Bernhard in the Wastelands
Alec Dewar reviews Ófeigur Sigurðsson’s Öræfi (trans. Lytton Smith)
It’s not every day that you come across a novel with a passage like this in its opening pages:
Flosi from Svínafell came back from his vehicle; the angle grinder leapt to life and the hotel splattered with red gore; people felt the mountains dim and the glacier cracking and the sands moaning. Dr. Lassi was dexterous with the angle grinder, taking the leg off at the asshole and scrotum with swift hacks. It saved the tourist’s life, Dr. Lassi writes a little further on in her report, and it was necessary — because of the acute abscesses, infections, deep freezing and frost and fleshrot and coldburn — to entirely sever one of his ass cheeks, and also his penis; the tourist was then sewn back together with twine sterilized in Brennivín; his asshole was saved, although it would have been safer to take that, too, Dr. Lassi writes in her report, before proceeding to provide a literary survey of the local region.
There’s the shock of the visceral imagery, combined with the dispassionate voice, and a streak of black humour throughout it all: the severing of the tourist’s penis appears to be an afterthought, and the “dexterous” Dr. Lassi is no medical expert, but an egotistical veterinarian conducting ad hoc surgery in a public venue while harbouring aspirations of writing a novel about her heroism. Then there’s the madcap prose, the helter-skelter pace of the run-on sentences, the proliferation of timelines, and the pastiche of forms: the narrator’s account of the event is distinct from Dr. Lassi’s report, which the narrator reads at a later date, and as Dr. Lassi writes the report in retrospect, she can’t help but allow it to become the novel she dreamed of writing at the time. And then there’s the fact that all this is just part of an opening gambit, a warm-up exercise, in a book that soon becomes a gleefully byzantine, oddly proportioned, confounding, compelling, and finally operatic achievement of a kind befitting Thomas Pynchon or Sergio de la Pava.
Öræfi (trans. Lytton Smith) is the second novel by the Icelandic poet Ófeigur Sigurðsson, and the first of his books to appear in English. The title is the name of “the local region” mentioned at the end of the passage above, a swathe of southern Iceland known literally as “the wastelands”. This area — a land of glaciers and active volcanoes, a terrain of black sand and lava plains — is the destination of choice for “the tourist”. He is a graduate student obsessed with the toponymy of the wastelands, hoping to put a name to every inch of the landscape, but soon after he arrives he is felled by an accident. He stumbles into the visitor centre at Skaftafell, hundreds of miles from the nearest hospital, with “a significant injury to his leg”. “[T]he foot had frostbite and septicemia and gangrene had begun to develop”, writes Dr. Lassi, and “a large chunk had been bitten out of the thigh”. Bitten by what? Apparently by “some wild animal”, “some highly-evolved wild animal with transverse-ridged teeth”. When the wounded man comes around and is able to speak for himself, he recalls the details of his misadventure: he set off alone on a hike, but he “took a wrong turn”, “went a long way out onto the glacier”, fell into a chasm, and was set upon by a wild sheep: he was attacked, he says, by a “fearsome ram” that “bleat[ed] loud and cruel” and bit his leg and then vanished. But rather than spinning a survival story from the tourist’s bizarre ordeal, Öræfi uses this situation as a pretext for formal play, for threading together a series of extended riffs on a wild array of topics by an ensemble of outlandish characters.
The name of the tourist offers a clue to the vibe that Ófeigur strikes in Öræfi. Although he is known to the Icelandic characters as Bernharður, he is a native of Austria whose name, in his own country, is Bernhard, an echo of the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard. At one point, too, Bernharður admits to wanting to look like “a Central European intellectual” a la “Thomas Mann… or Thomas Bernhard”, and indeed many of the monologues in Öræfi read like slightly less misanthropic, more exuberant versions of Bernhard’s characters’ runaway diatribes. Readers of Bernhard will get a good sense of Öræfi by thinking of it as an amped-up, action-packed, adventurous homage to a book like Old Masters (2010). In fact, it even makes use of the classic Bernhardian form — nested narration that blurs multiple voices — while also making that form more elaborate.
Öræfi purports to be a long letter sent to the author (“O.S.”) by Bernharður himself, in which Bernharður recounts his own recounting of his ordeal. It is, in other words, a letter in which Bernharður describes how he arrived, injured and delirious, at the Skaftafell Visitor Centre, and then told his story to Dr. Lassi via a German-Icelandic interpreter; and a letter in which Bernharður retells the stories told to him by others while he was making his way to the wastelands, which stories he also told to Dr. Lassi; and a letter in which Bernharður, post-recovery, reconstructs his earlier, addled words through the recorded words of Dr. Lassi, relying on her report/novelisation of the interpreter’s rendition of what he said at Skaftafell — and that’s how the book ends up with no shortage of sentences like “Oh, forgive me, I’m just trying to be entertaining, said The Regular, Bernharður said, interpreted Interpreter, Dr. Lassi wrote in the report, Bernharður wrote to me [“O.S.”] in his letter”.
If you’ve read this far, you’ll know by now whether or not Öræfi holds any appeal for you. If Icelandic postmodernism isn’t exactly your thing — complete with intertextual spins on Icelandic mythology (there’s a character named after Snorri’s Edda) and freewheeling discussions of Icelandic linguistics (“[A]re there many words in Icelandic, or any other languages, which have three l’s in a row? … Ballless, said Interpreter.”) — then Öræfi is probably a non-starter. But if you’re at all curious about what to expect from Iceland’s answer to Gilbert Sorrentino, or you’re wondering how an Icelandic author might toy with the tropes of postmodernism — lists, digressions, self-referentiality, and (sorry) poioumena — then this is the book to pick up.
