Well, I’ve read 101 Reykjavik by Hallgrímur Helgason. Certainly gives a different version of Icelanders. No vinarterta or kleinar. Lots of booze, ecstacy, cigarettes, Cheerios, joints, pornography, sex, lots of sex, hetro, homo and bi, even some with animals. Makes you wonder how Icelanders ever manage to get any work done.
Mind you, there is a mention of Elsa, Hlynur’s sister and her husband, Magnús. Elsa is a nurse. She and her husband live in a suburb. Magnús is a psychologist or something but mostly he just lies back in his LazyBoy type chair like a great fat walrus. There’s Mom, aka Berglind. She has a job. She works at the Imports office. That is, she does, when she’s not being a lesbian with Lolla whose real name is Ólöf. Lolla is a counsellor. There´s obviously a great need of counsellors, particularly AA counsellors. Hlynur´s dad is a drunk. Probably because his wife was a latent lesbian. Hlynur is the narrator of the novel.
Hlynur sounds like a disgruntled fifteen year old but he´s actually thirty-three. During the course of the novel, he turns thirty-four. He still lives with his Mom and doesn’t like the fact that Lolla moves in with them. Hlynur spends his days drinking, doing drugs and watching pornography. For someone who lives on welfare and is completely without ambition, he’s very judgemental.
The book makes it quite clear why Icelandic women columnists write articles about how foreign men are much more desirable than Icelandic men. Hlynur and male friends, if they’re not gay and suffering from AIDS, spend their time scoring drugs and getting drunk. Hlynur doesn’t pay for rent or food. His mother even buys him his underpants. When he manages to pick someone up at a bar and have sex with her, he immediately bolts. Even during sex he keeps his sunglasses on.
Anyone who knows anything about Iceland’s history, knows it’s all the fault of the Bishops and the large-land owning farmers. The Bishops, at one point, went to the king of Denmark and got him to pass a law saying that Icelanders were not to have any leisure activities. During the long nights of winter that would have left not much—knitting, telling ghost stories or sex, except the farmers wanted to keep all the young women for themselves so they got a law passed saying a man couldn’t marry until he was worth the equivalent of four cows. Most Icelandic men were lucky if they owned a quarter of a cow. Maybe even the tail. That left the sheep, masturbation, and brandy for entertainment.
Hlynur manages to get a girl he picks up at a bar pregnant (at least he thinks he’s the father), his mother’s lover Lolla pregnant (at least he thinks he’s the cause) and his sister pregnant (no, whaow, the book doesn’t go there. He steals one of his sister’s birth control pills, she gets pregnant and he thinks it is because of the stolen pill.)
There’s no one in the novel slopping up svið, consuming cod heads, rattling out rimur. They´re too busy staggering from one drunken party to the next.
Hlynur isn´t someone in real life whom I´d want to spend much time with, probably no time with. An unhappy Mommy´s boy at thirty-four, he’s addicted to whining and welfare. What makes the book worth reading, though, is the author’s control of voice. It never fails. If I went to the K-bar and overheard him talking, I’d know it was Hlynur immediately.
The other virtues of the book are the language and the humour. 101 Reykjavik contains the funniest Christmas family get together, I’ve ever read. Hlynur’s grandmother is there. “I give her a kiss. She gets up for me, and her entire body starts to shake as she stretches out her hand to me. Looks like she’s dancing to some hardcore techno. Yeah. Not bad, Granny. At last someone who can dance at 120 beats a minute. As I’m wobbling there with my vibrating granny, I miss Mom’s greeting to Dad, but manage to catch a glimpse of his handshake with Lolla.”
When Hofy, a girl that he’s met at a local bar, tells him that she’s pregnant and he’s the cause, he’s standing, staring at her and thinking, “Sexual desire means nothing but trouble. Copulation equals complication. Outmoded. If only it were a mouse…If only there were a wire sticking out of Hofy, attached to a mouse, and you could just delete it all and…defrag her. I stared down at the mat. No mouse.” Later, her father, Palli, comes (A brain in a baseball cap.) and he and Hofy insist that Hlynur go to the family home. Hlynur says Hofy’s mother sucks him into her embrace. “I disappear into her, like a seed into an egg. Hofy’s ma….She releases me from her embrace and I’m suddenly worried. I might have made her pregnant.”
The imagery is often brilliant. Many times, I found myself going back to read a line for the sheer pleasure of the language. “Taxis roam through the city, faint glimmers of hope in the storm, converting the cold into kronur.” I put it down to centuries of Icelanders using kennings. They’re always calling something by a hundred different names.
When someone says, “I’m really proud of my Icelandic heritage.” I don’t think this is what he’s got in mind. He’s thinking about Gullfoss and Geyser, Vikings and Icelandic horses , maybe the sagas, not some guy like Hlynur trying to have sex with some Icelandic chick so drunk she’s passed out in her tent, the tent having collapsed in the pouring rain.
If you enjoy voice, language, a zany perspective on life, get some rullupylsa out of the fridge, slice some brown bread, put on lots of butter, make coffee and settle in for a read. If you’ve got a picture of your amma on the wall in her Peysuföt, turn the picture to the wall until you’re finished.
The novel has been turned into a movie. You can watch it instead of reading the book but you’ll miss the really good things about the book, the language, the imagery, the voice, the crazy point of view.