Published April 15, 2011

The local literary scene is now in the throes of the Nordic crime novel. Admittedly the ancient Icelandic sagas tell tales of murder, blood and revenge, but it was long thought that it was impossible to write crime fiction set in such a small, peaceful society. Those who tried were ridiculed. Enter Arnaldur Indriðason, ex-journalist and film critic, son of a rather well-known novelist, who started writing crime stories in the early nineties. He almost instantly became a bestselling author, and almost every Christmas he tops the bestselling lists in Iceland.
Though unique in Iceland at the time, Arnaldur was not an insular figure. He had basically been reading crime fiction all his life. There is nothing new about his formula. The strongest influence comes from Sweden, where a tradition of realistic crime fiction with a social dimension runs from the taut police novels of Mai Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö through the works of Henning Mankell. Arnaldur’s policeman protagonist Erlendur likes eating sheep’s heads, but he is still in many ways similar to Mankell’s policeman, Wallander.
Icelandic crime fiction—now a very strong genre—is definitely a part of the Nordic crime wave, which has hit the bookstores of the world in recent years. Arnaldur is by far the biggest name, he has sold millions of copies abroad, but there are strong pretenders such as Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Árni Þórarinsson. Interesting murders almost never happen in Iceland, we mostly have drunks killing other drunks, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem. The backdrop of the stories more than compensates for this—a gloomy place, with mountains all around, miserable weather, Nordic depression and disgusting eating habits.
Even if Arnaldur is the biggest name in terms of sales, the great man of Icelandic fiction remains Halldór Laxness, the country’s sole Nobel Prize winner. Laxness was born in 1902, and he was awarded his Nobel Prize in 1955. He is a continuous presence, last year two plays based on his novels were staged in the National Theatre. He is constantly being quoted in order to prove some point or the other. Thus he is not only a writer, but part of the national psyche—a spiritual guide and all-round wise man. “But Laxness said,” is something you’ll often hear in conversation in Iceland.
Halldór Laxness was a socialist for much of his life, and many Icelanders became socialists through reading his books and those of his contemporary Þórbergur Þórðarson, rather than by reading Marx or Lenin. This is literary socialism, which tends to be sentimental and very nationalistic. Halldór’s characters keep popping up in the strangest circumstances. Suddenly the farmer Bjartur of Summerhouse, from the novel ‘Independent People’ (‘Sjálfstætt fólk’), has become somewhat of a figurehead in the fight against joining the EU—it has been conveniently forgotten that in his battle to stay a free man on his small farm in the mountains, Bjartur managed to get most of his family killed.
Another oft-quoted popular hero from Halldór’s books is the rascal Jón Hreggviðsson, who, as the story goes, might have killed a man, and then might not have killed a man. He was drunk, so he really doesn’t know. The novel is called ‘Iceland’s Bell’ (‘Íslandsklukkan’) and it is written on the eve of Icelandic independence. One of the themes of the novels is that Denmark’s affluence was built on exploiting Iceland. In one of the book’s scenes, a Danish merchant shows an Icelander the towers of Copenhagen, saying that this was all founded on Icelandic wealth.
This is of course total nonsense. There were only a handful of ships sailing to Iceland every year during that period, trading with a broken, dirt-poor nation of no more than 50 thousand people.
But in the eyes of some, this has also become a symbol of how Iceland is treated by the world, getting a knowing nod and even a small sigh during last winter’s theatre performance of ‘Iceland’s Bell’. The idea is that there are forces in the world, for example the EU and the IMF, who are conniving to swallow Iceland and its resources.
Of course Halldór Laxness is in no way to blame for this, he died in 1998 at the ripe old age of 95—and he famously changed his mind many times on both politics and religion. Laxness was a realist who based his books on research and real persons who could be recognised again in his books, even if he mixes these elements together in a brilliant way. He is the towering figure in Icelandic literature, maybe second only to Snorri Sturluson, the author of the Edda, Egil’s Saga and Heimskringla (tales of the Norwegian kings). Snorri was incidentally beheaded by his enemies in 1241, after becoming involved in complicated plots during a period of Icelandic civil war referred to as the Sturlunga Age. This famously ended in Iceland being under the rule of Norway and then Denmark for 700 years.
Laxness was long thought to induce a minority complex in younger writers. But this was not true for one of them, Guðbergur Bergsson. The day Laxness died Guðbergur famously appeared on TV, and when asked if he had been influenced by the great man answered: “No, he did not influence me, not one iota.” Guðbergur, born in 1932, has always been an outsider in a way. He is admired and feared for his sharp wit, and he can be brutally honest. Sometimes he seems to be impossibly ascetic. He states that he doesn’t have any interest in fame or his career. One of his friends, the antiquarian bookseller Bragi Kristjónsson (please visit his shop on Hverfisgata!), describes him thus: “He wakes up at eight in the morning, writes, then goes out to buy his fish, writes some more, and then boils his fish for dinner. For the rest, he doesn’t care much.”
Maybe this is a part of a myth that has been spun around Guðbergur. But he is almost the exact opposite of Halldór Laxness, who liked big cars and cigars. Guðbergur is almost microscopic in his writing, patiently peeling away clichés, lies and lazy ideas. Some of his books have been considered scandalous; in some of them he has made the Icelandic nation, its newfound riches and blatant consumerism, look quite ridiculous. His most famous character is Tómas Jónsson, an eccentric old miser who gradually turns into the apartment he rents out.
At 78, Guðbergur is the greatest living writer in Iceland. Abroad he is not very well known, maybe he doesn’t always translate well (Halldór Laxness really doesn’t translate well either), but, for example, Milan Kundera has quoted him as a major European writer. He is 78, looks many years younger, has the smile of an angel, but one never really knows what to expect of him. He is very much his own man.
Literature is of course very important in Iceland. It is linked to the heritage of the sagas and the survival of the nation—and the language—during centuries of hardship. The number of books published every year is staggering for such a small society. They are not all very good—that would be impossible. The interest in literature actually grew after the collapse of the economy in 2008—this somehow signified a return to older values after the death of the idea of Iceland as a financial paradise.
Some might have thought that the economic crash—by far the most dramatic event in our recent history—would translate into literature. This has not been the case, however, not yet. Works of fiction written about the collapse have mostly been failures, while the best books of the last years look into the past: Jón Kalmann Stefánsson writes about the hardship of fishermen on open boats in the Westfjords, Bergsveinn Birgisson writes a pastoral story about the love of a sheep farmer, Einar Kárason writes about events in the Sturlunga Age and the poet Gerður Kristný uses themes from the Edda.
Meanwhile, the Nordic crime novel rages on. We not only have many hopeful writers working in the genre, but a lot of crime fiction also gets translated to Icelandic from the other Nordic languages. There is some hope that this will end one day.

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