101 Reykjavík by Hallgrímur Helgason, originally published in Iceland in 1996 and the English-language market in 2002, was recently republished in Germany, where Iceland will be the guest of honor at the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair.
As I had never read this modern Icelandic classic, I thought this would be a good opportunity to do so. My expectations were rather high as I’ve heard people rave about this book ever since its publication.
Helgason’s novel became an instant hit on the domestic market and an international hit after the film 101 Reykjavík, which is based on the book, was released in 2000 and helped raise the book’s profile.
The film’s popularity changed 101 Reykjavík from simply being a postcode to being a brand, helped promote the “wild” Icelandic nightlife and turn the city center into a desirable place for international bohemians.
However, the 101 Reykjavík Helgason describes in his book is anything but a desirable place to live. To me, at least.
It is the place where the main character, unemployed thirty-something loser Hlynur, thrives. He lives with his mother, who is a lesbian, and spends his days channel surfing, watching porn, jerking off, chatting on the internet and hanging around in bars.
Hlynur is as uninteresting as a person could be, unfit for being the central focus of a novel, were it not for the crazy situations he gets caught up in and his absurdly humorous train of thought.
To see the world through Hlynur’s eyes is an extraordinary experience, although it gets tiring after a while. He is such an unsympathetic and offensive guy that I sometimes had to put the book down and take a deep breath before continuing.
Hlynur has a way with words, constantly coming up with witty word games which he recites to himself in his mind or to the people around him to the amusement of readers.
But his blabbering goes on and on and at times I just wanted to shut him up. It is also a little too graphic—or pornographic—for my taste.
It may not come as a surprise that Hlynur doesn’t handle human relations very well. Especially not when it comes to women.
He has the annoying habit of rating every woman he sees, placing a price tag on her according to how much he would pay for sleeping with her.
Correction: for having sex with her. Hlynur never sleeps with women.
Because of his anti-social behavior, Hlynur doesn’t get laid much, which could be why sex is all he thinks about.
In his book, Helgason describes modern Icelandic society, albeit a rather exaggerated version of it, in a critical, straight-to-the-point, black-humor kind of way.
He brings a generation to the spotlight which has never been in want of anything and is content with existing in an extended teenage-hood, not contributing to society in any way, just being careless, spending the nights partying and the days lying around.
However, the book is unnecessarily long and long-winded at times and I actually prefer the movie version, where Helgason and the director, Baltasar Kormákur, cut out the bits of the story that were too long, left out a few characters that didn’t add much to the plot and introduced new interesting twists.
Usually I prefer books over movies and recommend that people read the books before seeing the filmed versions of them, but in this case I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that.
However, it should not be forgotten that without the book there wouldn’t have been a movie; Helgason created Hlynur and his story and deserves praise for that.
The book is available on amazon.com.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir