‘Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland’, Helen Mitsios (ed.) (Review)

Winter is approaching, the days are getting shorter, and the air is swiftly becoming ever more chill and damp.  Well, for you, perhaps.  Down here in Australia, things are a little different, and we’re more likely to need sunblock and siestas than woolly hats over the next few months.  Still, I always endeavour to empathise with my readers, so following on from our recent visit to Finland, this week will see another couple of posts from rather cooler climes, starting today with a trip to Iceland.  Join me on a literary trip to the north, where we’ll encounter a whole host of writers, and even take a boat trip or two.

Brrr – I’m feeling colder already.

Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland (review copy courtesy of University of Minnesota Press) is an excellent collection of short stories, edited by Helen Mitsios, from a country I definitely have a soft spot for (Huh!).  We begin with a brief foreword by Sjón (translated by Victoria Cribb), in which he explains why Icelanders write so much, and with such imagination:

Perhaps it is because philosophy reached these shores comparatively late that Icelandic writers have never felt bound by the truth.
p.xiii (University of Minnesota Press, 2017)

Of course, he goes on to say:

While recognizing no literature except that which springs from reality, they reserve the right to distort the truth according to the demands of their tales.  And the same, naturally, applies to all that has been written above.

So perhaps we shouldn’t take his words at face value…

Initially, you could be forgiven for wondering where the Icelandic stories actually are, with several of the early pieces set overseas.  Auður Jónsdóttir’s ‘Self-Portrait’ (tr. Lytton Smith) recounts a woman’s experiences while on holiday in Sardinia while Gerður Kristný’s ‘Escape for Men’ (tr. Sola Bjarnadóttir O’Connell) looks at a young woman’s unexpected freedom during her stay in France.  Meanwhile, Rúnar Vignisson puts a different spin on things in ‘Travel Companion’ (tr. Julian M. D’Arcy) as we are told about a hiking and camping holiday by the person left behind.

However, we’re soon back in Iceland, where we are treated to some tales about rather more traditional themes.  In ‘Scorn Pole’, Þórarinn Eldjárn (tr. Smith) has a group of workers beaming with pride after recreating an old house, only to have their joy rudely shattered when an old man examines their work.  Óskar Magnússon’s ‘The Cook’ (tr. Philip Roughton) takes us out onto the open seas, where we encounter a young man on his maiden voyage:

He was feeling queasy: seasickness was starting to rear its ugly head.  he continued making meatballs; he had to make a heap of them for eight men, or seven anyway – he himself wouldn’t eat much now.  And then the gushing started.  The new cook vomited heartily over the meat mixture.  He wiped his mouth on his apron and thought that now it was do or die.
‘The Cook’, p.111

Talk about a rite of passage!

If there’s a trait running through the stories in Out of The Blue, it could well be a penchant for the bizarre, with many of the stories requiring a double-take or two.  Kristín Eiríksdóttir’s ‘One Hundred Fifty Square Meters’ (tr. Bjarnadóttir O’Connell) has a couple moving into a flat with unbelievably cheap rent, but (of course) there’s a reason why the agent is so desperate to let it.  Even eerier is Þórunn Erlu-Valdimarsdóttir’s contribution, ‘The Secret Raven Service and Three Hens’ (tr. Bjarnadóttir O’Connell), in which a normal weekend outing takes on sinister undertones, particularly when ravens start to appear:

He scrutinizes us all.  I know he’s reading our auras, and since he’s paying so much attention to us going to church, someone, according to old legends, is doomed.
‘The Secret Raven Service and Three Hens’, p.62

Then there’s ‘The Universe and the Deep Velvet Dress’ (tr. Meg Matich), a shortish piece from the ever-wonderful Jón Kalman Stefánsson that introduces us to a businessman whose decision to learn Latin has some fairly significant consequences…

Stefánsson is far from the only familiar name you’ll find in the collection.  ‘Afternoon by the Pacific Ocean’ (tr. Bjarnadóttir O’Connell) is the contribution of Kristín Ómarsdóttir (Children in Reindeer Woods), a brief sketch of Marilyn Monroe and Greta Garbo enjoying bread rolls, Ulysses and Egil’s Saga – as you do.  There’s also a short piece by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (The Greenhouse, Butterflies in November) called ‘SMS from Catalonia’ (tr. Brian FitzGibbon), a micro-story in which love is expressed through inventive text-message descriptions of a football match.

Out of the Blue reminds me a little of the excellent Comma Press city-themed collections, so it was a happy coincidence to find two writers they’ve published included here, both with new stories.  Águst Borgþór Sverrison’s ‘Laundry Day’ (tr. Matich) is typical of the contemporary family dramas in Twice in a Lifetime, but my preference is for ‘The Black Dog’ (tr. Bjarnadóttir O’Connell), another story from the excellent Gyrðir Eliasson (Stone Tree). It’s a short, creepy story of a man staying at a remote hotel with only his own demons for company, and the beauty lies in the way the writer evokes a threatening mood without needing to actually introduce any strange occurrences.

With twenty writers featured throughout the collection, it’s impossible to do justice to all the stories here, but rest assured that if you have more than a passing interest in Icelandic fiction, you could do worse than choosing Out of the Blue as your starting point.  I’ll just leave you with a look at perhaps my favourite story from the collection, Ólafur Gunnarsson’s ‘Killer Whale’ (tr. Stephen Meyers and Ólafur Gunnarsson).  What starts out as a domestic squabble caused by the main character’s inability to arrive on time builds into a touching story in which a father makes a final gesture towards his terminally ill daughter.  Lovely, no?  However, this is Iceland, and the ending comes as a bit of a surprise.  Still, don’t take it to heart – as Sjón says, you really can’t trust what these writers say, anyway…

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