When in Iceland, give in to bibliomania

Jonaki Ray | Updated on July 19, 2019

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It is difficult to stay away from books in Iceland where one in every 10 people is a published author

When I spy the bookstore, I promise myself that I’ll just take a quick look and not buy anything. You are travelling light, I remind myself.

But the bookstore is warm and the café upstairs serves hot coffee and cake. And the saleswoman-slash-manager is welcoming, “Oh, you are a writer? What do you write?” On hearing that I am in town for a writing retreat, she adds, “You must buy something. Don’t worry, we have a discount for writers.” Right there, my resolve melts, and I decide that one or two books won’t add much to my baggage.

I am in Reykjavik after all, which was declared a Unesco City of Literature in 2011. And this is Iceland, where one in every 10 people has published at least one book, and has more books published than anywhere in the world. And then, there’s the tradition of gifting books and reading on Christmas. In fact, Jolabokaflod or Christmas Book Flood is when the maximum number of books are sold.

Even a short walk through downtown Reykjavik illustrates the love for literature and writing in this country. Austurvöllur, the central square of the city, has a large statue of Jón Sigurðsson, the leader of the Icelandic independence movement and the publisher of an annual magazine called Ný félagsrit (New Association Writings). Nearby is a memorial square dedicated to Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, a suffragette activist who founded Kvennablaðið, the first women’s magazine in Iceland, and served on the city council. The iconic church, Hallgrímskirkja, is named after Hallgrímur Pétursson, one of Iceland’s most famous poets. And circling back to the parliament house, Alþingishúsið, one sees the statue of Hannes Hafstein, a poet who wanted to reclaim the glory of the Saga years.

Sagas are 1,000-year-old tales from the time of the settlement of the island and describe historic events and people in a mythological narrative style. For instance, the13th-century saga, Njáls Saga, is about the exploits of Njáll and Gunnar, two friends turned foes. The feuds and battles between the families of these two characters are described in such a way that Shakespeare’s tales seem light reading in comparison!

Independent People by Halldór Laxness, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955, begins with a reference to the sagas and old legends. It follows Bjartur, a shepherd, and his struggle to own a piece of land and become a farmer, and brings out the class differences and struggles of the poor in lucid, poetic prose that reminds one of the movies of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. On the first day of the writing retreat, we visit his former home, Gljúfrasteinn, and as we climb the stairs, peek into his study, and listen to his granddaughter and writer, Auður Jónsdóttir, talk about his writing discipline, it seems as if he is still around.

As the retreat starts, I attend writing workshops, listen to authors — both international and Icelandic — and read more Icelandic authors. I discover other favourites: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, for instance, is a top-selling crime novelist whose book I Remember You was made into a movie. Its plot of a crumbling house, the disappearance of a boy, and mysterious crosses keep me awake one night.

Sjón, an Icelandic poet, novelist, lyricist and collaborator of singer Björk, in his work Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was combines historic events such as Iceland’s referendum, the volcanic eruption of Katla and the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 with the story of a boy and his obsession with cinema and a young woman.

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, a prize-winning novelist, playwright and poet, emerges as another favourite. Her bookHotel Silence, which won the Icelandic Literature Prize in 2016, tells the story of a man who feels his life has no value because his wife has left him, his mother is battling dementia, and his daughter’s identity is in question. He books a one-way ticket to a war-ravaged country and arrives at Hotel Silence for a quiet end, but then meets a set of characters who makes him question his choices and decision. Poignant at places, “I am a watercolour. I wash off”, and funny at others, “Your father and I visited a history museum on our honeymoon. That was about as romantic as it got”, it is a story of second chances, sometimes even when they are not wanted.

Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s The Little Book of Icelanders combines wit with empathy as she describes the meaning, origin, and pronunciation of words, as well as the quirks of Icelanders. For instance, the islanders are notorious for not responding to emails. On the last evening of the retreat, Sigmundsdóttir reads some of her new work and talks about returning as a foreigner to Iceland and feeling at home finally.

Perhaps it is the isolation of this country and the constant battle with the forces of nature — earthquakes, fires, icy wind, snow, and volcanoes — that are spurring its unique literary culture. After all, as Jonas, the central character of Hotel Silence, reflects, “...We have our boulders that crack open with molten rock flowing through them like streams.” I realise the stream of molten words that flows in Iceland and am enriched by it.

Jonaki Ray is a Delhi-based poet and writer, and the winner of the 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award

Published on July 19, 2019

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