The Eyes of Iceland: The Little Big Book about Iceland

When you look at the cover of Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson’s 2009 photography book, The Little Big Book about Iceland, it feels as if the book is looking back at you.

It’s the strangest sensation. If feels as if you’re looking into the icy blue and all-seeing, all-knowing eye of a prehistoric creature that has awoken from its sleep but remains calm and cool—and into the very depths of Iceland.

Turn the book around and another eye is staring at you from the back page, only this one is flaming red, angry, flaring—on fire. Iceland, the land of contrasts, red, blue, fire and ice. It’s a cliché that has been repeated too often yet is so true.

I wonder if this is the effect the photographer, famous for his popular books Lost in Iceland and Found in Iceland among others, aimed to achieve with his choice of photographs for the front and back cover or if I’m reading too much into it.

They are really just aerial photographs a volcanic crater lake and what at first glance appears to be an erupting volcano, but is probably just red clay.

Where they were taken exactly I wish I could tell you with absolute certainty, but I can’t. This book namely has a huge flaw—captions with place names are missing.

Perhaps it was decided to leave them out due to lack of space; the book really is small, 9×9 centimeters. Or perhaps captions are lacking for pure artistic reasons and to add a layer of mystery. I get that. But even if it is a work of art, people will want to visit the places portrayed in it.

However, concerns that the photographs cannot be fully enjoyed because of the book’s petite size can be put aside. This format works perfectly, with primarily panoramic photographs covering each spread. Plus, it’s handy. A miniature dream.

The photographs are quite diverse. They’re shots of landscapes and natural phenomena, mostly, which, by definition, are diverse when it comes to Iceland.

But the book also features towns and villages, natives and tourists, animals, traditions and even history: there are some photographs of the volcanic eruption in the Westman Islands in 1973. Overall, it’s a good overview and a good representation of Icelandic nature and culture.

However, the chapters are a bit disorganized. There are chapters for each region, north, south, east, west, the West Fjords and the interior—which is fine—but they are given unequal weight with a different number of photographs in each chapter.

Maybe I’m being overly obsessive and organized, but I would have wanted to represent each region equally. Purely for reasons of symmetry, if nothing else.

The subchapters also seem a bit random, the Golden Circle, the Westman Islands, Vatnajökull National Park…. I get the feeling that the photographs in this book—despite being good—are the leftovers, so to speak. Photographs from Sigurjónsson’s collection that didn’t end up in any other book.

That said, all of these photographs are admirable in their own right. Being small and light, The Little Big Book is a clever gift idea, a little slice of Iceland. It’s not even a trailer, but a teaser, announcing a soon-to-be premiered blockbuster.

The premiere, of course, is when you travel to Iceland one day and look at all of these places with your own eyes (although you might encounter some difficulties locating them).

Until then, you can use this book to dream about Iceland and travel there in your mind—experience the country through the eyes of the lens and eyes of Iceland.

The Little Big Book about Iceland by Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson, published by Forlagid in 2009, can be ordered on the publisher’s website, forlagid.is.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

A Tragic Comedy: Angels of the Universe

One of the most successful contemporary Icelandic novels is Angels of the Universe by Einar Már Gudmundsson, originally published as Englar alheimsins in 1993. It has melted the hearts of critics around the globe, as has the filmed version, released in 2000.

The film was directed by Fridrik Thór Fridriksson and cast the elite of Icelandic male actors at the time, Baltasar Kormákur, Ingvar E. Sigurdsson, Hilmir Snaer Gudnason and Björn Jörundur Fridbjörnsson, which helped raise the profile of the novel considerably.

Angels of the Universe, which won the 1995 Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, is personal to Gudmundsson. It recites the tragic story of his mentally ill brother, who died one year before the book was published. However, you never feel Gudmundsson’s presence; he remains in the background.

The storyteller is Páll, a fictional character who represents Gudmundsson’s brother. He shares his experience with readers of how the mentally ill were treated in Iceland in the latter part of the 20th century and, despite the book’s fictional elements, it provides a valuable historical account of Reykjavík’s mental asylum Kleppur.

The life that goes on at Kleppur, as hopeless as it may be, has a humorous undertone, not unlike Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, primarily because of all the shenanigans that the inmates think of and get into.

Even though Angels of the Universe is based on a true story, it is also surreal. Páll narrates the story of his life from the day he was born, March 30, 1949—when the infamous anti-NATO riots took place on Austurvöllur parliamentary square—and continues until his dying day.

However, the narration also precedes his birth and exceeds his death. The storyline jumps back and forth in time and brushes against mythical elements, yet is never difficult to follow.

There are two things that I’ve always liked about Gudmundsson as an author, ever since I read his debut novel Riddarar hringstigans (“Knights of the Round Staircase”—it hasn’t been published in English) while I was still in elementary school:

Firstly, much like fellow author Einar Kárason, Gudmundsson often tells the story of the reality that he grew up in: Reykjavík in the process of modernization.

