"Language most shows a man, speak that I may see thee."
Ben JonsonI first came across the above quote in a Renaissance drama class, many years ago, and although I've forgotten most of what I read in that class, I remember this quote. For me, it's one of the big truths, up there with death and taxes. Jonson might have been speaking on a personal level, but his dictum works on a larger scale.
To really understand a country, listen to its stories.
Which is why whenever I travel to a new place, I read--or at least sample--its literature. Last year when I learned that our European vacation would include two days in Iceland, I discovered the Icelandic crime writer Arnaldur Indridason and his fictional detective Inspector Erlendur.
|Leif Erikson glares down on Reykjavik|
He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it.It's a powerful image--superficially a pleasant if mundane picture of daily life, but the underlying truth reveals its hidden horror. To me, this is an essentially Icelandic sensibility--the juxtaposition of the everyday with the monstrous.
Kind of like Erlendur himself.
Erlendur is one of those characters that is inexorably connected to his place of birth. Sherlock Holmes is British to the bone. Jay Gatsby is the eternal American, inventing and reinventing himself. To compare, Poe's French detective Auguste Dupin possesses a certain universality. It's not hard to imagine him chasing orangutangs in London or New York.
Erlendur can only be Icelandic.
In that spirit, I'd like to share some of my observations about Iceland, and how they connect to my new favorite fictional detective.
First, Iceland is aptly named!
|The Unforgiving Land|
|Meet Otti, the alley cat|
Some furball, huh?
Iceland's cold is unforgiving. One mistake, one misstep, and you're staring into the abyss. As a child Erlendur lost his brother in a blizzard, a loss that has haunted him all his life.
Only loss doesn't begin to describe it.
In fiction, as in real life, character is developed by what is experienced--one's parents, friends, schools. But it is also influenced by what has been lost or even what never was. A child whose mother died while giving birth doesn't actively mourn someone she has never known, and yet that absence influences all that is to come. With painstaking care, Indridason peels away the layer after layer of Erlunder's personality, finding at the core the catastrophic loss of his brother. Perhaps that's why he is obsessed unexplained disappearances.
Indridason uses this to great effect. For example,the action in The Draining Lake begins at Lake Kleifarvatn, which is mysteriously disappearing. As its waters recede, a 30-year-old skeleton with a hole in its skull is discovered. Sounds like a job for Erlender.
|Putrified shark--it's what for dinner!|
Icelanders eat putrefied shark.
Iceland's national is Hakarl or rotten shark. I find it difficult to believe that anyone enjoys eating decomposed shark meat, but they do eat it. I think (hope?) it has more to do with honoring their ancestors, who ate anything and everything that could be eaten--cod, whale, puffin, and rotten shark.
As for Erlendur, he likes plain Icelandic fare, and is particularly fond of a nicely boiled sheep's head.
Before traveling to Iceland, I was puzzled yet oddly touched at Erlendur's affection for his car--a late model Ford sedan. I thought this an idiosyncratic flourish by Indridason--why else write passages in which the detective rhapsodizes over his new used Ford? Imagine my surprise when the driver of our tour bus exclaimed over the microphone, "We love our cars in Iceland--if an Icelander says otherwise, he's lying." I don't think he was joking--this declaration was unsolicited and apropos of nothing. So what I thought an eccentricity was a national trait. I guess it makes sense. Long, lonely roads connect isolated towns and so a certain affection develops between a person and her car, but still...
They're just one big happy family!
Around 320,000 people live in Iceland and most of them have common ancestors. Just about everyone is related to everyone else, at least distantly. I guess it's nice to be able to claim Björk as a relative, but dating presents certain problems. (Luckily, there's an anti-incest app for that. I bet it's busy on Sunday morning.) But this shared history is what makes this country so vital.
Yes, Iceland is place of natural wonder and beauty, but the real miracle of Iceland is its existence. It is a miracle that those early founders survived. By every natural law, they should have perished. They possessed a tenacity to live another day, to stay alive.
|Þingvellir--the heart of Iceland|
Erlendur is a deeply flawed man. He's stubborn and selfish, as all obsessed people are. He was a terrible husband and a worse father, but now struggles to reconnect with his estranged children, who bear the scars of his neglect. But that doesn't mean that Erlendur is unfeeling. He feels deeply but in a hard land like Iceland, sentiment is best kept hidden. In his own plodding way, and with the tenacity of his ancestors, he strives to do right.
Whether that means bringing a killer to justice or finding his long lost brother's body.
These books are not for everyone, but if you're in the mood for something dark and complex, give them a try.