Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Notes from a volcanic island or my Icelandic saga (with books of course) . . .

I'm back from my hiking holiday in Iceland and honestly, put a visit to this country on your "to-do" list. It is so incredibly beautiful - the landscape seems to change every ten minutes, you'll never breathe crisper, fresher air or drink more delicious tap water. This is an island that is completely alive; where else can you witness the earth spewing, spurting, steaming, bubbling, ripping itself apart - it's all quite sexy really. It never gets fully dark during the summer so we were taking walks in full daylight at 11pm which was an awesome experience. And it meant I didn't need to turn on a reading lamp the entire trip. I didn't sleep much, but who would want to? When I wasn't outside, I was immersed in the books I'd brought (and bought) - only Nordic literature, I decided, would do for this trip.

I began with a day in Reykjavik and took Iceland's most famous contemporary author with me to read by the sea (in the background is Mt. Esja which majestically looms above the capital city; on my last full day, I climbed it). Hallador Laxness's Independent People is the book that helped him win the Nobel Prize in 1955 and it's a moving look at the harsh and poverty-stricken lives of one farming family at the end of the 19th century and into the modern era. Bjartur of Summerhouses is so determined to be his own independent man, to own his own land and sheep, that he turns a blind eye to the needs of his family with tragic and heartbreaking results. It also turned out to be a novel that partly examined the effects of the First World War on the country. Iceland wasn't involved in a military aspect, but the war brought a period of huge prosperity to the island as the price and demand for lamb and wool rose. Alas, the economic boom didn't last forever and the last part of the novel follows the consequences of mis-timed greed. The book reminds me a little of the writing of Steinbeck and I'd also recommend it for fans of Martha Ostenso's Wild Geese for its portrayal of survival - the emotional isolation being as much of a challenge as the extreme weather conditions or the tough, physical work.

I can spend hours browsing in foreign bookstores. I love seeing which Canadian authors are stocked in other countries and it's also fun to compare the covers on different editions. In Iceland it was not a surprise to see Atwood, Munro and Ondaatje widely available, but quite nice to see Steven Galloway, Camilla Gibb, and Madeleine Thien displayed among them. There were three huge bookstores within a few blocks of each other near the downtown core of Rekyjavik. My favourite was Eymundsson which also had a cafe with delicious lattes and a lovely outside patio on its second floor (and open late!). There I picked up some more Icelandic literature - The Lodger and Other Stories by Svava Jakobsdottir and Trolls' Cathedral by Olafur Gunnarsson both of which don't seem to be available for sale in North America but a few copies are available in libraries. The Trolls' Cathedral, which was shortlisted for the IMPAC prize was a great follow-up to Independent People. Set in 1950s Rekyjavik, it is the story of a headstrong architect so determined to build his dream project - a large, modern department store complete with a "moving staircase" - that he exploits his friends, tears apart his family, particularly when his young son becomes the victim of violence, and spirals towards a second, devastating tragedy.

Next, for something a little different, I kept to a Nordic theme, but jumped countries to Finland. Tove Jansson's The Summer Book doesn't seem to be available for sale in Canada (though older editions are available in libraries), but if you are anywhere else in the world, you can probably pick up NYRB's lovely re-issue. This is a very special book. It's a series of vignettes that take place on a small island in the Gulf of Finland where six year old Sophia, who has recently lost her mother, spends her summers with her father and grandmother. The father is just a shadow character, only casually referred to, and always out fishing or working at his desk. The real relationships explored are between Sophia and her grandmother; the young child slowly discovering new life lessons and the elderly woman accepting her approaching death and reflecting on her life. However, this is definitely not a saccharine story - there are temper tantrums and grudges, pain and resentment, along with the love and learning. Jansson's beautiful prose and her minute descriptions of nature and weather as pointers towards contemplating the larger philosophical questions of life, make this great cottage reading, and is the perfect choice for a long, languorous, Scandinavian summer night.
Finally, I can't resist posting a few photos of the highlights of my trip (culled from 1200 photos taken in all - digital cameras have made snap-happy maniacs of us all). I both started and ended my trip with a visit to the Blue Lagoon, which uses natural geo-thermal heated water to create this incredibly relaxing soaking experience. That' s not chlorine that makes the water so blue, but natural minerals. You can give yourself a wonderful silicia mudmask facial.
My favourite day of hiking was in the Landmannalauger area. Stunning, surreal scenery. Honestly, why so many fans of Lord of the Rings are flocking to New Zealand is beyond me: this after all, was Tolkien's true inspiration. (And I kept expecting Viggo Mortensen or Orlando Bloom to show up on a horse). After hiking three hours in these hills and through snow at times, we got into our bathing suits and soaked in another hot spring stream. Soaking in water seems to be Iceland's national sport - an absolutely brilliant way to pass the time.
Then we did a hike to Thingvellir, the site of Icelandic gatherings for centuries (if you've read any of the sagas, the characters are always riding to it). What is incredible about the landscape around this magical place, is the rifts that you see in this picture. Our guide called them "Mother Earth's stretch marks". This is the only part of the world where the plate tectonics that separate Europe from North America are visible above the sea. These plates are still moving apart from each other a few millimetres every year, so one is literally crossing from one continent to another. Mind-boggling.
Then it was a beautiful walk along the coast on the Snaefellsnes Penisula. This photo can't convey how utterly blue and clear that water was.
I ended my trip with a few more days to explore Rekyjavik. One of the highlights was visiting The Culture House which nicely exhibited the country's past (with its display of medieval saga manuscripts - incredible how they've lasted this many centuries given the Icelandic weather), the recent present (an exhibit of Hallador Laxness's photographs), and the future (an amazing look at the continuing development of the island of Surtsey, created after a three year volcanic eruption in the 1960s).
Of course I had to check out the public library, shown here. It also houses the Museum of Photography - what should be on display, but an exhibit of photos by none other than Viggo Mortensen!

1 comment:

Nell said...


Your description of Iceland is beautiful. I will definitely put a visit to this country on my to-do-list.

I also love reading your blogs. Keep it up!