Resilient Cold Spell in Iceland

snowmay12011-kjos02_pkMay had a warm start in Iceland but then the weather cooled with windy conditions and snowfall in the north and east of the country. Rising temperatures are forecast for Iceland in the coming days but perhaps not as high as people would have liked.

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Analysis of Iceland Ash, Flight Disruptions Over Soon

grimsvotn-ash02_helgajonsThe ash emitted by the Grímsvötn volcano is very fine, although it is coarser than the ash from Eyjafjallajökull last year, as revealed by testing of the first samples. It appears as if disturbances to flights to and from Iceland are history, although the ash won’t stop bothering other nations just yet.

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The Magic of Seal Woman

The copy of Seal Woman by Solveig Eggerz, an Iceland-born journalist and professor of writing and research, had me spellbound as soon as I saw it lying on my desk.

The mystical cover, the title referencing one of the most touching Icelandic folk stories and the prospect of a thrilling historical novel—my favorite type of literature—reciting the story of German women who moved to Iceland to work on farms in the late 1940s. I have often wondered about their fate.

As I started reading, Eggerz kept me glued to the pages through the thoughts of Charlotte. A war widow of the worst kind, husband and child perished, her memories haunt her where she has made a new life for herself on a rugged island far from the bustling streets of pre-war Berlin. She has no one to talk to so she speaks to us. It almost feels as if we’re reading her diary.

An artist by education and nature, Charlotte’s hands are now busy with hard routine farm work but although she is tired from the repetitiveness of it all, the harsh weather, isolation and dark winters, she can’t bring herself to paint—the feeling for color lost.

Eggerz’s style is flowing and poetic and the descriptions vivid. I could picture myself walking through the streets of Berlin, following the young happy Charlotte and her passionate lover, paying attention to the same details they do. They watch everything through the eyes of artists and indeed their world feels like a moving painting.

The story is split in two parts, Germany and Iceland, as is Charlotte’s life. I found the German part almost perfect. I could feel and breathe her joy which then turned to pain; I could sense the rising tension in society and the resistance and later apathy towards the horrors of the war.

The only thing I would have changed was the intensity of the sexual references. I can see their importance in describing a passionate relationship and the atmosphere in the city before the war but were they really necessary outside those sections of the story, for example, when going to an interview for art school?

I did not connect as much with the Iceland part of the story, even though that world should be closer to me. The descriptions of life on the farm and its inhabitants seemed valid enough, albeit old-fashioned. That was the reality back then, especially on the remoter farms as I assume Charlotte’s was.

It took me a while to figure out what bothered me until I realized it was all so intangible. Where was the farm exactly? On a hill but close to the shore is all we get. Sometimes I imagined it was in the northeast, then I figured in must be on the southern coast but I couldn’t really place it anywhere.

Imaginary places are all right in novels, as are real or half-real places with pseudonyms, which is common in novels by Halldór Laxness and Jón Kalmann.

But I don’t think it’s fitting when one part of a novel describes a European metropolis down to street names but the other part a mysterious Icelandic countryside with farm names like Butterdale and Dark Castle, which don’t sound authentic at all.

I also would have wished a stronger reference to the seal woman of the folk story, whose fate definitely rhymes with that of Charlotte, which was only mentioned briefly in an amended version.

Summarized, it goes like this:

One morning on a stroll along the shore a man noticed people partying inside a cave and a pile of seal pelts outside. He grabbed one, brought it home and locked it inside a chest.

Later in the day he walked back to the cave and saw a beautiful naked woman crying. It was the seal whose pelt he had stolen.

The man brought the woman home and gave her clothes. She stayed with him but wouldn’t socialize with others and often stared at the sea.

They had many children and were happy but the man always kept the pelt locked in the chest and carried the key with him wherever he went.

Many years later he forgot the key at home and when he returned the chest was open and the pelt gone.

The woman had not resisted the urge, put on the pelt, bid her children farewell and dived into the sea. As she disappeared, she said: “I’m torn. I have seven children in the sea and seven on land.”

The man was devastated but when he rowed to the sea a seal often swam around his boat and it was as if it cried. He always got a good catch from then on.

