Published July 10, 2014
Karl Kerulf Einarsson, aka Dunganon, aka the Duke of St. Kilda, aka Emperor Cormorant XII of Atlantis, was both an artist and a poet, but his most remarkable creation was himself…or I should say his various selves.
Born in 1897 near Seyðisfjörður in eastern Iceland, Karl moved with his family to the Faroe Islands when he was still a child. He may have derived some of his eccentric genes from his father, a grocer who displayed a dead cat playing a violin in the window of his Torshavn shop. Early on, Karl realised that he could find a better playing field for his talents in Europe than in the Faroes. Indeed, he regarded the Faroes as a veritable dunga, or dung heap, and upon leaving them, he announced: “Dunga—non!” Dunganon soon became his most commonly-used alter ego.
To separate Karl’s real life from his self-created one is, in the words of Icelandic art historian Björn Th. Björnsson, like “grasping for vapour from a witch’s cauldron…And since he lived most of his life outside society, travelling on his own passport, going under any and all names except the one on his birth certificate, never paying taxes or fares, there is naturally no use looking for his footprints in offices.” Let me add that there isn’t much use looking for those footprints in that current repository of knowledge, the internet, either.
Did Karl really visit Hitler and ask to borrow an airplane because he wanted to fly to St. Kilda and govern the cormorants there? According to Karl himself, the answer is yes. St. Kilda did in fact obsess him; he described it as the only part of the continent of Atlantis that still showed above the sea. That the island was inhabited by a handful of Gaelic speakers did not prevent him from calling himself “the Duke of St. Kilda.” What the St. Kildans themselves would have made of this self-appointed aristocrat is anybody’s guess.
The Resourceful Wanderer
His wanderings took him to Spain, then to southern France, and finally to Copenhagen, where he became friends with the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness. Reputedly, he sold several of his poems to Laxness, who published them under his own name. In his story-essay “The Sibyl’s Prophecy,” Halldór reports that Karl set up a company to instruct writers on how to receive the Nobel Prize. In the story, Karl offers to get him, Halldór, the prize for a percentage of the “cut.” Halldór refused this offer. In 1955, he did receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, presumably
without Karl’s intervention.
Halldór also records some of Karl’s curious attitudes. For instance, he refused to drink milk
or, more precisely, “milk from other animals.” “This is the height of perversion,” he told Halldór. “When did a horse ever suckle a cow?” When Halld´´ór asked him what we should do about this perversion, Karl pointed to some overweight women and suggested that they be taken to a farm, where they would be periodically milked. The milk would then be set aside for human consumption.
Karl was nothing if not inventive. Almost always without money, he would steal salt shakers from restaurants in Copenhagen, then sit in a public place and sniff the salt, whereupon he’d be thrown into jail for cocaine possession. The point: a Danish jail offers its clients free room-and-board. Likewise, Karl made friends with a local zookeeper, and the man gave him leftover meat from the zoo’s lions and tigers. Or so the story goes.
Somehow he ended up in Germany during the Second World War. He may or may not have been buying coffee to sell on the black market in Denmark. In any event, he began broadcasting Nazi propaganda on the radio to the Faroe Islands. Yes, he admitted, he did broadcast Nazi propaganda, but he was doing so in the language of Atlantis, not in Faroese, which meant that no one would have understood a word he was saying. Might this remarkable con artist have been conning the Nazis? It’s entirely possible, since he wasn’t indicted as a Nazi sympathizer after the War.
“Karl pointed to some overweight women and suggested that they be taken to a farm, where they would be periodically milked. he milk would then be set aside for human consumption.”
The Remnants He Left Behind
In 1948 or thereabouts, he took up pictorial art. His most important work consists of 256 pictures called “Oracles” and made with oil, chalk, ink, and watercolours, then sprayed with varnish. Many of these pictures show monsters with snide grins attacking each other or attacking hapless human beings, but some are quite whimsical. One of them shows an Icelandic landscape with an erupting volcano in the background, and in the foreground, a man and a horse are looking at each other in astonishment, as if to say: What a weird place we inhabit!
Art historian Aðalsteinn Ingólfsson has written superbly about Karl’s art in Naive and Fantastic Art in Iceland (Iceland Review, 1989). The pictures, he observes, “contain a hint of Oriental influence, perhaps Persian or Indian, as well as suggestions of South American Indians and medieval manuscripts…” He adds that they might not be around much longer, since the varnish, being highly acidic, will lead to their disinteg
ration. I can imagine Karl smiling at this piece of news and saying, That’s exactly what I intended—art that auto-destructs…
In 1962, Dunganon (for that’s the name of the author on the book’s cover) published Corda Atlantica: Poems in Twenty Languages. The languages include English, Russian, Icelandic, Finnish, French, Maori, and—not surprisingly—one of the Atlantis dialects. Halldór Laxness asked his friend how he could write poems in twenty languages, and Karl replied: “Anyone who isn’t a poet can compose poetry in a variety of languages.” Yet he was a poet, as these lines in one of his English poems attest:
Man! do remember: of life and death,
deeply, the intervals are stringed.
But little birds—if duly winged—
can sway the very ocean’s breath.
Karl Kerulf Einarsson died in Fredericksburg, Denmark, on February 24, 1973. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Dunganon survived him and is now living in Atlantis or perhaps St. Kilda, where he’s governing the local cormorants.