Last Rituals

Last RitualsLast Rituals, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, is an Icelandic-noir crime novel, featuring a particularly gruesome murder, irresistibly combined with sorcery and witchcraft. I learned a great deal about these ancient practices in the course of finding out whodunnit, including a tasty gobbet of information about corpse breeches. I do like to be informed as well as entertained.

The subject matter of the novel is surprising in that Yrsa spent the first seven years of her writing career in children’s fiction, and this 2005 novel was her debut in adult fiction. It’s as if all the sweetness and light just got too much, and she decided to do something completely different. The Scotsman has an interview with the author from 2010.

Last Rituals is a splendid read, a page-turner if ever there was one. I gobbled it up in one day, remarkable because I’m usually a slow reader. Yrsa’s protagonist, Thora Gudmundsdottir, is very much like herself. A professional woman, in this case a lawyer rather than her real day job of civil engineer, 30-something mother of 2 children, living in the up-market suburb of Seltjarnarnes in Reykjavik. Her description even fits the author’s photo.

A post-graduate German student, Harald Guntlieb, studying at the University of Iceland, is found strangled with both eyes removed. One of his drug dealer friends is quickly arrested for the crime, but Thora receives a phone call from the victim’s mother, asking for help in an independent investigation – she does not believe the drug dealer was responsible. She sends the family’s security chief (they own a bank) to Iceland to help. Matthew Reich is a tough, capable ex-detective, and completely out of his cultural depth, so they make a good team as they begin to rub the edges off each other’s preconceptions.

Thora’s sympathetic and appealing character is extremely well-drawn, as are her children Soley (6) and Gylfi (16). It’s through Thora’s eyes that we see Matthew evolve from a martinet to a relaxed, likable man as they get deeper into the investigation.

Much of this investigation revolves around a group of students who had formed a witchcraft and sorcery club with Harald, as well as two of their professors. There’s a lot about drink, drugs, and sex as the lifestyle of young Icelanders, as represented by this group of students. The novel also takes a trip to a remote sorcery and witchcraft museum in Holmavik, NW Iceland. This video shows some of the exhibits the novel talks about.

The novel works on many levels. As a whodunnit, it had me guessing right to the end, but I have to confess that I’m lazy in these matters, less concerned with finding the murderer and more interested in the characters. In this case it’s very rewarding. I was much taken by Thora, her family, and her developing relationship with Matthew. And Harald’s peculiar pychopathology is fascinating. Less interesting are the drinking, drug-taking, and sexual antics of the students he has drawn into his circle – they seem merely stupid.

Then’s there’s the allure of books and scholarship, enough to make me salivate. The novel revolves around a search for a rare copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, a theological justification and user manual for the torture of those suspected of witchcraft. There are many other obscure and fascinating texts woven into the story. How could I resist?

Finally, there’s Iceland, that strange country I want to visit more than ever.

If you like this first outing for Thora, there are 3 more novels with her as protagonist, which I intend to read: My Soul to Take (2009), Ashes to Dust (2010), and The Day Is Dark (2011). Looks like the subject matter hasn’t got any more cheerful, I’m glad to say.

Poetry Parnassus: Patriotic Poem (Iceland)

Poetry Parnassus is a project of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, hosted at the Southbank Centre in London. It ran from June 26 to July 1, and featured 145 poets from around the world. Here is the Guardian’s interactive map, where you can click on a country and read its poem. I will be posting one a day until they’re done.

Patriotic Poem, by Gerdur Kristny (Iceland)

The cold makes me
a lair from fear
places a pillow of
downy drift
under my head
a blanket of snow
to swaddle me in

I’d lay my ear to
the cracking of the ice
in the hope of hearing it
retreat
if I didn’t know
I’d be frozen fast

The ice lets no one go

My country
a spread deathbed
my initials stitched
on the icy linen

• Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.

A perceptive look at the ambiguous nature of patriotism, both a comfort and a deadening sleep. While it can be “a blanket of snow/to swaddle me in,” it is also “a spread deathbed/my initials stitched/on the icy linen.” Snow blanket becomes white, funerary linen. The poem seems to caution against paying too much attention to patriotism, or else be “frozen fast.”

