Berglind Steinsdóttir: When do you do the right thing?
A sense of justice. Loners. Finality. Still-life images. Silent. A quick read. All of these words and phrases aptly describe the works of Eysteinn Björnsson, works that total three novels and two books of poetry. The author has much to convey and he wants to tell us stories, for their own sake and stories he thinks are of some importance to the reader. And I agree with him.
The main theme of the novels centers on how the main characters battle with their inner selves. Halldór in Bergnuminn (Petrified) is battling with his addiction; Gunnar in Snæljós (Snowlight) with his immoral self and Páll in Í skugga heimsins (In the Shadow of the World) is fighting a battle with evil itself, incarnate as a vicar in The Church of Iceland. They all want to do the right thing and often they do not doubt themselves. They all have terrible childhood memories, to say the least, especially Halldór and Gunnar. And there, they fight a losing battle since not many things can subdue the subjective in the imagination or in one´s own memories.
The books of poetry also investigate childhood and nature. These books are a man´s acknowledged ode to those who raised him. Countryside and village crop up in lifelike images, they come alive and stay alive on the page, images from the middle of the last century which in time are not far away but in ideas so distant. So much has changed since 1950, especially for those who have been uprooted and have had to move from their place of origin. So many things change in all our lives as we progress from childhood to the teenage years and when we have to take full responsibility for our own lives. The books of poetry build a bridge between these two worlds. Here we are at the beginning of the twenty first century, we peer across the bridge and get an insight into the quiet farming community´s way of life which was coming to an end.
Bergnuminn, (Petrified) 1989
Halldór is a gambling addict. At a glance his life seems normal; he is around forty, married to Hulda, has a nine year old son and a five year old daughter, works in a bank, has a loving sister who lives in their childhood home up north and he enjoys to play a couple of hands with his chums. Is there anything wrong with this list? Not a thing - except it is deceptive and far from being complete. He cannot lay off the gambling and spends money that does not belong to him, it belongs to the innocent and thrifty customers of the bank, and his friends are only his gambling friends. He drove his sister Kristín away when she scolded him for wasting his life, he blames his childhood for everything that has gone wrong in his life, the marriage is heading for disaster and his children hardly recognise him when they see him. Is there anything unusual about this picture? Not necessarily so. Many have similar stories to tell. Soon we find out that he has a mistress in his work place - no, I am not talking about his work because signatures and paper shuffling do not appeal to him - he has a relationship with a colleague called Dagný.
A lot is at stake in this book. Halldór does not have a chip on his shoulder, he has many. He has many painful memories of his father who pressured him with threats and never said a kind word to him, he then died so suddenly that they never managed to talk and make up. Halldór grows up with the burden of the awful knowledge that he is not up to scratch and is irresponsible to boot. He does not carry the burden very well and instead of growing stronger from the challenge he bends more and more. The forty-year-old Halldór, whom the readers are introduced to, is about to collapse from his heavy burden, but keeps telling himself that he is in control of his life. The main part of the story unfolds in less than a week. Friday the 7th of July four things happen at once, either due to incredible coincidences or because the wicked witches of fate weave their threads together that specific day. The story leans toward the latter and the magical women are constantly surfacing in the story in the shape of fate in female form; lady luck, gambling nymphs, the queen of clubs, seducing women and an elf queen. The last one on that list gives wings to the alleged elf-belief in the Icelandic psyche, and Halldór is at the very least a believer when he dreams of the elf queen holding the threads of his fate. Maybe it is his own wife, Hulda (the name means roughly "hidden or mysterious woman")? Anyway, this particular day the following takes place: Halldór draws a much-wanted queen of clubs in a game of cards; Dagný rekindles her romance with Haraldur Þór and decides to drop Halldór. Hrönn his daughter falls and hurts herself which puts Hulda back at the emotional beginning of the marriage and people at the bank find out that Halldór has been embezzling funds - money he meant to return, and by another coincidence he was just winning enough to return the embezzled money by way of the queen of clubs.
