Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson: On the Works of Árni Bergmann
Árni Bergmann has published four novels, two memoirs and two children´s books, he has also dramatised Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky for radio and dramatised several other Russian novels, as well as being among the most prolific literary translators in Iceland, translating mostly from the Russian.
One of these translations, Sjálfsmorðinginn [The Suicide Victim] by Nikolai Erdmann was performed by a Reykjavík College in 1996. The play tells of Semion Semionovitch, an unfortunate and innocent man who is mistakenly thought to harbour suicidal thoughts by his fellow citizens. One would think that someone might pity such a desperate soul and would try to lead him off the fatal path of self-destruction. But the opposite occurs. Semion becomes a ready-made hero in his society and also the victim of several of its crafty representatives who try to persuade him to commit suicide in the name of truth. That is the cause dearest to each and every one. A big party is thrown for Semion and his wake held in advance where a collection of all kinds of disingenuous characters raise a glass in his honour; entrepreneurs and layabouts, shopkeepers and poets alike praise this everyday hero who has decided to sacrifice himself for the people and their cause. Poor old Semion is shaking in his boots while all of this is going on, he is too great a coward to take his own life and that was never his intention anyway. The play is about the role of the mediocre man in a society that constantly pushes him around and wants to squeeze him into certain roles, he is unable to rise under the pressure both because the roles are ridiculous and the man too feeble to follow other than his own ideals.
Even if the main characters in the works of Árni Bergmann are perhaps not as weak as Semion, most of them still have one thing in common with him; they seek out or find themselves in situations they cannot cope with. They are common people who momentarily meet with an ideal and try to rise above the mediocre and do great deeds in the name of love or truth and justice. The circumstances they find themselves in are mostly in connection with matters too great for them to fathom, international wars, deadly ghosts from the Cold War or significant events in Icelandic politics. Árni Bergmann usually weaves great debates about society into his novels and therefore they can be seen as the logical conclusion of his memoirs that deal with his years in Russia and his experiences of Cold War politics. These books are called Blátt og rautt [Blue and Red] and Miðvikudagar í Moskvu [Wednesdays in Moscow] and were published at the end of the 1980s but his first novel, Geirfuglarnir [The Great Auks], was published in 1982.
In Geirfuglarnir a middle aged man tells the story of his upbringing and his memories from the village he grew up in, Selatangar, a fictional village in the south-west of Iceland which due to a terrible accident has become more famous that Reykjavík and the Vestmann Islands [after the volcanic eruption in 1973]. The title suggests that the people belong to a past era [great auks were birds that nested in Iceland and where hunted to extinction] and are an endangered species. This extinction is symbolised in a great accident that takes the lives of the majority of the villagers; only a few survive and suffer a great sense of loss, emptiness and probably survivor´s guilt. The narrator describes his condition after the great accident thus:
Ég forðaðist annað fólk, drakk oftast einn heima hjá mér. En Jóhannes gafst aldrei upp á því að reyna að rétta mig við. Hann kom við hjá mér á næstum hverju kvöldi. Þegar við höfðum þagað saman hélt hann fast að mér að ég hefði engan rétt til að fara í hundana. Það kemur engum við, sagði ég. Víst, sagði hann. Þú drepur þig á þessu. Og hvað með það? Spurði ég, viltu að ég lafi hér áfram eins og sjaldgæft eintak í þessum djöfuls dýragarði?
[I avoided other people, mostly I drank at home, on my own. But Jóhannes never gave up on trying to set me straight. He stopped by my place almost every evening. When we had sat together silently he pushed me hard and told me I had no right to run myself into the gutter. That is nobody´s business, I said. Sure it is, he said. You will end up killing yourself this way. And so what? I asked, do you want me to continue here like a rare specimen in this bloody zoo?]
