So I recently received a subscription to “Open Letter” books as a gift. Their premise is translating and publishing a variety of texts from locally well-known writers and helping bring them to the English speaking reading world.
This book was initially published in the mid-1960s, and has not been translated into English before, as far as I can tell. The whole book is the product of a narrator writing a book, but also resisting the idea of writing a book. It’s incredibly fractured as a reading experience, contains lots of “extra-text” such as editor commentary, annotations, and rehashing of previous material. There’s not an explicit narrative as far as I could make out. The narrator is an older, senile man of indeterminate age. He casts himself as the age of the century itself, which would put him in his earlier 60s, but his general unreliability, the possibility that he’s a fabrication, and other factors suggest that could be wrong. He rails. He rails against anything and everything he can think of. He has very strong opinions about sick leave at work, crossing national border, his penis, women, using the bathroom, and especially writing.
He hates Haldor Laxness, with a great and terrible vengeance. I don’t know much about Halldow Laxness, but he won the Nobel Prize (Iceland’s only) previous to this novel and like a number of winners, his win was seen as a way to shed light on the quality and nature of Icelandic literature. But like any literature, no single author, no single work, can stand in for a diverse, even if small culture. And so the mission of this novel, at least as far as the narrator is concerned is call bullshit on this.
If Laxness is the writer of a national ethos, of the contents of daily struggle, of sheep, of the people, then Tomas Jonsson will take a big old dump on all of that and show them. In the same way that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was trying to resist becoming the mouthpiece of South American literature (and accidentally did through this act of resistance), this novel attempts to disrupt all sense of unity and cohesion.
It’s a tough novel to read. It’s often quite funny, but so much of it feels like disconnected rants, disconnected vignettes, and digressions, it’s frustrating and tiresome. This was not fun to read, but I am glad I have read it. It’s been called Iceland’s Ulysses and maybe it is, and maybe all it’s done for me is get me ready to read Ulysses (coming to you in CBR 10).