- Reality in Translation
Edited by Helen Mistios
University of Minnesota Press
208 Pages; Cloth, $24.95
“When foreign readers open books by contemporary Icelandic authors,” writes Sjón in his forward to Out of the Blue, “they automatically compare their contents to yardsticks that do few people any favors.” In other words, Western readers have become comfortable with a certain definition of what makes a story. That definition is reinforced by the authors we’re most often exposed to and the Western canon that shaped them. These stories are what we know. They’re how we expect fictionalized versions of reality to work. And that’s what makes Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland such a delight—because that’s not what its writers are bringing us.
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Out of the Blue is the first of its kind: an anthology of contemporary Icelandic short fiction in English translation. It contains compact, varied stories from twenty of Iceland’s leading living fiction writers. And, as you might expect when soliciting fiction from across an entire country, the subject matter covers quite a bit of ground. The collection opens with the story of a dysfunctional family reconciling over a disastrous vacation and ends with a CEO driven to near-madness by Renaissance astronomers, so you can only imagine what sorts of adventures we’ve gotten up to in between.
If you’ve never read these authors before—and, unless you speak Icelandic, you probably haven’t—you’re in for a ride. Out of the Blue is a satisfying read in both its compelling stories and its sheer variety of narrative structures. Einar Már Guðmundsson’s “The Horse in Greenland,” for example, unfolds the way a story told on the street might. The unnamed narrator spins his tale with the narrative ease and put-upon tone of someone who knows these characters well and has fallen for their tricks one too many times. At the other extreme, there’s Guðmundur Andri Thorsson’s heart-wrenching “Harmonica Sonata in C Major,” which zooms so far back from a middle-aged man’s family trauma and romantic disappointment that they take on an almost epic sense of tragedy. Snatches of song weave through the story, both actual lyrics and the motif of a guitar that “was always going out of tune, so that he was eternally turning the pegs to increase the pitch.” The reader is put in mind of the markers used to spark the memory of an oral storyteller, but they all fit within the compact, methodical container of the short story. Narrative urgency, in the hands of these authors, can be found anywhere: in micro-interactions, or in the span of an entire life.
Out of the Blue has plenty to surprise and delight fans of mythology or magical realism, too. [End Page 26] As a reader who spends a lot of time wading in this genre, I was struck by the fascinating ways these authors deal with the Norse mythology that suffuses Icelandic history. Traditional belief and modern skepticism appear in almost equal measure. How much of the world is truly suffused with magic, or at least the inexplicable? How much can we believe our senses, and when should we turn to our instincts instead? It’s hard to say, and the answer comes out differently depending on which writer is exploring the topic.
Two standout stories in the collection dive into this intersection between the mythological and the real, and while they handle it differently, both points of view are remarkable. Þórunn Erlu-Valdimarsdóttir’s “The Secret Raven Service and Three Hens” begins with the striking image of Odin and his ravens and then plunges into the perspective of an adolescent girl with an inimitable opening sentence, “Three years ago, two ravens got burned onto the floppy drive in my head.” What follows is a haunting, exceptionally voiced exploration of fate in the modern world, cut through with sightings of ravens said to...