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