So far the story has not revealed Egill Grímsson, the narrator, to be an alcoholic and so his unhappiness is most likely to stem from the recent tragic events, that he is the victim of history just like all of those survivors who now exist "like rare specimens". The accident is a watershed for all the survivors. The watershed is possibly also due to a hard hitting cultural and political situation that has been fermenting in the country for a while, and is about to become disastrous for the nation. There are signs and pointers that the accident has something to do with tests made by the American Navy and the submarine base in caves not far from the village. This has not been confirmed and another theory is that terrible earthquakes are to blame for the accident. Still, it is to be understood that the armed forces are not terribly welcome, and that both serious political rifts and warmongering, which the nation has been able to avoid for eleven centuries, are now forcing the country towards an unwelcome brink.
The book is written in an "autobiographical style" as it says on the dust jacket. The narrator quotes several (fictional) books, newspaper articles, essays, and conversations to state his case. The author at one point quotes a work that has not yet been published, if you take into account the year Geirfuglarnir was published, and that may be a ploy to alienate and change the circumstances a little bit to reduce the real autobiographical tone of the work. Nevertheless, the autobiographical style makes for a sharper sense of a break between the past and present, and instils the idea that the innocent past has gone and that a dangerous future lies ahead of us. This is the narrator´s view, and most likely it is not far from the author´s own, and seems first and foremost to be rooted in a certain time and place, although it can be said that it is also a metaphor for the human condition, of the endless regret of mankind. It is without doubt a good example of people´s fears at the height of the Cold War, a fear that was most likely greater and more relevant than the fear we now feel when similar conflicts arise between West and East. The Cold War "shakes" must exert strong influence on Árni Bergmann when he wrote his first novel, which is also a reckoning with the past, a lost childhood and a version of society that his generation has seen disappear. Geirfuglarnir is first and foremost a realistic story about people, but interwoven is the social debate and the reckoning with the past. This is the main theme in the author´s novels. It is not farfetched to conjecture that he has learnt something from the older generations of Icelandic authors, first and foremost Halldór Laxness, but the characterisation is more low key, the language veers more towards the colloquial and the aim is lower. Whether this is to be considered a good thing or not is neither here nor there, but the author can never be accused of unnecessary pompousness. Bergmann´s stories are down to earth and direct even if the subject matter and the plotting are rarely mundane.
Árni Bergmann´s next novel was published in 1984 and has a lot in common with Geirfuglarnir. Not only do both books end with fateful explosions, but they both describe Icelandic society and everyday matters in combination with international conflict and battles and the main protagonists in both books are victims of circumstances they have not necessarily chosen for themselves, but still have no one else to blame (the town council of Seltangi agreed to allow the armed forces to settle in their land).
Með kveðju frá Dublin [Greetings from Dublin] is a good effort to try to expand the horizon of Icelandic literature and to move the setting out of the little village. In the book we learn of Björn, an Icelandic mortgage paying teacher bogged down in his own life who has started to want something more, in other words he is in the middle of his midlife crisis and in dire need of rejuvenation. He travels to a conference in France with his friend and falls in love with an Irish woman who, it later transpires, is ill with a terrible illness, multiple sclerosis. It is indicative of the period that the girl sees the illness as a complete death sentence and obstruction in the path of love. Björn joins an international terrorist organisation, possibly to get closer to Deirdre again or to find an idealistic pathway for the feelings she awakened in him, thus he tries to make himself useful in this world, all in the name of beauty, but he is, nevertheless, unsure of the path he has chosen.
The circumstances Björn finds himself in at this point are not far from what Semion Semionovitch experiences in Erdman´s play, the difference is that Björn decided himself to take this dubious path in the name of the cause, whereas Semion does not want to have anything to do with it. Whatever his original purpose may have been, it is clear that Björn has got himself in over his head and should probably have left well alone. But events run their course and finally he has to come to grips with his existence and his actions and that happens in a great climatic reckoning which is best not to reveal to those who have not read the book. Með kveðju frá Dublin reads a bit like a thriller and the plot is quite hard to believe in places. In this novel the author tackles most of the things that can be said to characterise his work as a whole, the lot of the everyday person turned hero, their battle with love and truth and their attitude to a society which has turned out to be more obscure than they fully understand or are able to handle.
