Country Focus: Iceland (Island in Icelandic)
By Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
Translated by Bernard Scudder
Originally published in Iceland as Þriðja táknið by Veröld, 2005.
My edition: HarperCollins, 2007.
Acclaim: Sigurdardóttir is the winner of the IBBY Award and the Icelandic children’s book award
Time period: 2005
To make a long story short: The corpse of Harald Guntlieb, a German university student attending school in Reykjavik, sports empty eye sockets and a baffling pattern scored on his chest. These gruesome mutilations may have had something to do with Harald’s field of study: torture and witchcraft. Regardless of their son’s macabre interests, his parents want to know who murdered him and desecrated his corpse. Unsatisfied with the suspect that the Icelandic police have in custody, the wealthy Guntliebs send their emissary, Matthew Reich, to Iceland to enlist the help of a local lawyer, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. This single working mother of two is behind on her bills, so she accepts the odd but lucrative offer to be Matthew’s guide and translator. Sparks fly between the two as they question the dead man’s strange friends and travel to Iceland’s witchcraft-related sites in a race to uncover Harald’s real killer.
Marta Mist groaned. “I’m not going to play teacher with you. All you need to understand is that magic is just an individual’s attempt to influence his own life in unconventional ways – at least, unconventional to the modern mind. In its day it was very common and for those born into poverty at the time it was the only hope they had of possibly changing their circumstances for the better. It mainly involves performing acts that will twist events in your favor – sometimes at someone else’s expense, sometimes not. In my view, when you’ve made the effort to perform the charm you’ve taken on step toward a specific aim and you can focus on it better afterward, so you’re more likely to achieve it than before.”
The armchair travel experience: When summer temperatures of 70° F are referred to as a “heatwave” you know you’re reading about a northern country. Aside from fretting about the icy roads, Thóra bemoans the fact that living in one of the world’s smallest countries means that you inevitably run into people you would rather not see again, like one-night-stands and ex-husbands. Last Rituals touches on a few Icelandic historical and literary references: Saemundur the Wise (a folkloric figure), Brynjólfur Sveinsson (16th century collector of Norse literature), and Jón Arason (the last Catholic Bishop of Iceland). Since Harald’s thesis topic focuses on the practice of witchcraft in Iceland, Sigurdardóttir gets the chance to inform readers that witch-hunters burnt more men than women at the stake in Iceland – a historical anomaly.
The author’s relationship to Iceland:
Yrsa Sigurdardóttir lives in Seltjarnarnes, a suburb of Reykjavik. This award-winning author continues to work as division manager of Verkís, an engineering firm that specializes in geothermal and hydropower projects. Sigurdardóttir started off writing children’s books; two out of five won Icelandic book awards. In the wake of those successes, she turned to crime…novels. Each of her six murder mysteries has attracted more readers and attention than the last.
My opinion: The best thing about Last Rituals is that it rips along at a steady pace. Despite the novel’s occult theme, the content is surprisingly tame. Remember that 80s TV show Scarecrow and Mrs. King? That’s about how harmless and G-rated earnest Thora and stuffy Matthew are. Like Mrs. King, Thóra is a divorced mother who has a job that is out of her league but whose common sense carries her through the case. Like the Scarecrow, Matthew is an experienced investigator who needs a sweet but naive female partner to help him solve crimes. I had to wonder if both characters’ dorkiness stems more from a bad translation than Sigurdardóttir’s writing. She imparts a silliness to some scenes must have hitched a ride from her chidren’s book past. This is Crime lite.
In my book (or what Iceland means to me and maybe you, too)
Leif’in Iceland for North America? Dynamite!
In the 1970s, I read about Leif Erickson in school and Leif Garrett in Dynamite. Learning about two famous Leifs simultaneously was too much for me; I am forever confusing Erickson, Icelandic explorer and son of Eric the Red, with long-haired American teen idol Garrett. Erickson earned his place in history books by being the first European to land in North America (not including Greenland, a feat that his father had already accomplished). He stepped ashore sometime around 1000, beating Columbus by 500 years.
It’s always sweater weather in Iceland
A kid in my high school traveled to Iceland on a family vacation. He returned to class wearing an Icelandic sweater. Being the coolest boy in our class, he rocked it, but if it had been me cocooned inside a big wool sweater with a doily pattern around the neck… Let’s just say that I would have wished that I’d brought back some postcards instead.
Keeping Reykjavik Weird
Pop star Björk’s ultra-foreign mononym, seldom-heard-from homeland, sprite-like features, distinctive voice and strange choice of outfits, including the swan dress that she wore to the 2001 Academy Awards make her Iceland’s most recognizable export. Björk’s unique look and voice make a lasting impression even on a non-fan like me, which means that she also makes an easy target for impressions. Kristen Wiig does an amusing one on SNL.
Fire and Ice
The 2010 eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull shut down Europe and every non-Icelandic reporter’s mouth. What other natural disaster can claim to have ruined the travel plans of President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Cleese, Whitney Houston, Miley Cyrus and Usher? This ash-spewing tongue-twister is just one of 35 active volcanoes located on and near Iceland. Click here for photos that look like they were shot from Mordor by Frodo and Sam.