ATW80: ICELAND – Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Article published on June 25, 2015.

Jade Craddock is setting out to tour the world in 80 books from Around the world in 80 books
. . . you’ve guessed it, and Iceland is her first port of call.
[Use ATW80 in the search window to track down related
articles and the complete list of books.]

On the first leg of my round-the world-tour, I head to Iceland,
land of Bjork, Arctic foxes and disruptive volcanoes. But as is the
beauty of this literary globetrot, volcanic ash clouds will not delay
this journey. So it’s on this curious island just outside of the Arctic
Circle where my epic tour begins.

I can count off the things I know about Iceland on one hand, in fact I already have, and the things I know about Icelandic literature don’t even stretch that far, so it’s a great place to start this voyage of discovery. After all the whole point of this tour is to expand my literary horizons, learn about other literary traditions and generally get more acquainted with the world and what it has to offer in literary terms. Iceland is one of the destinations from which I have not only not read anything, but also about which I am a complete novice when it comes to literature. Even if I could name an Icelandic author, I wouldn’t bank on my being able to spell or pronounce it. So this really is virgin territory. Yet a quick internet search on Iceland and its authors comes up with not only a veritable smorgasbord of writers, but a picture of a thriving literary culture. Indeed, Iceland it seems is something of a literary hotbed, and that’s not just the geysers. One in ten Icelanders we’re told will publish a book, and this in this most sparsely populated country in Europe! Maybe there’s something to be said for living in a country that experiences 24 hours of sunshine a day in the summer – all those extra hours in which to be productive! On the flip side, the minimal hours of daylight in the winter and the sparse terrain and remoteness of the island seem the perfect conditions for inspiring crime, one of the leading genres to come from the country. Iceland has a Nobel Prize winner to its name in Halldor Laxness, so there’s clearly precedence here. And it’s also a country of bookworms it would seem – again maybe it’s all of those extra reading hours in the summer and the long, dark days of winter which are perfect for settling down early with a book – with more books read per head than anywhere else in the world and a bustling bookstore industry. There’s even a writers’ retreat! Yet in spite of all of this, Iceland is still relatively unknown on the literary map and has never struck my literary radar. Until now.

With a whole tradition to explore, it seems negligent to choose only one book but such is the nature of this journey and, like all of the best things, a taste perhaps will make me one day come back for more. Either way, I’m to increase my Icelandic literary pursuits by 100 per cent.

Perhaps the most well known amongst books from Iceland include Laxness’s Independent People and Iceland’s Bell, the crime novels of Yrsa Sigurdardottir (I warned you the names are a bit of a handful) including Last Rituals and Someone to Watch Over Me, with two new translations publishing this year (The Silence of the Sea, March; and The Undesired, October). In a similar vein are the Reykjavik Murder Mysteries by Arnaldur Indridason, the eleventh of which, Oblivion, publishes in July. Then there’s the lyrical and kaleidoscopic works of Sjon, including The Blue Fox and From the Mouth of the Whale. However it was a lesser known author that grabbed my attention, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (and a brief and tangential aside here for any eagle-eyed readers who have spotted a pattern in these authors’ names, Icelanders take their surnames from their fathers’ names and their gender, hence the abundance of dottirs and sons), with the charmingly titled and whimsically plotted Butterflies in November [a former nb Recommended Read], It was the very fact that this novel seemed to offer something so different from the dark, tense Nordic hours that Iceland seems to be famed for that drew me to this book.

Yet despite the book’s obvious divergences in plot, theme and subject, there is still a definite underlying tension and bleakness to the book and a tone that if not tragic is wistful. Even the comedy is black and not especially humorous. And with its repertoire of accidents and deaths (albeit mammalian), its forbidding, barren, dark landscapes and its isolated characters, it’s easy to see the influences here. Having said that however, this is still a quirky, affirming and essentially exploratory novel centred on one woman’s literal and metaphorical journey to find herself, accompanied by her friend’s four-year-old deaf son.

This premise in itself should bespeak a moving, empathetic and tender charm, yet these moments are few and far between for in our narrator we have a woman, without a maternal instinct, who is very much learning how to look after a child as she goes, and inevitably making mistakes along the way, not least because of her penchant for the opposite sex. What the narrator lacks as a character – a flawed heroine she certainly is – however is made up by four-year-old Tumi, whose every gesture and word belies a greater significance. This is a very insular and somewhat monotonous narrative, and is as strange and surreal as the Icelandic landscape it envisions. Yet there seems to be a deeper allegory to this tale about what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a mother and whether the two are mutually inclusive. In many ways it’s just the sort of book that one wants to find on this literary pilgrimage, something so different, unfamiliar and unknown that you feel as if you have left one world behind and entered another, yet it certainly takes an imaginative leap of faith. And for those who want to take their discoveries one step further there are some equally unfamiliar recipes to try – nearly 40 pages of them – at the end of the novel. I’m happy to stick with sampling just the books for now!

Jade Craddock

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir is published by Pushkin Press

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