Review by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir.
This month I’m cheating a little. The book I’m reviewing is not just out and an English version of it has not just been released. It appeared more than ten years ago, in fact.
I also have a personal agenda…
Where the Winds Dwell by Bödvar Gudmundsson, originally published as Híbýli vindanna by Mál og menning, Reykjavík in 1995, is among my absolute favorite Icelandic books and I would like to bring it to your attention.
Despite winning the 1996 Icelandic Literary Award and being released by an English-language publisher, Turnstone Press in Winnipeg, as early as one year later, I have the feeling that not many people are aware of its brilliance, or even its existence.
Like a gentle straw blowing in the fierce Arctic winds is the family story told in Where the Winds Dwell, pieced together by feeble and torn letters in a shoebox.
The story stretches from the early 19th century to the present day, from the dark depths of poverty in a turf farm in Iceland to the grand opera houses of the world’s biggest metropolises.
The entire book is, in fact, a letter from a father to his daughter, reciting their ancestors’ history and all the twists and turns fate takes to get them to where they are today. This letter structure makes the story sound so real that I often have to remind myself that it is fiction.
I must admit that I’m a sucker for historical novels and I realize that they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but this book not only tells the moving story of Icelandic immigrants in North America at the turn of the 19th century in vivid detail, it also describes what shapes the Icelandic people. Therefore I wholeheartedly recommend it.
In a realistic yet unemotional manner, Bödvarsson touches upon the harsh but beautiful Icelandic nature, the unpredictable weather, the rooted traditions, the dependency upon the country’s few resources, the simplicity of the diet, the endless hours of work and few of enjoyment, the attitude towards going against the norm, the acceptance of fate, the death of children and spouses, the determination to carry on and the emotional detachment necessary in order to do so.
Where the Winds Dwell opens with Jorgen Jorgenson’s short-lived rule in Iceland in 1809 and how his decision to open up the prisons and introduce song and dance to the Icelandic people brought Jens Ólafsson and Málmfrídur Franzdóttir together.
They tied the knot and bore many children, the last of whom was Ólafur fíólín, the story’s main character, who lost his father before he was even born and was baptized on his father’s coffin.
Ólafur inherited a violin from his father, which he had received from King Jorgenson as a gift, and as a child he learnt how to play it while guarding sheep in the mountains to keep the trolls at bay. Later he played at get-togethers in the countryside and earned the nickname “fíólín” (“violin”).
Being a man of arts and crafts rather than of farming and practicality, Ólafur fíólín is destined to be poor—in his days no one even considered paying for music performances or beautifully-carved headboards—and so his survival depends on the mercy of the local governments. His family is split up his and his children sent off to be raised by strangers.
In an effort to fight poverty and in search for a better life as an independent farmer, Ólafur fíólín decides to take his family to North America, only to face hardships worse than in his home country.
However, while his story sounds sad, it is often humorous as well. Gudmundsson’s use of the Icelandic language is admirable: sophisticated, easy-flowing and in touch with the reality he is describing. I cannot vouch for the English translation.
All the same, the book is a worthy read in either language and I am curious to hear your opinion of it. If you are Americans or Canadians of Icelandic descent, I’m even more curious to hear whether Gudmundsson’s storytelling rings any bells. Is it realistic? Have you heard similar stories from your grandparents?
The only downside to the book, if indeed a downside, is that the author sometimes lingers too long in the modern world, in my opinion. The narrator’s letter to his daughter is long and detailed and while being interesting for the most part, I found myself eager to get on with Ólafur fíólín’s story.
Speaking of which… There is a sequel to Where the Winds Dwell, called Lífsins tré, or “Tree of Life,” which, to my best knowledge has not been translated to English.
That is a shame because Ólafur fíólín’s story doesn’t end in the first book—references are even made to the sequel in the first book. So much more has yet to happen and English-speaking readers deserve the opportunity to read all about it.
I’d therefore like to use this opportunity to encourage English-language publishers to buy the rights to Lífsins tré. It is just as good as the first book, I assure you.
ESA – [email protected]
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir graduated with a Bachelors degree in communication studies from the University of Erfurt, Germany, in 2004. In 2006, she graduated with a Masters degree in journalism from the University of Westminster, London. She has worked as the web editor for Iceland Review since October 2006. Eygló received an award for her entries in a nationwide short story competition in 1997, 1998 and 1999.