeal that it has. Rather than being a tale of one man’s ruin, Trolls´ Cathedral has wider connotations that give it fable-like qualities.

Bottom line: A vivid picture of Iceland´s growing pains in the 1950´s.

  • English Translation: David McDuff and Jill Burows
  • JPV Publishers Reykjavík 2008
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