Misbehaving clergymen and a disruptive Icelandic volcano have been dominating the headlines, and I just happen to have finished a novel featuring both–Under the Glacier, by the Nobel prize-winning Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness.
A young theologian is sent by his Bishop to investigate a priest who is reported to have lost his faith. Pastor Jon supposedly refuses to baptize infants or bury the dead or hold services, and Embi, as the Emissary of the Bishop is called, is told to journey to Snaefellsjokull (the Snaefells Glacier, which lies atop a volcano), listen without argument to pastor Jon and his associates, note down everything that is relevant, and report back to the Bishop.
Embi protests that he’s too young (twenty-five!) and too ignorant for such a task, but he’s sent anyway. Almost immediately, he lands in a theatre of the absurd. The church is nailed shut and the Pastor is missing, off shoeing horses. At the parsonage, Embi is served a dinner of mouldy coffee and innumerable cakes by a woman who tells him about a “fairy ram” she once saw. The unhealthy-looking calf tethered outside the parsonage, we learn, lives on coffee and cake too.
At this point, you can either throw the book away, or, like Embi, attempt to listen without argument. I chose the latter path.
As you might guess, there is little point in further describing the plot of such a novel. Suffice to say that Embi meets a variety of characters (including the elusive pastor) with whom he has philosophical and religious discussions; inevitably, his everyman views are rattled to the core. This book was written in the sixties, and reflects the ethos of an age when all long-rooted beliefs seemed ripe for questioning. Laxness, in essence, asks us to reconsider all we think of as normal, including the “normal” structure of the novel form.
I’ve never met a book less easy to classify. If Under the Glacier was an animal, it’d be a chimera–a lion with a goat’s head growing out of its middle, and a serpent for a tail. To call this book a fable is to name the serpent and ignore the other heads; to call it a critique of Christianity is to name the lion alone, and to call it a comic novel is to term the goat an ass. But if you accept the right of this fabulous beast to exist, the co-existence of three heads, then this book makes sense, albeit on its own terms.
Under the Glacier is a slippery, whimsical thing, almost impossible to get hold of–at times I felt I was reading the work of a genius, but equally, at other times, Laxness seemed to write like a preternaturally clever but naughty schoolboy. (And sometimes, I figured Laxness was merely stoned.) I think one of the most unsettling aspects of this novel–more than the fairy ram, the woman who was turned into a fish, or the proposed resurrection of a corpse in the glacier–is Laxness’s absolute objectivity in handling his story. The book features two narratives–Embi’s written report to the Bishop, and his account of the adventures befalling him, and neither is designed to engender the reader’s comfort. Laxness’s creations simply do their thing, and we readers grope around, looking in vain for a familiar hook upon which to hang our beliefs, for a character with whom we might feel a thrill of recognition.
Now, my previous attempt at a Laxness was a notable failure, for Paradise Reclaimed drove to me to such anger and despair that I quit halfway. But I did finish Under the Glacier, right down to a shocking (and yet, in retrospect, not entirely unexpected) climax. This sort of text insists on being revisited; I have no doubt that book will convey something entirely new to me when I re-read it in a year or ten. Read it or skip it, at equal peril.
Under the Glacier by Halldor Laxness
Vintage 2005 (originally published as Christianity Under Glacier in 1968)
Genre: Literary question mark
Note: My edition of the book has an introduction by Susan Sontag, which I put off reading it till I’d had my say. I’ll update my review if my view should change dramatically post Sontag.