And this is where the title of the book comes to play Bergnuminn (Petrified). Halldór turns to stone when things come home to roost; he is swallowed by the mountains near his childhood home. We do not know if he has hope of a resurrection, if Hulda settles for his explanations, if he himself settles for his own explanations or if he is doomed to eternal petrification. A mountain spider weaves a slimy net to catch the flies - is Halldór a spider or a fly? The reader has to work that one out for himself.
Dagnætur (Light Nights), 1993
From the both the novels and the books of poetry it is clear that the author is a great lover of nature and poetry - although the reader understands this on his own terms and needs not to take the author´s point of view. In the novels there are many instances where nature is dwelt upon, even more often than required by the plot or contents of the books, and it is always portrayed in clear and beautiful tableaus. Mostly nature echoes the mood of the characters but sometimes it is visible mainly for its own sake. The tableaus get more attention in the poems; the colourful and lush nature is at the centre. Lets take a look at the poem "Á Jónsmessu" ("On Midsummer´s Night"), page 14:
Þegar döggin er hrein
finnast í fjallinu
þegar raddir fuglanna
þræða sér nálaraugu
inn í ilmbjarta nóttina
og fiskarnir koma
upp úr vatninu
til þess að gráta
(When the dew is clean
when wishing stones
can be found on the mountain
weaves a needle´s eye
into the fragrant night
and the fish surface
out of the lake
Here we have an allusion to the folklore of wishing stones - many have dreamt of finding a wishing stone and changing everything with one wish, not least in order to catch the eye of someone. The birds squeak in high tones and try to persuade us but the squeaks sneak rather than jump and only the fish disturb the silence. Their behaviour is askew to normal fish behaviour, they cry and thus send ripples through the tableau.
The theme of the book seems to be nature and childhood memories and the landscape of the memories is quite dark. This is similar to his other work where childhood seems to be a burden, parents are mere shadows of good role models, support is absent and all encouragement is of the negative kind. Encouragement does not necessarily lead to good things, sometimes the heart seems awfully cold and sometimes the veins seem empty of blood.
Morbidity comes to play and the narrator allows himself to drift. Edith Piaf´s "Non, je ne regrette rien" sounds, but the narrator is full of regret precisely as Piaff professed not to be. He regrets his inactivity rather than actions. He is motionless, keeps himself to himself, he is not active, at the most stands at the sidelines and observes from afar. And hardly even that. There are more references, e.g. "Ég elska þig sumarnótt" (I love you summer night) (in the poem Við Hólmavatn (By Lake Hólmavatn) page 15) which echoes the stormy poem by Hannes Hafstein, "Ég elska þig, stormur" (I love you, storm) where Hafstein praises the elements. Also in "Komi þeir/sem koma vilja" (Enter those/who enter will) (In the poem Í ljósaskiptunum, (In the twilight) page 38) where the narrator still waits, neutral.
War is declared on happiness, e.g. in Andrúm (A space to breathe) (page 50): "hamingjan er flatneskja" (Happiness is a wasteland) and declared to be far from desirable. Pain is nobler, but a sad state to be in. It matters not which boil is pricked everything is worthless and hollow.
Snæljós, (Snowlight) 1996
The fight between the good guy and the bad guy takes up a big chunk of Snæljós. Gunnar is a very responsible and busy architect. Hilmar, his colleague, is a whimsier character and later it transpires, not a very proud person. He uses people. On page 166 Hilmar says: "I owe all my success in life to the fact that I have thoroughly ignored all ethical nonsense. I do not give two hoots for conscience and ethics". Gunnar on the other hand does not and he is Mr. Ethics himself. Nothing is further from him than to treat people badly in any way. That is why the dam breaks when he kills a man. How can that happen to someone who has always tried to do the right thing, toe the straight and narrow path of a careful, thorough and righteous man who always makes sure he makes the right decisions?
He is burdened by painful childhood memories, which make him the person we see portrayed in the book. Brandur, his childhood friend, killed a cat with a hot skewer having hurt it badly first making it a painful read (in chapter 3). That incident stirred up a great sense of justice in Gunnar. The (cat) episode still pales in comparison with the event that makes Gunnar an outcast from the family soon after he started high school. Even if the reader soon starts to suspect what is going on, I feel that it is not fair to give the plot away, it is a turning point in the life of that family. It follows Gunnar and burdens him throughout. When his life is threatened, (this happens) twice in the book, he thinks he might be better off by ending the misery. What does Gunnar live for?
