Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2010, pt.4: Eleanor Arnason

Under the Glacier
by Eleanor Arnason

I wandered into a discussion of Philip Roth on facebook and mentioned that I had not read him and did not intend to read him. Then, more or less as a joke, I said I was so embarrassed that I was going to crawl into a cave and gnaw on Icelandic sagas. One of the people in the discussion said that I deserved to live in a cave if I hadn’t read Roth, especially one novel, American Pastoral.

This lead me to think about the books I had not read and did not intend to read. The list includes many classics.

I then thought of books I hadn’t read and might actually want to read. This led me to pull Under the Glacier off my bookshelf. It’s by Halldor Kiljan Laxness, considered to be Iceland’s greatest modern writer. I bought the book on my last visit to Iceland and never got around to reading it. So yesterday I finally did.

It may be the weirdest book I have ever read. The narrator is a young man who is sent by the Bishop of Iceland to investigate rumors of irregular events in a parish below Snaefellsjokull, a volcano capped by a small glacier. The volcano is an actual place, now a national park. According to a travel blurb I found online, “Snaefellsjokull is considered to be one of the most beautiful mountains in the country. It is believed that Snaesfelljokull is one of the seven main energy centers on Earth. Poets, writers and artists have often come to the glacier in search of inspirational energy… Snaesfelljokull is also the setting for the famous work by Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth."

What are the rumors the bishop wants investigated? The minister’s wife left him 35 years ago and he has never divorced her; he no longer performs his duties as a minister; the church is not maintained; a house has been built next to it, on church property without church permission; and there is a strange story about a casket that was put in the glacier three years previously, rather than decently buried.

So the young man travels to this remote parish, at the end of a long peninsula. When he asks questions, the locals are evasive, change the subject, tell apparently irrelevant stories, make remarks that sound crazy or at least very odd. The minister, when he finally shows up, spends all his time as the region’s handy man. He can fix anything and shoe horses, and he has apparently lost all interest in religion.

An old friend of the minister’s, an inventor who left Iceland and made a fortune elsewhere, arrives. The house built next to the church -- without permission --is his. He is there (he says) to perform a resurrection. He brings with him three utterly weird people, who are followers of the inventor’s made-up, New Age religion.

The inventor apparently ran off with the minister’s wife 35 years ago. The wife is now dead, maybe. According to the inventor, she sent him a postcard three years previously saying she was dead.

While the minister has lost interest in religion, the inventor has created his own religion/philosophy, which sounds like utter bullshit. There is a lot of talk about cosmo-biology and the aliens on other stars who are going to help us.

The inventor dies of a heart attack. His funeral takes place in the church, which is cleaned up for the occasion, and he is buried in the run-down churchyard. The three New Age weirdoes then proceed with their ‘resurrection,’ helped by two locals. They go up to the glacier and retrieve the casket and bring it to the church. When it is opened, it is found to contain a very large salmon encased in a block of ice.

At that point, apparently out of nowhere, the minister’s long-vanished wife appears. She is a handsome middle-aged woman, who has inherited everything from the inventor and takes charge firmly, moving into house by the church and telling their three weirdoes they can leave for Reykjavik now. An impressive person.

The reader may remember that the minster previously said -- more or less in passing -- that the inventor had turned his (the minister’s) wife into a fish. The young man does not remember.

He interviews the woman and gets the story of her life with the inventor, which has been exotic and rather strange and hard to follow. A lot about the inventor and the woman does not add up.

The young man then goes to the minister's work shed and says, “Your wife is back.”

“What do you mean?” the minister replies. “My wife has always been with me. She never left.”

The ice around the salmon melts, and it is eaten by birds.

The young man and the woman -- whose name is Ua -- feel a mutual attraction. The woman offers to drive him to Reykjavik. The day is foggy, the landscape – and the glacier -- invisible. The woman turns off the road onto a sandy track, saying that she is going to her family farm. The car, a big Chrysler Imperial, gets stuck, and they end walking over soggy ground through the rain, finally reaching an old-fashioned, run-down farmhouse. The woman goes in to speak to her parents first. The young man waits outside till he is thoroughly wet and cold. Then he begins shouting. There is no response. The house appears to be empty. When he finally shouts the woman’s name -- Ua -- he hears a shrill, eerie laugh. He panics and runs away.

That’s the end of the novel. I think it’s a ghost story. Ua is apparently both a salmon and a ghost. But I’m not sure what else the novel is about. The Icelandic title translates as "Christianity Under the Glacier," and there is a lot of discussion about religion in the book, which I read quickly, because it didn’t interest me nearly as much as the characters and the folklore.

Why have I gone into so much detail? Because it’s a really hard book to synopsize.

I think what appeals most to me is the sense of strangeness and of being at the edge of a magic world.

One of the characters talks about being on the glacier and seeing a beautiful ram with straight horns. She knows there is no such animal in the area. It is an elf ram.

I love the ghost story, which is told obliquely, in bits and pieces through the novel: the inventor, who is also a very good angler, turns Ua into a fish, then catches her and freezes her and puts her in the glacier, then -- three years later -- plans to bring her back to life. I’m rather glad he died. What a thing to do your longtime companion!

But Ua does not seem like a victim. Rather, she seems to be a strong and possibly dangerous person, who may not be entirely human.

I think I was ruined by reading fairy tales as a kid. Almost all the fiction I like has an element of the unreal; and most of the classics I don’t intend to read are realistic.

As I wrote in my blog: “I want the exotic, the fantastic or the political when I read. Best of all is all three.”

There is some sniping at the Icelandic government in Under the Glacier, but it isn’t a political novel. Laxness’s Communist period was earlier, when his greatest novel -- Independent People -- was written. But there is certainly fantasy here, or maybe a portrait of a world where the fantastic is natural. There is nothing fantastic about the gritty lives of these rural Icelanders who find nothing unnatural about ghosts and elf sheep, but are still having trouble coming to terms with electricity.

Would I recommend it? Maybe, if you like ghosts and sheep.
Eleanor Arnason has written several novels and many short stories. Her fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People (2001), won the James Tiptree Jr. award for gender-bending science fiction and the Mythopoeic Society Award for adult fantasy. Her fifth novel, Ring of Swords (1995), won a Minnesota Book Award.
Aqueduct Press published her Lydia Duluth adventure, Tomb of the Fathers, earlier this year, and her collection, Ordinary People, in 2005.

1 comment:

Professor Batty said...

You certainly picked Laxness' most peculiar novel. A few of us have been sharing our impressions of Halldór's work which is available in English:

Lots of great stuff in all his novels.