I do not know what kind of reception Með kveðju frá Dublin got when it was published or what caused Árni Bergmann to take a long break from writing novels. It can be stated that his next work took a long time to write alongside other projects. It is also his longest and most ambitious work, Þorvaldur víðförli [Thorvald the Widely Travelled], is a historical novel set in the middle ages. Even though it was published only nine years ago, it can be said that at the time it was published it was the kind of novel every Icelandic writer had to write to be considered a serious writer, an epic story on a classic subject in a classic context within Icelandic storytelling tradition. Here the slow and morose protagonist, the common man of modern Reykjavík steps aside and the passionate hero from the middle ages steps forward and the past comes alive in a broad and historical work. Although Icelandic authors are thankfully shaking off the mythical duty of having to write "proper literature", the understanding is still that the literary value of such a novel is greater than for instance Með kveðju frá Dublin. Árni Bergmann was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize and the Nordic Counsel´s Literature Prize for Þorvaldur víðförli and thus secured his place as a "proper author".
This novel tells the story of a young Icelandic boy who is born at the end of the first millennium. It follows his childhood, his path towards maturity and search for the meaning of life. Þorvaldur is brought up hating his father and brother, but is in love with Bringvet the slave girl who was captured in Ireland and brought to Iceland. In these people we can witness the struggle between the values instilled in Þorvaldur. His father and brother symbolise in a way the heroic [Viking] age that is by then corrupted and coming to an end and losing its pride, but Bringvet is the bearer of mercy and the new faith. The subject matter, especially to begin with have thus much in common with the Icelandic sagas, even if the narrator is clearly from another era, as can be seen for instance when he mentions Joseph Stalin (page 110). This narrator can be a bit strange; talks about himself in the plural (e.g. on page 22) and refers to himself as "the spirit of the story", the indeterminable thread hidden all over, weaving the stories of the world. It cannot be overlooked that this narrator or spirit is much more formal than the narrators in Bergmann´s previous books. The style is antiquated, the language often rich in imagery and full of joyous descriptions. This can be observed in the many borderline pornographic descriptions (e.g. 34, 37) and the widely ranging thoughts of the ever-present narrator who is nevertheless invisible and mysterious. The "spirit of the story" seems to be able to see what he likes and alludes equally to ancient as well as modern times in his own style. "The land is beautiful and free but no one paid any attention" (7). This narrator has read Jónas Hallgrímsson, he knows the history of the past centuries and yet he expresses himself in the style of a bygone era, both in his choice of words and style of storytelling. The connection with the sagas can be seen in ploys like the premonitions, as in the ones Þórdís the fortune-teller (28) and in the dreams of Þorvaldur. The text also has a biblical tone; sometimes one encounters whole sentences taken directly from the Icelandic translations of the Bible, which where made long after the time of events.Þorvaldur víðförli
is an extensive work and the author seeks material in a wide range of sources in the history and culture of the middle ages, possibly to such an extent that the story itself suffers for the gain of correct historical descriptions.