Gunnar has always had a difficult relationship with his father, the vicar, who is ruthless and pushes his two children, Gunnar and Sveinbjörg, to do things he deems to be good. The clergyman is without doubt well meaning but he is not good at encouragement. He tries to stimulate their ambition and willingness to study and pushes them to be adamant about their future careers and to soldier on down their chosen path. But everything he tells them gets taken the wrong way and they look for support in each other. Their mother acts as a buffer and manages sometimes to rescue bad situations but her contribution is rarely more than that. Gunnar and Sveinbjörg get on well with each other and need no one else - which is the result in the main from their tragedy.
His childhood follows the middle part of the twentieth century. When Gunnar reaches his late teens they all move to the capital "for the children´s sake". The children do not appreciate this in any way, but the ecclesiastical father has the power and the glory, amen. And it is possible that the father reaches his goal, because the children do very well in their studies and later in their chosen careers, the son as an architect and the daughter as a physician. But that does not mean happiness. The private lives of both siblings are in tatters. They can in no way connect with other people despite many attempts on their part. They exist each in their loneliness and try to compensate with successful careers. For both of them work is a substitute for family life, friends and interests. Would daddy, the old vicar, have celebrated the fact that the family line grinds to a halt? By the end of the book the secret takes on a new and, it has to be said, a surprising shape.
Snæljós is like Bergnuminn a dark and sad story about people who have shut themselves away from society. The setting is quite different but the loneliness and sadness is to a great extent the same. Halldór suffers hardship in his youth, Gunnar is beaten as a child - and what prey, could be the fate of Páll in the next book?
Images from nature are also used here to represent people´s feelings, e.g. when Sveinbjörg cries at the end of the book: "And then she started to cry. A low and clear sound which echoed throughout his soul and he visualised a mountain brook burbling from underneath aprons of snow and across green moss. Falling, jumping, skipping from one ledge to another down the slopes. It became a river which ran, quiet and deep between high cliffs" (page 188-9). For some reason there is little sorrow in that cry. And it is questionable whether Gunnar and Sveinbjörg have found peace in their souls.
Fylgdu mér slóð, (Follow me, trail) 1998
The author keeps on projecting images from a long gone past, from the time when life seems to have stood still and eggs had not been laid. The past is golden and the countryside lures and attracts. A river streams on, sometimes upstream, the golden plover sings, father and son or grandfather and grandson walk along the seashore and even if death claims to come between (them), it is pointless because
...vera muntu með mér
umlykur okkur báða
(Förunautur, page 21)
(...thou wilt stay with me
until the ground
envelops us both
(Travel companion, page 21))
Madness is touched upon as a desirable characteristic. It is so tiring to be sensible:
friðarvana lengst af
hinn viti borni maður
þær tíðir munu upp renna
að hann stendur við ysta haf
gerðu mig brjálaðan aftur
(Ákall, page 34)
(Shackled in understanding
the knowledgeable human
time will come
when he stands at the ocean´s edge
make me crazy again
(A prayer, page 34))
It does not take much insight to connect the shouting person in this poem to Páll in the next book; he cries alone in the desert. But when is a man mad and when are all those around him mad? Who is more comfortable, the mad or the sane? It is so easy to drift...
Í skugga heimsins, (In the shadow of the world) 1999
The plot revolves around Páll´s sense of justice, society´s neglect, and the reader´s reaction to Páll´s efforts and prison conditions - to name but a few aspects. This list only covers the most prominent things.
Tax evasion, drinking, gang rape, homosexuality, suicide, and broken hearts, all play a part, not to mention criticism of the school system and the school authorities´ abuse of power and above all speculations on mental health. When is a person mentally ill and when is a person not mentally ill? When is the impulse to act to be found in one´s own sick mind and when is it the all-encompassing corruption that calls for actions? Is it up to society to answer that, possibly the police or the clergy? Vicars in literature have traditionally been suspect characters, and literature is littered with lapsed vicars who are no angels and want to grab everything for themselves, land and cash alike. There are equally many powerless maids impregnated by them and then the whole affair was blamed on hapless farmhands because the vicars where too high and mighty to acknowledge the offspring. Here, one could also mention the witch hunts and burnings instigated by vicars when certain members of their (or some other) congregation did not behave according to their liking.