A refreshingly nuanced approach.

Jon Gnarr: Mayor of Reykjavik

I wrote a year ago about my fascination with Iceland, and the extraordinary victory of the Best Party in winning control of Reykjavik City Council in 2010. See the blog post here. Hard economic decisions had to be made, and the Best Party is no longer the warm, fuzzy alternative choice, but the less popular incumbent. Whatever else happens, though, they produced the best ever feel good campaign video.

Jon Gnarr is an actor and comedian turned politician, so I was interested to find this 2011 interview on Inside City Hall, an American talk show. An intriguing look at the confluence of entertainment, satire, alternative politics, and the exercise of real power.

Still haven’t managed to get to Iceland. Would anyone like to offer me a job over there?

Iceland for Sale?

Suppose a foreign businessman offered to buy 300 sq. km. of pristine, unspoiled land in your country, proposing to build a luxury resort, with a hotel, villas, a golf course, an airport for small aircraft and outdoor recreational facilities. Might you wonder why such a large area of land was needed for the project? Might you be outraged at the despoliation of the natural landscape on such a huge scale. I would.

That businessman is Chinese, and the country is Iceland. Huang Nubo, owner of the Zhongkun Investment Group of Beijing, wants to build a resort to cater for the growing market in exotic destinations for wealthy Chinese tourists. The Icelandic government last November refused permission for the project, based on the size of the land purchase, and a very sensible Icelandic law against selling off large chunks of land to people who aren’t citizens of the European Economic Area.

But times are hard for European countries, and the prospect of an economic boost makes this an offer Iceland may not be able to refuse. The Ministry of Industry has taken charge, proposing a 100 year lease arrangement to get round that awkward law designed to protect Iceland from foreign economic domination. A favourable decision is expected in May or June.

I think it’s an appallingly short-sighted decision. For one thing, there’s little practical difference between a 100 year lease and a sale – in the the long run, as Keynes pointed out, we’re all dead. For another, the world will be a completely different place in a century. If present trends are anything to go by, China will be the dominant economic and military superpower in the world, taking the place now held by the United States. By that time Icelanders will probably be in no position to demand the return of “their” territory. And China will have its own enclave in NE Iceland, much like the British had in Hong Kong. I don’t know if the purchase includes access to the coast but if it did, and if Iceland was unable to control land usage there, the possibility of a Chinese foothold in Iceland is a distinct possibility.

I don’t see much debate about this in the English language newspapers – Iceland Review and The Reykjavik Grapevine – so if any Icelanders are reading this, or indeed anyone with real knowledge, then please leave a comment. Thanks.

Penis Mall

Have you ever wondered if modernist architects are occasionally taking the piss when they design attention-grabbing buildings?  Look no further than Smaralind, a shopping mall in Reykjavik, for confirmation of your suspicions.  Designed by Icelandic architects, it was built for the Baugur Group, one of the thrusting new companies spearheading the Icelandic economic miracle.

A lot more than taking the piss, come to think of it.  How much more depends, of course, on where you measure it from.

I am indebted to @aldakalda for tweeting the fact of its existence.

Irish Days in Akranes

St. Patrick’s Day is long past for the rest of the world, but in the Icelandic seaport of Akranes this weekend, they get a second bite at the shamrock.  The festivities celebrate the founding of Akranes by Irish brothers, Þormóður and Ketill Bresasons shortly after 880 CE.  Actually, it’s not quite as simple as that.  There was already a farmer on the land, but since the Brothers Bresasaons were originally Norse, the man was, erm, asked to leave.

Take a look at the festivities link – the event looks like a proper full-throttled celebration, literally, since the Motorcycle Club of Iceland will be there.  In March this year, they were going to be inducted into the Hell’s Angels.  That’s what I like about the Icelandic way of doing things, you’ve got beaches, bouncy castles, motorbikes, bands, dancing, and all-night entertainment, rolled up into one festival.  There’s also a contest to find the most redheaded Icelander, the winner of which gets a trip to Dublin.  Gingers may get made fun of on South Park, but they’re extremely popular in Akranes.