The rewards of Öræfi are plentiful. One clear highlight, a stunning stretch of prose, is a breakneck recitation of every suicide to occur in Iceland between the years 1400 and 1800, reminiscent of the account of a hundred murders in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2008):
in 1623, three weeks before Christmas, a water-serpent was seen in the Hvítá two evenings in a row after sunset; the first evening he rose up as two curves across the river, breaking up the ice, so the river flowed on land, the second night the worm rose up in a coil near the middle of Hestfjall; that year a man hanged himself at Hliðarenda, Gísli Jónsson by name; in 1624, a woman hanged herself at Eyjafjall; 1626 at Hliðarenda a boy was whipped and branded, he went and hanged himself; in the winter of 1630 a woman killed herself in Stærra-Árskógur, she was granted burial within the churchyard because her daughter was so mournful; that year a man stabbed himself in Stokkseyri; in 1631, a woman lost her husband in Svarfaðardal, she grieved him angrily, stabbed herself in the neck with a knife until dead, returned to haunt her sister-in-law taking care of her son, ruined everything she had, her specter caused great misery and terror…
The recitation rolls on and on, sometimes absurd (“a symbol was seen in the air that looked like pulsating jellyfish and many honest men entered the final sleep”), sometimes poignant (“1737, a woman who lost her husband in a bitter storm drowned herself in the river where he disappeared”), building up into an immersive litany of vivid but ephemeral sorrows. Other highlights include the ridiculous library of travelogues that Bernharður lugs onto the glacier (“the Registers, aka the Icelandic Charter Collection in 16 thick volumes containing letters and deeds and judgments and settlements and other records pertaining to Iceland or Icelandic people from the earliest times to the year 1590, as it stated; there was also the agricultural newspaper Freyr, 80 bound volumes, a Historical Narrative of Mail Delivery, volume I and volume II…”), as well as incomprehensible discussions of Icelandic literary movements (“[W]hat happened to the cubists in literature?”) and recurrent remarks on the distinguishing features of the people of the wastelands (“Öræfings are the most perfect men in Iceland, gentle, silent, quiet, the least polluted; they speak the clearest, most perfect language due to their isolation”). Then, too, it’d be a crime to overlook the novel’s innocent affection for the practice of toponymy. It is said that place names “are relationships” which reflect “the conversations people have across a country”, so that “the country itself [becomes] a manuscript” and toponymy is the art of reading it — and there’s profound beauty in Bernharður’s failed attempt to elaborate this art into something called “Topozeit”, a pseudo-philosophy of reading time by way of changes in the names of places.
What else does Öræfi offer? The ghoulish image of a horse that literally bursts under the pressure of a glacier, its intestinal fluids leaking across the ice. Glorious, rhapsodic meditations on the nature of incomprehensible beauty and the devastating ways in which it can overwhelm the human mind. Academic reconceptualisations of language as a terrain to be traversed in tandem with a partner (“you’re close to your base port in conversation when someone says jæja; it’s the last communicative landmark, the last cairn”) and skewiff contentions about the affinity between the Icelandic national character and a badger-faced breed of sheep. There’s mystery, too — a bonafide mystery plot — and, most importantly, there’s laughter. To reel off all these highlights makes the novel sound wacky or zany, but not necessarily funny. Don’t get the wrong impression: Öræfi is hilarious, darkly comedic, even in its bleakest moments, and especially when the narratorial reins are handed over to a surreal character known only as The Regular.
And for Anglophone readers, there’s an additional pleasure: the skill behind Lytton Smith’s translation. The translation itself a breathtaking feat, because the result is so breathless. Ófeigur’s prose is riverine, an unrelenting flow of clauses and subclauses and sentences spliced with semicolons: the sort of prose that is difficult to render lucidly in English even when English is the language of its composition. In Smith’s hands, however, every line, every phrase, sounds entirely natural, and there’s no flagging or stumbling in the momentum and rhythm of the whole. It has the feel of a high-wire act, accomplished without so much as a wobble or waver. It is a triumph of sentence-level artistry that would be justly celebrated if it came from an Anglophone writer, and it ought to be doubly celebrated for its integrity and seamlessness even as it stands at one remove from Ófeigur’s Icelandic original.
It’s difficult to say exactly where Öræfi might be located in the field of Icelandic literature, although the novel itself seems not to care. It has a spirit and an energy reminiscent of Guðbergur Bergsson’s Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller (2017), also translated by Lytton Smith, but in all other respects it is sui generis. It wouldn’t even be quite right to say that it attempts to push the boundaries of Icelandic literature, reacting to or deviating from the styles and concerns of writers like Sjón or Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir. From the very beginning, it unfolds as if there are no boundaries to be pushed, as if literature itself has no conventions to be respected or critiqued, no history of practices from which to take a lead or draw inspiration. It’s not the case that it breaks rules: it feels instead as if Ófeigur has written it without having read the rules, such as they are, or without having considered that a work of literature could be created from anything that exists prior to the materials it requires to become its own best self, on its own terms. The result is unlikely to please everyone — and probably unlikely to please many — but readers who are willing to yield to Öræfi, to open themselves to the unpredictable, will find in these pages one of the most vivacious, most ferociously inventive novels available in any language today.