From Iceland — The Cult of 101

The Cult of 101

Published June 21, 2010

Now translated into over 14 languages, Hallgrímur Helgason’s novel ‘101 Reykjavík’ literally transformed the traditionally held view of Iceland as an untouched Eden into one of party excess. After the underground success of Baltasar Kormákur’s 2002 movie starring Pedro Almodóvar’s cult diva Victoria Abril, Faber and Faber (UK) bought the English-language rights.  Hallgrímur’s novel is one of the few pieces of contemporary Icelandic literature that are represented by the commercial mainstream.

Reviewing the book, American novelist Tim Sandlin said: “Imagine if Henry Miller had written Tropic of Cancer on crack instead of wine. [‘101 Reykjavik’] has the least likeable narrator in literary history. Worse than Donleavy’s Ginger Man or the fat guy in Confederacy of Dunces.” Despite this, Sandlin highly recommends this book—if anything, for sheer maudlin disgust. Certainly ‘101 Reykjavik’ is a tome to the urban slacker generation and Hlynur, the protagonist of the story, is not the man you’d want your daughter to bring home for dinner. He’s a lame, grubby drunkard, but he has his moments of prophetic inspiration. In his thirties and weaving on the fringes of society, Hlynur still lives at home with his mother and does as little as possible. Mostly he surfs the internet for porn, seeking any possible depravity he can get his hands on.

A loose deconstruction of Hamlet, this is a one-man rant against the world of normalcy; a coming of age story which never truly comes of age. Hallgrímur seems to favour the tragic character. Even in his more recent work ‘Rokland’ (‘Stormland’—as yet unreleased in English), a misunderstood rebel named Böddi from the deep countryside village of Krókur, sets out across country to kill the Prime Minister.

‘101 Reykjavik’ reads a little like some kind of stream-of-consciousness, post-modernist novel in verse: “We watch the light as it slowly fades on the eastern horizon, witness the mountains in their final battle against the powers of darkness, a battle they’re doomed to lose, heroic but doomed, about to be wiped off the map of a visible world…What the hell am I saying?…There are more ideas in one unsmoked cigarette than five heft tomes of sagas.”

And yes, you can feel the tragicomedy that emerges in Hallgrímur’s unlikely Hamlet, Hlynur. At times, Hlynur’s puns and jokes go a little over the top; and in the English translation it is hard to say, but it does appear that Hallgrímur has achieved the semblance of an Icelandic street jive. In a review in the Guardian, Julie Myerson said: “What this writer is doing is being current, being new, shaking up notions of literariness with naughty terrier teeth…He has done the best thing possible: found a new way of telling. It is a kind of pop prose which looks easy, but is far from it.” Yes, there are some real zingers in the book, but the comic plot takes its good old time to flesh out. And despite the capable translation by Brian FitzGibbon one cannot help but think that this novel might have better achieved its purpose with some heavy-handed editing.

Hallgrímur’s slacker-hero Hlynur assigns each of the women he meets with a monetary value based on how much he would be willing to pay to sleep with them: Mother Teresa (1.700 ISK), Pamela Anderson (4.700.000 ISK). His divorced mother has just come out of the closet, and Hlynur finds himself sexually attracted to his mother’s lover Lolla. All of a sudden Hlynur discovers out that Hófí, the girl he occasionally shags, is pregnant. Meanwhile, when his mother is conveniently out of town, Hlynur ends up having drunken sex with Lolla who he proceeds to impregnate too. This is Jerry Springer-inspired tragedy. It’s funny, it’s poignant, but it really doesn’t lead us anywhere except back where we started.

I can’t help but get the feeling that even if the Reykjavík party scene of the ‘90s—of the late nights with Björk and Blur’s Damon Albarn (who co-wrote the score to the movie), that untold Icelandic youth empathised with Hlynur as they led their own shenanigans through Reykjavík’s wild and cantankerous Eden of Ecstasy and debauched sex. But was Reykjavík ever really that wild?

All its flaws aside, ‘101 Reykjavik’ is an iconic work that sets the tone for this decade and those to come. It has many interesting and humorous moments, and despite the fact that it is more of a poetic diatribe than a novel, that doesn’t quite seem to matter. The New York Times called ‘101 Reykjavik’ “…a desolate howl from an in-between decade and an in-between land.” Without ‘101 Reykjavik’ Iceland would be a far duller place. In some way, this novel may be seen as a prophetic lead-in to more current events: the amorality of hipsters and banksters gone mad. The world, of course, is entirely what you make of it.  

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