From Iceland — Grand Theft Literature

Grand Theft Literature

Published September 14, 2010

As the Icelandic lit scene gears up to shine as the guests of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 12–16, 2011, Ingi Björn Guðnason, a writer who spends his days working at the Western fjords University, is co-editing, a new literary site to get the alternative literary scene noticed.
Fictitious Island features the work of 27 up-and-coming young Icelandic fiction writers—from Haukur Már Helgason, who founded the Nýhil poets collective, to Ásgeir H. Ingólfsson, a novelist and culture reporter who is working on a book of eerie, grim fairytales.
Ingi Björn took some time to talk to the Grapevine about how some in this very tightly-knit scene crossed paths—or pages—and were brought together through, of all things, a stolen book found in the trash cans of the Reykjavík City Library. Áræði, the book in question, is an ongoing collaboration between 13 young visual artists and poets in Iceland, and growing, which has become a goldmine in the underground Icelandic alternative literary scene.
What is Áræði?
Well, I guess it all began when a friend was moving in 2006. He had just finished unpacking all the cardboard boxes he had used for his stuff and desperately needed to get rid of them. This was in the vicinity of the City Library in Reykjavík, and he saw some garbage containers outside it. When he opened one of the containers a mountain of books appeared! This guy is a great book lover, so instead of throwing away the boxes, he filled them up with these disregarded library books and brought the boxes full back home.
Why won’t you tell me who actually stole the book from the library’s trash? (Do they actually care?)
Well this was stealing, even though it was stealing trash. But I guess our friend wouldn’t mind us telling who he is. But it doesn’t really matter does it?
Anyways. Since you stole loads of books that day, why this one?
It’s hard to say. I guess it just caught our attention. It’s sometimes said that you should never judge a book by its cover, but that is exactly what we did. The cover was kind of sleazy with a photograph of a lightly dressed woman in red turning her back at the viewer and a man’s hand is grabbing her ass. So judging by the cover this was a bad piece of literature. It looked like the perfect candidate to be turned into a whole new work of art by using a pen and striking out the whole sentences and paragraphs.
The title Á bláþræði (On the edge) became Á bláþræði = Áræði (Determination).
Since then the book has traveled around Reykjavík, accompanied by a green pen, from one person to another and has even gone as far as the West Fjörds. Sometimes the book has turned up in unlikely places: Someone has picked it up and started striking away. The book has had a life of its own on the road, so to speak.
Can anyone contribute?
We don’t have any rules about who can contribute. Some have been invited to contribute while others have asked to partake and some have just done it while the book was lying around. The group of people is quite diverse, not only poets and visual artists but also other creative people, for example. I wouldn’t label myself as a poet and certainly not a visual artist since my background is in literary theory.
Why do you have this policy where everyone uses the same or similar kind of pen to mark it up? Is it marked up sequentially, or randomly?
The whole process of the book is pretty flexible and free, people do what they want, but at the same time the form is very strict. You are completely free to create whatever you want, but at the same time there are a great deal of restrictions since you only have certain words in a certain order to chose from, plus, the grammar restricts you. The choice of the pen was a way to add to these restrictions and a way to create some discipline in the process.
I guess we also liked how it looked. We also made some additional rules, for example that it is done sequentially, that is one chapter after the other, so you can’t choose a chapter to work with, you just get the next one. You are also not allowed to change the cases of the words, or move words between lines or pages. This can create some interesting restrictions since Icelandic is a pretty complicated language grammatically with four cases. The funny thing is that people that came to the book without knowing these restrictions or rules adhered to them more or less. But of course people bend the rules or break them at times, which is fine.
It all started as a statement about book theft, correct? But it seems to have taken a life of its own.
Well it wasn’t really a statement about the book theft. But the book theft was what initiated the whole thing. But in a way I guess the work is a statement. It’s an awful thought that a library throws books away! And in the bunch there were popular books by well established authors. The book we chose was one that is long forgotten, a book that never received any attention, and is finally disregarded and thrown away by the library, an establishment that should be a safe haven for books. I guess one can read some sort of a statement out of this. And in a sense we are reviving the book, although we are creating a completely new work of art that as you said has taken a life of its own.
Has it ever left Iceland? And whose hands is it in now?
No it hasn’t left the country yet, at least not to my knowledge. But who knows? It’s been a long process, since we started the summer 2006. That’s a long time and it is quite possible that someone took it out of the country during that time. But to my knowledge it’s at least traveled all over Reykjavík city and to the West Fjörds of Iceland. It’s now in the hands of one of the first persons to contribute to it, Ólafur Þórarinsson, who lives in Akureyri in the north. He may have sent it on its way to someone else by now.

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