Þorvaldur surely travels widely and encounters many things that need to be chronicled. When his childhood ends he sails abroad with his Viking blood brother, Þorsteinn Skelkur, once abroad he converts to the Christian faith and back home he tries unsuccessfully to convert his fellow countrymen. This forces him to go abroad once more, to Russia and Constantinople (Istanbul), he tries out the life in a monastery and also the hermit life in the mountains, he changes from a self-important rowdy man of the world to an introspective and virtuous man of faith, he finds peace in his soul and the calm that still eludes him in his love life, and in the end he stands defenceless before his god and mankind. Þorvaldur has by now discovered that Christianity is not the reproachless and blissful place where all men are equal. Christian men fight amongst themselves, go whoring and argue about politics just like the heathen ones. His knowledge of the era gives a nice snap-shot of the history of religion during the middle ages, arguments about icons and politics within the church, to mention only a couple of things. There is also a tug of war going on within Þorvaldur himself, the devils want to waylay his soul and sin is always an option, he is of two minds and doubts himself, he has not forgotten the self-important ambition that formed him in his youth, but still relies on the good in the world. "The story of each man is woven from two strings: You can see whence one of them comes from, we understand more than up to a point where it is headed in the woven material, the other hides its beginnings and plans from our senses, but this is the thread that makes the story unbelievable enough to make it worth while to commit it to paper." (11) It is first and foremost doubt that urges Þorvaldur on in his search. Þorvaldur, like Björn in Með kveðju frá Dublin, becomes embroiled in a major conflict of his time, the errand boy embroiled in the battles of both the worldly and ideological powers that be. With Björn, it is love that leads him this way, with Þorvaldur, it is the journey that brings him to love.
As was stated earlier, Þorvaldur Víðförli has many things in common with the Icelandic medieval manuscripts and echoes that tradition, but the scene of action has a greater scope and the ideological world is described from a different point of view. The style is more subjective and probably a lot less restricted although it is obviously geared towards the world as described in the book. Árni Bergmann is here not trying to write himself into the classical tradition as Halldór Laxness did with his book Gerpla, but gathers his material and atmosphere from a distant past and paints it in new strokes. The characters in Þorvaldur víðförli are many and so are the places he travels to. A great deal of the story takes place in Russia, a country well known to the author. His own experience of being a foreigner comes across well in this story, the experience of seeing the world with questions in your mind and looking for uncertain answers.
Árni Bergmann´s latest novel was published in 1999 and is called Sægreifi deyr [Death of a Fishing Baron]. It begins with German tourists who accompany the reader with a tour-guide on a trip to the farm where the story takes place. The reader gets a feel for the mystical surroundings, the craggy cliff faces are reminders of the settings of many of the stories in Norse mythology and local tales of trolls and hidden people. All of this has been "pepped up with sex" for the tourists. The tour-guide hints at the similarities of the phallic outcroppings of the cliffs and the well-endowed bodies of the Norse gods and adds that "tradition lives in innovation. Innovations live in the tradition". The innovative guide is Björn and he is one of the unlucky children of the main protagonist, Ólafur Björnsson the Fishing Baron, all the children are marked by the fact that the family business is about to collapse. The other brother, Gunnar, has impossible dreams of becoming a poet and a writer and the sister, Sigrún, is an alcoholic who hates her father (the brothers hate him as well, as a matter of fact). It is obvious that the fishing emporium will not be kept running with these heirs. The first chapter ends when a huge boulder falls from the cliff face above the farm, like the first crack in this tiny world which then continues to crumble little by little as the story continues. The suspense of the book is mainly embedded in how these conflicts will be resolved.
Árni Bergmann mentions many of the issues discussed in modern Icelandic society in Sægreifi deyr; the fishing quota, the habit of throwing small-sized fish back into the sea so as not to affect the quota, the new materialistic market economy craze, the sexualisation of everything and the attempts to boost the economy in rural areas, along with many other topics. Árni is faithful to the direction he took when he wrote his first novels, that is to use fiction to say something about the world and the things in it that could be improved. This book is, as in the other cases, in point far from being an endless social critique.
