I was sitting in a busy bar at lunchtime, waiting for my idiot monsieur to arrive. It's just a ham and cheese sandwich, but the dish has always had a fascination for me in the way only French food can be, even when it's nothing but comforting French food. I see croque monsieurs on the menu from time to time in the United States, but I never allow myself to order them in my country, resisting when I'm in Europe. And since I was sitting in a cafe in what was technically Europe, I let myself indulge. My sandwich arrived, I bit, and tasted absolutely delicious. And then, after having devoured it, the bill came: $ 25.
Welcome to Iceland.
It was June, and I had just arrived from the Bay Area, where time had finally come out of the endless spring darkness, prodigandoci with beautiful balsamic days. But now I had exchanged sundresses and maxi skirts for a winter coat, sweaters and scarves, hoping to cope with low temperatures and harsh winds. At the airport in Keflavk I had taken my trusty Toyota Auris white (it's like a Camry for the European market), and now I was ready to explore this country that is an outlier in many ways, including its special literary culture, where more books are published per capita than elsewhere in the world.
The first stop was the National Museum of Iceland, whose two floors offer a quick overview of the entire history of the island, from the first explorers to reach it in the ninth century to the advanced capitalist nation that exists today. . Among the collections of the Museum there is a first edition of The book of the Icelanders, one of the oldest and most important tomes in the country. In short, it is like the Book of Genesis for Iceland, which describes in beautiful and neat terms the many oral stories that tell of the men and women who originally colonized the island. It includes moments like the importation of laws from Norway, the settlement of Greenland and the conversion of Iceland to the age of Christianity in the year 1000 (although it is probably happening in 999) , it was the only time in history that an entire country had been converted en masse.
I was impressed by this strange book, absolutely different from anything else in the United States. A sort of great unified history of the earth, it made perfect sense in a place where many people can trace their ancestors to the very first inhabitants. I thought of the texts that we consider sacred – the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, perhaps Mark Twain – and how they were of a character so different from this book. This was my first, but certainly not my last, engagement with the extraordinary historical literatures of Iceland.
But first, how about more than contemporary writing? Reykjavik, of course, has been a source of inspiration for Icelandic authors of all kinds. For example, you might try the eccentric and unusual Bragi Ólafsson (known nationally as the former Björk bassist), whose bizarre novel Pets involves a man hiding under his bed while friends burst into his apartment and host a sumptuous party. Eccentric, obscure Iceland at its best, is the first of three that Open Letter Books has released. There is also the mega-popular fabulist Sjón, whose novel Moonstone involves a history of obsessions and cinema set against the 1918 reference year of Iceland: Sjón intertwines the destructive volcanic eruption of Katla, the arrival of the Spanish influence in Reykjavik, and the Icelandic referendum on sovereignty in a strange historical tale. There is also The fish can sing, a training novel set on the outskirts of a modernist Reykjavik of the Icelandic Nobel Prize, Halldór Laxness, plus the autobiographical trilogy of the famous mayor of Reykjavik, Jón Gnarr: L & # 39; Indian, The outlaw, is The pirate.
After Reykjavik I headed north to Little Flatey Island, but first I stopped in the town of Borgarnes, where they have a small educational museum dedicated to the settlement of Iceland. There I learned how the first arrivals discovered a paradisiacal and uncontaminated land: unfathomably dense with vegetation, irrigated by thousands of rivers and extraordinarily beautiful streams that flowed from the many Icelandic glaciers.
After the history of the settlements, the museum used some skeletal dioramas (though vivid and memorable) to help revisit the Egil saga, one of the best known and most beautiful sagas of Iceland. A bit like the stories of Shakespeare, these ancient texts draw on historical characters and events to collectively myth the island's settlement. They can be quite bloody, shocking and bizarre, and they are also full of historical value of accumulated political wisdom and human intuition. Now recognized as one of the world's literary reference books, as well as the origins of Icelandic literary culture, many of the sagas are available in excellent translations – during my trip I took the 800-page edition of Penguin Classics and # 39; I found it absorbing and transformative. Everyone should read it.
"Sitting at the top of a steep hill, and feeling a bit like a cloister, the Library was a quiet, contemplative place overlooking spectacular views of the nearby port, and it was hard to understand why it attracted so many writers."
