Under the Glacier by Halldor Laxness

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.

book cover of   Under the Glacier   by  Halldór 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.

Read Your Way Around the World Challenge: Iceland

Today (April 23rd)  is World Book and Copyright Day. It’s organized by  UNESCO to promote reading, publishing and copyright. I feel obliged to honor the occasion–especially now that I’m in the middle of a copyright flap 🙂 

Global Voices is conducting a book challenge titled “Read your way around the world”  to mark the day.   

  Global Voices Book Challenge

The Challenge is as follows:

1) Read a book during the next month from a country whose literature you have never read anything of before.
2) Write a blog post about it during the week of April 23.
3) Tag your posts with #gvbook09

I joined the challenge on Lotus Reads, and chose Paradise Reclaimed by the Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness.  Laxness  won the Nobel prize for literature in 1955, and his book has been on my shelf for a long long time. It seemed the perfect choice.

Paradise Reclaimed

Alas, my response to the challenge was less than successful. This book was just not my thing. 

Paradise Reclaimed deals with the adventures of a farmer named Steinar of Steinahlioar (I don’t know how to insert the special characters that every proper noun in this novel seems to require). Steinar is a simple man who happens to own a  beautiful horse. When the king of Denmark visits Iceland, Steinar decides to present him the horse, and thus sets out on the first of his travels. On the way, he meets an Icelandic Mormon who tells him all about the Promised Land.  After a couple of adventures, Steinar abandons his wife and son and daughter and sets off for Utah.

Steinar’s farm falls into disarray. The daughter is raped and becomes pregnant; in her innocence, she insists it’s a virgin birth.  The wife and son are relentlessly exploited. Their land is destroyed.

I quit reading here, midway through the novel. It was just too depressing and infuriating.

I’ve no doubt that this novel is a saga of the redemptive power of goodness, but mostly, I just wanted to kick Steinar in the seat of his pants. The introduction by Jane Smiley states that the novel “asks us to accept in Steinar a man of radical innocence, who neither ruminates upon nor questions his own decisions, but acts and then accepts the results of his actions.” Well, the novel failed to make me accept Steinar or suspend judgement; I blamed him soundly for going off half-cocked to Utah. Laxness evidently intends Steinar to be something of a tragic hero. Not that I’d dream of contradicting a Nobel prize-winning writer, but Steinar seems to me a bit of an ass; I can understand his desire to see the Promised Land, but why couldn’t he take his willing family along instead of leaving them to the wolves? As for his wife and children, they never blame Steinar for abandoning them; rather, the daughter weeps for her father and says “If Daddy is a  Mormon, then I want to be a Mormon woman.”

I also think much of my inability to relate to this book stems from my ignorance of Icelandic folklore–I can tell I’m  missing all sort of references to myths and historical events that would have made this book a much richer read.  This omission is of course entirely my fault (I should  have hunted out the Cliffs Notes), but if I had read something about Iceland, I couldn’t have chosen this book for the challenge.  Anyway, the overall feeling was rather like reading Beckham’s autobiography without ever having seen the man kick a ball.  Not satisfactory.

I have to say: Laxness has perfect control of his material. I’m admiring the way the author plays off Steinar’s innocence against his child-like wisdom even as I resent the plot turns. He successfully  uses a strange satirical humor while writing about brutal events, and there’s a fable-like tone to the prose that perfectly suits this kind of story. In sum, I think I’ve picked the wrong book by the right author. I can’t bring myself to finish Paradise Reclaimed, but I’ll be hunting out other works by Laxness. Oh, and I’ll have start figuring out those special characters soon.