As in his other books the style is down to earth and the language used in most conversations and monologues is common and basic. The characters use English words and sentences and the author pokes fun at the jargon used in many institutions and the habit of inserting English words into the Icelandic language:
"Lífið á vera svona. Mutual exchange of adult needs. Gagnkvæm viðskipti á sviði þarfa? uppfylling gagnkvæmra þarfa fullþroska fólks, nei hvernig ætti að segja þetta?" (32) The narrator tends to follow the characters with a sort of monologue, he describes the characters by modelling his narration on the style of the character. Thus, the narrator can keep himself away from the story and has no other function than to convey the flow of events. This book is unlike earlier books by Árni Bergmann as it is structured like a play, the narrative is mostly conveyed by conversations and scenes in narrow and constricted spaces. There is no real climax in the story, the main subjects flow easily in a slow stream to end up clearly portrayed in the dialog of the characters. At the end of the story this world is closed down with a speech by the omniscient narrator, who not only has an overview of this world but also of characters who have popped up in the authors previous books: "Heimurinn endar með hvelli og gný eins og þegar Selatangar hurfu í hafið?" (198) [The world ends with a bang and a whiz just as when Selatangar disappeared into the ocean?]. Sægreifi deyr and Geirfuglarnir have many things in common, not just the situations and the atmosphere of a made-up village somewhere in Iceland, which in many ways is symbolic of the whole country, but also in subject matter and ideas expressed, the topical matters being discussed in Icelandic society. Thus it can be claimed that the circle is completed for now, the author steps forward to survey his work and the course of events in Icelandic society the past twenty years:
"En Álfheimar, ekki hverfa þeir með braki og brestum, það er ólíklegt, ef til vill heyrum við þaðan ráðvilltar stunur á stangli en ekki mikið meira. Ekki veit Hamarinn að steinn sem brotnar úr honum er hann sjálfur að hrynja." (198)
[But, the Hidden World, it will not disappear noisily, that is unlikely, we might possibly hear confused random groans being emitted from there, but that is all. The cliff is not aware that the stone falling from it is a sign of its own destruction].
The world may be perishing as it always is, but it is not very noticeable, almost a minor point. Life goes on, even if many things go wrong. Eternal regret, however, is still present, and it may well be the case that people miss something from a time when hotly debated matters were allowed to be just that instead of wilting away in a laisse faire numbness. In this book nothing ends with an almighty bang, but instead slowly falls to pieces but who knows, maybe things will turn out alright in the nick of time, and people will get to live their mediocre ways peacefully. Nikolai Erdmann´s play about the unlucky Semion does end with a bang like many of Árni Bergmann´s texts, but Semion himself escapes and gets to stumble along with his mundane fear of apocalypse and the fear that life and death are constantly in his own hands. There is an existential thread in all of Árni Bergmann´s books and the greatest question most of the time turns out to be how normal people manage in a difficult world, how they manage to successfully lead their lives in harmony with others. This is not easy and therefore rarely the case. At the end of Sægreyfi deyr the narrator comments on what is at hand, in that blend of carelessness and seriousness one finds so often in the author´s works:
Við fáum hugmyndir og við fylgjum þeim eftir með verkum, þetta er arfleið okkar, þetta er í genunum. Hér hafði einu sinni vetursetu frægasti útlagi Íslands, Grettir sterki, og hann var einmitt slíkur maður, hann stóð fyrir sínu. eins og Jean-Paul Sartre sagði þegar hann kom hingað til Álfheima: Grettir var existensíalisti. Hann gaf lífinu sínu tilgang og merkingu með markvissum athöfnum og það gerum við einnig, ekki síst nú þegar sjálft almanakið, sjálf tímans rás sendir okkur ögrun og brýningu og nýtt árþúsund fer í hönd.
[We get ideas and we follow them up with actions, this is our heritage, it is in the genes. One winter one of Iceland´s most famous outlaws stayed here, Grettir the strong, who was just such a man, he was a man of his words and like Jean-Paul Sartre said on his visit here to Álfheimar: Grettir was an existentialist. He gave meaning to his life with definite actions and so do we, not least now when the calendar itself, the flow of time itself, is sending us a challenge and urges us on as a new millennium approaches.]
© Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson, 2003
Translated by Dagur GunnarssonBack