Arriving in Flatey after a 90-minute ferry ride, I found myself in an idyllic spot of lush green grass and brightly colored houses. This small plot of land (you can walk its beautiful length in about 30 minutes) is remarkable as a stopping point for migratory birds. Perhaps the most surprising thing is the Arctic tern, which is renowned for having the longest migratory patterns of any bird on the planet, traveling back and forth from Arctic to Antarctic circles to live an almost unlimited summer life. The terns must be grumpy from anything that flies. They were everywhere on Flatey, and I quickly dubbed them "the cock birds" because of how they would have aggressively yelled at me, swooping down with claws in my head whenever they decided I had strayed too far from my designated space.
I have been told that Flatey has only a handful of residents throughout the year (the cold and sunny winters must be isolated and brutal), which makes it a fascinating environment for Umberto Eco-esque's novel The Flatey Enigma, by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson. One of the best examples of Nordic crime novel, is inspired by Flatey's esoteric medieval book, imagining that this tome is involved in a conspiracy around a murder. The Flatey Enigma It is also noteworthy for its vivid Flatey life evocations that are worth experiencing if you can not see for yourself this gem of an island. It's fun, and I hope you want to visit the island.
To get to Flatey, you disembark from Stykkishólmur, an incredibly scenic town in the northern part of the famous Snæfellsnes peninsula. As I waited for the ferry, I spent some time wandering around the perfect hills and the Nordic buildings, feeling a little out of the loop: everyone in the city except me was glued to a TV, watching breathlessly while Iceland could make a first impression around the draw in the World Cup.
I also visited the famous Library of Water, a former library renovated by the artist Roni Horn in a permanent art installation. The Library's main attraction is represented by the 24 glass columns that contain water from 24 of the 269 Icelandic glaciers (ice covers a huge 11% of the country's surface and is a central part of the national identity of the 39; Iceland).
Sitting on a steep hill and feeling a bit like a cloister, the Library was a quiet and contemplative place that overlooked spectacular views of the nearby harbor. It was not at all difficult to understand why he attracted so many writers. At the beginning of the existence of the Library, the Icelandic author Oddny Eir Ævarsdóttir, (of which Land of love and ruins is published by Restless Books) has made a series of transmissions on time (always an important theme in Iceland) in collaboration with the Library. Even Rebecca Solnit and Anne Carson have lived in the confines of ductile, austere, beautiful surroundings of the Library – both have talked about it, Solnit in The Faraway Nearby and Carson in a very good poem entitled "Wildly Constant" appeared in the London Review of Books. Other inhabitants included Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir and Oskar Arni Oskarsson, and Horn herself made numerous books in Iceland.
From there it was further west to Hellnar and the incredible rocky cliffs of the southern coasts of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. I remained just below the giant and ruling lord of the region, the mountain and the 700,000-year-old glacier known as Snæfellsjökull. This mysterious and untamed prison is famous as the entrance of the interior of the Earth in the classic of Jules Verne Journey to the Center of the Earth, and it is also the place that Laxness has immortalized in his famous novel Under the glacier. Susan Sontag greeted Under the glacier as "a wonderful novel about the most ambitious questions" and is generally accepted to be an extraordinarily strange, perhaps unique work. (Sontag called it science fiction, oneiric, philosophical, comic, fantastic, sexual and visionary at the same time).
Although Iceland is not a terribly big place (you can guide its length in about 10 hours), its geography is so spectacular and varied that it looks immense, full of little angles and angles where you feel completely isolated. How about closing with some books emphasizing the most disturbing and isolated parts of the island? One could start with the reigning Icelandic "queen of suspense", Yrsa Sigurdardottir of whom I remember you has caused a sensation in his own country. Set in the tiny town of Hesteyri, in the heart of the immense and wild Icelandic Westfjords, it combines a creepy house and the mysterious disappearance of a boy, and has made favorable comparisons with Stephen King and Peter Straub.
You could also try Alda Sigmundsdottir & # 39; s The small book of the hidden people, which explores legends and stories about Icelandic huldufólk, their equivalent of little green men. I've never seen it during my stay in Iceland, even though surveys have found that the majorities of Iceland believe in the existence of these creatures (but do not ask them – it's usually a thing annoying to do). There is also The pain of the angels by the Icelandic Nobel candidate Jón Kalman Stefansson, the second independent novel of a trilogy about a boy who reconstructs his life in a remote fishing village – Boyd Tonkin declared "a Nordic version of one of Cormac McCarthy's trips." And finally, what about Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir & # 39; s The creator, which sets the standard for eccentric and unusual with its story of a woman who steals a sex doll from her lone creator in a bizarre plan to help her daughter in need.