When their children walked along the shore, a seal often swam in the surf and tossed multicolored fish and beautiful shells in their direction but it never returned to land.

These few points of criticism aside, I read the book feverishly until the very end and Eggerz left me hungry for more. She is a magician with words and I sincerely recommend her work.

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Seal Woman was published by Ghost Road Press in the USA in 2008. It is available on amazon.com.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sigurbjörg – To Bleed Straight

I’m not much into poetry. At least not modern poetry where everything is fleeting, nothing rhymes, there is no rhythm and no obvious meaning. Unless there is some very clever wordplay, maybe. I have nothing against it; it’s just not for me.

Sigurbjörg Thrastardóttir is among Iceland’s most accomplished young poets, apparently. I’m ashamed to admit that I had never heard of her until I was given a copy of to bleed straight, a collection of her poetry with English translations by Bernard Scudder and illustrations by Marta María Jónsdóttir, published by JPG in 2008.

Born in 1973, Thrastardóttir’s poems have appeared in magazines and poetry collections in Germany, Scotland, Italy and Sweden, among other countries, her plays have been staged in theaters in Iceland and in 2002 she won the Tómas Gudmundsson Literary Prize for her novel Sólar saga.

I’m not sure what to make of to bleed straight. Most of all, I’m impressed by Scudder’s translations of words and sentences that appear out of the blue and lead nowhere (except I don’t get why líma (“glue”) was translated as “lima” (“weather ship” p. 26-37).

I’m not very patient when it comes to interpreting poetry and I think I better leave it to other readers. I guess the book is open to anyone’s interpretation and readers can find meaning in the poems even though it isn’t related to the author’s original train of thought.

Blood is clearly an issue, as the title reveals, perhaps menstrual blood, given the talk of bloody crotch stains (“epilogue IV” p. 72-73). Which I found a little gross, actually, and maybe that was the way I was supposed to feel while reading it.

There is also some talk of impregnation and wishful thinking (“being fertilized” p. 14-15), so I can’t help but think some of these poems are deeply personal, reminiscent of an existential crisis, the ticking of a biological clock? Or maybe just a metaphor for inspiration?

Many of the poems are rather depressing, like “laekjargata” (p. 18-19): “…your stomach tightens; and your heart; no one; seems to recognize you; you often go astray; in the house, pour away the fun; and flowers grow in your hair; while you die”.

There is also some talk of murder (“murder story” p. 38-39) and suicide (“bologna” p. 42-43), and while other poems have happier elements: “i can hear even better and; better the grass growing; i watch over the dandelion clocks” (“grow up” p. 62-63), suddenly surgical knives appear out of nowhere.

Some poems are rather funny with references to Icelandic traditions like eating too much on New Year’s Eve and then watching Áramótaskaupid, the New Year’s comedy sketch (“staying together (special)” p. 68-69), yet there is a sense of loneliness throughout the book.

Except maybe in the poems that recite traveling where “I” becomes “we” (“cape canaveral” p. 44-45).

I like the poems the most where there is no self reflection but rather social commentary, both in Iceland (“immigrant/june” p. 50-51) and abroad (“arabia” p. 52-53).

The latter is pretty straightforward: “woman, get dressed; this instant; here is neither the place; nor the time for flesh; you’re lucky to be able to go unseen”.

Thrastardóttir’s poems vary in topic if not form and I’m missing a red thread, the straight blood, so to speak. I don’t know where she’s going, is it a complete work of poetry or simply a coincidental collection? Maybe it doesn’t matter but it confuses me—perhaps the author’s intention.

There is certainly a lot of content in this small book and although I favor classic poets like Jónas Hallgrímsson that’s not to say others won’t enjoy Thrastardóttir’s work and might quite possibly get something totally different out of it than I did.

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to bleed straight is available online in the University of Iceland student bookstore. For enquires, email: [email protected].

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

Tourism Reps in South Iceland Remain Optimistic

glaciertour-myrdalsjokull_psFarmers who offer accommodation and tour operators for travelers in south Iceland have hardly received any cancellations for June and say that tourism this summer looks good. Trips have been organized to Skaftafell and the glaciers Mýrdalsjökull and Vatnajökull, among other locations.

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