In this work Páll takes up the fight against vicars who accept wages from their congregations without declaring them to the taxman. It has been said that this goes on in all professions. People do a bit of undeclared work and it is kept silent because "everybody" does it. But vicars are not supposed to do what "everybody" does, they are supposed to show a good example, lead the way for others to follow.
Before we go further I want to air the opinion that I feel that there are too many things tackled in this book. Too many items get too little space, as can be seen in the listing above. The plot suffers - abortion is weaved into the latter half of the book, then suicide is mixed in with homosexuality and a fiery declaration of love. The whole emotional spectrum is on the boil and the reader knows not what to think or feel. On the other hand the story does raise issues and makes you think. Are people too lazy to have ideals? Doesn´t anyone have the energy to fight injustice? Were Icelanders and still are too sluggish and slow to meet a challenge? Páll is a twenty-year-old high school student when his sense of justice makes itself thoroughly known, he is pushed beyond the point of no return. At the time the principal of the college is trying to coerce one of the students to sign a declaration that states that we the Icelandic nation want Denmark to return some medieval manuscripts. The student has an opinion in the matter but the principal ignores it and does not let the student enjoy his upbringing and independence. Páll hears himself protest much to his own surprise. He is as startled as everybody else. Páll is driven from this college but is admitted in another through a recommendation of some good people. At that point I had trouble believing that he would have such a hard time finding another college because of comments made by the principal. However, the year was 1970 and not as many colleges on offer and maybe principals indulged in expelling students with minds of their own. While he makes his mind up whether he wants to remain in a college run by this principal, he considers the consequences of leaving it. He is from the west of Iceland and the college is in the north. He cannot rely on any support from his family, neither moral nor financial. He has to stand on his own two feet and they better not be shaky. He chooses to make all decisions based on his conviction (of right and wrong). He lands on his feet and takes his final exams in a college in Reykjavík. He is bookish, gets good grades, but is on his own and a loner in the society (he finds) outside the books. Much to his surprise he gets a job he likes, in the offices of the National Theatre. Next he experiences the injustice of a vicar against a deceased member of the congregation who cannot defend himself and all hell breaks loose.
A sense of justice is a theme running through the book and at closer inspection it can often be noticed in the authors entire body of work.
Páll is a repeatedly self-elected preacher of truth and justice. He is going to expose the Church of Iceland. Every time two paths present themselves he stops to ponder. He wonders whether it is worth it to refuse to sign the declaration stating that he has stopped harassing the vicar, whether he should look the other way for love´s sake, what is self-respect worth if it completely rules out happiness. Or does the happiness of Páll come with his self-respect? Each time he comes to the conclusion that he cannot betray himself, his conviction and truth. Each time he carries on regardless. This is, I maintain, the strong element of this book. Every time Páll carries on regardless the reader finds himself doubting whether it is the right course of action. Is he crazy? Or are the vicars terribly bad people? Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The great boon of this book is that the characters are not black and white, not standardised, but people of flesh and blood. They are not necessarily normal people, but people you sometimes like and sometimes do not like, people who think and sometimes do the right thing and sometimes quite the opposite, people who might work in the same place as us. Thankfully the spectrum is varied and all flowers have the right to blossom. I am not sure I agree with the methods of Páll or even his ideas of the course of justice but that is neither here nor there. And I can see what he means. Páll sees himself as a chosen one but the reader is not so sure. I can understand the disbelief of the policemen when Páll refuses to come to terms with them based on their ideology. I can understand people´s doubts when faced with a man prepared to keep on battling on his own. I understand. But I may not agree. And maybe the idea will stay with me forever. At this point I cannot tell.
I do know, that neither do I believe in the superficial harshness of the vicar nor in the harshness of the college principal earlier on. Are men not better at hiding their roughshoding and their lies, better at hiding their inner selves? Can it really be that the best way for Páll to protest and register his complaints is to show up at mass by hook or by crook to shout at the vicar? Is there no way within the system to reach the ears of those in charge? Do all these ears belong to corrupt men in power? I swing between extremes in my attitude to this book and that (in itself) must show that it was not written for nothing.
Good stories echo other stories, their present time and even immediate future. This story nods to stories of corrupt men of power, stories of conscientious objectors and stories of willingness to fight.
Was not the willingness to fight a typical characteristic of Bjartur í Sumarhúsum (the protagonist of Independent People by Halldór Laxness)? Icelanders are known to be slow to meet challenges - we let everything wash over us, complain a bit in the comfort of our kitchens, but then do not take a public stance, do not demand that promises are kept, and do not demand a responsible attitude, do not demand progress, demand nothing besides the peace to grumble quietly with a cup of coffee. These grumblers are the contemporaries of Páll in Í skugga heimsins, but perhaps they would have behaved differently 30 years later. Perhaps someone would join in with Páll today.
Steinn Steinarr (Icelandic poet) is almost a participant in this story. The title is almost his and a stanza from his collection of poems comes before each chapter, mostly about justice. I think I speak for many people when I state that Steinn Steinarr wrote many humorous poems about the wrongdoings of the world against himself. It is very easy to fall for his poetic style and therefore it is no wonder that he is made co-author of this book, which concentrates its gaze first and foremost on the fight for justice.
Realism is the main style of the novels and it slows the narrative down, especially in Í skugga heimsins. The exactitude is sometimes overpowering when everyday events are described although the narrative does bear it up most of the time. It is not easy to choose an example because they are best understood in context. In Bergnuminn and Snæljós the narrative jumps from one time plane to another, but in Í skugga heimsins it is linear. In the two first-mentioned books it serves a purpose as the main character´s life is very much coloured by their childhood whereas in the third book Páll´s character develops more in the linear time of the story.
Halldór in Bergnuminn and Gunnar in Snæljós are shadows of Páll in Í skugga heimsins, although different all three, they all have one thing in common, the want to do the right thing. They are specifically keen on that. Halldór has strayed the most because he is hooked on playing cards, a true addict, but he realises what his weaknesses are before the end (of the book) and he wants to do the right thing, atone in a Christian manner for his sins. Gunnar is marked by a difficult upbringing which pushes him, rather than not, to walk the straight and narrow path all the way to heaven. Not only is he a hard worker and not much of a hedonist but he also wants to see the good in the sinner Hilmar, his friend at work for many years. Gunnar is such a holy person that he tries to grant Hilmar forgiveness for all his sins, and then commits the ultimate sin himself, twice rather than once. He has struggled so much all his life that in the end he finds himself without any foundations. His life crumbles, but he does not see it. Páll is the final image of the other two. Up until his twenties he is just a friendless loner, does not know if he chooses to be on his own or if others choose not to be with him. Around twenty his life takes a sharp turn, and he is filled with fierce enthusiasm and heightened sense of justice that to begin with he knows not what he is up against. He means well with his new ideology but is not liked by most of those around him. People do not like and do not want any deviants. His views are disturbing and he upsets people.
The text in all the books is straightforward and free of complications and the narrative is always easy to read. I still raise a question mark when it comes to the use of formal address which pops up every once in a while in Í skugga heimsins. There is no coherence in the use of it, the principal of the college uses the formal address when addressing Páll but not the other students, a policeman uses the formal address when speaking to Páll on one occasion but not on others and there are other examples of this. The story ends at a time before the use of formal address became obsolete and the use of it surely creates a certain distance, but if the varied use of it serves any purpose it has completely escaped me. I found this to be a flaw, a rather small one, in a very interesting work that easily gets the reader thinking about what is worth fighting for.
I find it to be a good thing that the author has something to say, that he sits himself down in front of a keyboard or pulls out a writing pad in a café because a story wants to be let out. At the same time it can be bad for the storyteller to have too much cramming for attention, the words get in each other´s way, the ideas serve a given conclusion rather than themselves. Justice and fairness, to let the guilty pay for their sins, to let each and everyone follow their own conviction is the estuary which the whole work of Eysteinn Björnsson aims to flow to, firmly and at times slowly but surely in the same stream.
© Berglind Steinsdóttir, 2002
Translated by Dagur GunnarssonBack