We meet people who have moved from the countryside to make a better life for themselves in the capital and work hard to make ends meet while their children play unobserved on construction sites and get into all sorts of trouble. Families live huddled together under poor conditions in soggy cellars and abandoned army barracks.

Secondly, Gudmundsson has a very likable style of writing. The language is beautiful, often poetic. The text flows effortlessly; it’s impressive without being pretentious. He can be both melancholic and funny without over dramatization.

By describing the characters’ thoughts and state of mind, Gudmundsson manages to draw a very clear picture of their surroundings, what they observe and feel.

In many ways, Angels of the Universe is a comedy, but a tragic comedy like Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. It describes a harsh and extremely dark reality, yet focuses on the few rays of sunlight that peer through the clouds.

In my book that kind of literature deserves much more credit and is no less credible than novels that are depressingly gloomy throughout—it makes the story bearable to process.

Yet I wouldn’t recommend Angels of the Universe for its entertainment value only—it wasn’t a book that I was unable to put down unlike certain crime novels—but because it actually leaves the reader with something. It teaches one a lot about Icelandic history and culture and most importantly, human compassion.

Angels of the Universe was re-released in English in 2008. It is available on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk and on the website of the publisher, Forlagid. Email [email protected] if you have any questions. The movie is available here.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir

Realistically Surreal: The Blue Fox by Sjón

Sigurjón Birgir Sigurdsson, better known as Sjón, is a postmodern artist in his own right, novelist, poet and lyricist. His persona is connected with the kind of artistic flair that I tend to categorize as pretentious.

Internationally, he is perhaps best known for having written the lyrics to some of Björk’s songs. He even received an Oscar nomination in 2001 for his lyrics to “I’ve Seen it All” from Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark.

I had never read one of his books before, but heard that they were both surreal and complicated, which is why I expected not to like The Blue Fox. I was so afraid that my negative expectations would blur my objective thinking that I was hesitant to even pick it up.

But, as it happens, Sjón is full of surprises.

The book begins inside the mind of a poor scared female fox who is being hunted. Describing her feelings, the surroundings, the weather and the hunter with only a few carefully-chosen words, Sjón brings his readers to the cold snowy mountains of an Icelandic winter. The words flow like a poem and are so realistic that you can almost feel the snow blow down your shirt.

Then the perspective shifts, revealing the hunter’s thoughts, examining the shadows of his mind and his dark intentions. Nothing can keep him away from his prey. After playing this game of hide and seek for some time, I began to wonder for how long this can go on, without getting boring, that is.

Just then the story takes an unexpected turn. Suddenly, readers are taken a few days back in time to the peaceful countryside. Another man is introduced, a farmer and an herbalist, who with stoic calm is making a coffin for a loved one who has passed away, handing it over to the local priest’s mentally-disabled servant.

Little by little, the reader learns more about these two main characters, the hunter, who is also the priest, and the herbalist, and how they’re stories are intertwined. It’s a short book and therefore a simple story, one might think, but there is much more to it.

The Blue Fox recounts beautifully the eternal struggle between human wickedness and compassion. Despite being short there is quite a lot of story between the two covers, because much can be read between the lines.

It contains both realistic and surreal elements—in a way in which the surrealism makes sense in this alternate reality—and references are made to folk-stories and books by authors such as Nobel Prize laureate Halldór Laxness.

The story is set in the late 19th century when Iceland was primarily a nation of poor, uneducated farmers over which preachers had a stronghold through religion. It provides a portal into the Icelandic existence before the nation began its quick-paced journey into modernism.

The book is written in the style of romantic nationalism, which had just awakened among Icelanders at that time, with a new sense of national identity and fight for independence. Similarly, Sjón’s use of language is deliberately dated. But it is also refreshingly original considering that most of today’s authors seem to think originality lies in slang.

Sjón engages in intricate wordplay such that much must be lost in translation. The original title, for example, is Skugga-Baldur, which is a malicious creature from Icelandic folklore, half cat, half fox, but in the story it is also the name of one of the main characters, Rev. Baldur Skuggason, the fox hunter.

Originally published by Bjartur in 2003, The Blue Fox earned Sjón the 2005 Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. This year, after being released in English, the book received a nomination for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The winner will be announced in May.

Whether The Blue Fox deserves to win, I cannot say, but it certainly deserves to be read. Contrary to my expectations, this is not a work of pretension at all, although I would have preferred if it had delved a bit deeper into the storyline at times and left a little less for the reader to guess. However, because of these gaps, I imagine it could spark quite interesting discussions at book circles.

The English version is available here. The book has also been translated into a host of other languages.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir