“I treat reality as a narrative”

Föstudagur, 17 September 2010 10:15

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Einar Már Guðmundsson who received the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 1995, has been a public voice in Iceland since he published The White Book - the crisis in Iceland last year. He does not think much about whether what he writes is real or fiction. And he believes that we in the Nordics have a spiritual community, a sort of Nordic yoga.

By Jakob Aahauge

“We, who sailed during the war, drink our coffee black, not like that socialist dishwater.” Those are the words of Guðjón in the short story 'Gays in Breidholt'. The narrator of that story also drinks his coffee black, although he has not sailed during the war. So does the writer of the short story, Einar Már Guðmundsson, as we sit comfortably in the Nordic House in Reykjavik.

Actually he gets a whole pot of black coffee, which he slowly but stubbornly chews his way through. Einar Már talked about art's political potential the entire day at Nordic Council of Ministers’ Culture forum, so when the clock strikes six, it is not without fatigue in the face. Since he published his book on the crisis in Iceland, he has participated actively in the political debate in Iceland as well as abroad.

Why did you choose to write the book on the crisis in the form of essays and not as a novel?

“I feel very rarely that I choose the form, it is rather the form which chooses me,” says Einar Már with a slightly mysterious sound in his voice.

“You can talk about a new genre in my writings, beginning with my stories Maybe the postman is hungry - in a way I eliminate the narrator. I abolish the dividing line between author and narrator.

For me it is a way to get closer to what I write. It is not something that is artful, but a method that pops up. It's like my first novel, Knight of the Round Staircase – I did not realize that it was written in present tense before someone told me that. But it has the effect that you are constantly present in the text.”

The trick is to create credibility

In The White Book the narrator immediately equals to Einar Már Guðmundsson. I came to think of the story about a boy who sits on the train sucking milk from his mother's breast and when finished he burps and lit a cigarette. Did you really see that?

“Yeah,” says Einar Már hesitantly.

So you almost saw it?

“Yes, I have almost seen it. Almost, almost,” he says and laughs. “The White Book is indeed a good example of how I mix all kinds of genres. I treat reality as a narrative. I mix all kinds of elements from essays, novels and prose.

I always get a little pinched when people ask whether it is true what they have read in my books including my novels. People are always anxious to hear if it really happened, as I have described it. 'Was it really at the Hotel Saga,' etc.”

The trick is to create credibility in the text, and you must manage that very well since people want to know whether what is in your novels is true or not. Calling something a novel does not exactly promise anything to be true.

“Exactly, that's where the art is. That’s is the hard part. If I write it, it's my job to make it as faithfully as possible. The story of Angels of the Universe in which they cannot pay the bill and say that they are all from a mental hospital and ask to call the police.

That is based on a story that in reality happened in a completely different place, and did not at all mean the same thing. That is what I think is interesting. Often a truth in a novel becomes a truth from reality. Just as you can see something in life that you doubt whether it is reality or fiction?”

Nordic yoga

How do you identify yourself as an Icelandic writer? Does Nordic identity mean something or is it just our own fiction?

“It is perhaps a narration but from reality. We have a lot in common, ranging from the welfare state to the fact that we are all quite small, at least regarding the number of inhabitants.

In the world they see the Nordic countries as a whole. If you meet an American or Mexican professor, they talk about Nordic literature as a whole. It is not that different from when we talk about South American literature. We do not distinguish so much between the different South American countries, but see it as a literature with a shared background. And the same can be said about the Nordic narrative art.”

We see the South American literature as magical realistic literature. If this is how we can characterize it, how would you characterize the Nordic?

Einar Már turns his head and looks towards the front of Hallgrímskirkja church that sticks up from the earth with the same determination as the mountains surrounding Reykjavík. It seems as if nature and God are fighting a battle about who is greatest here. Einar Már thinks, and when he has found his answer, he turns his head again and looks at me intensively with eyes that seem like sharp-cut blue diamonds.

“What repeats itself from the sagas and to the present is a kind of humility towards the universe. Standing alone in the landscape and feeling a cosmic harmony. It is a sort of Nordic yoga. That does not mean that we think about it all the time, but it is there. It is very subjective, but poetic. There is also humility and loneliness in the Nordic, but also a great beauty. It is a feeling that I find particularly described by Wilhelm Heinesen.”

A tall, dark woman sees Einar Már and comes up to him and says hello. It is the third time in one hour that people come to greet. No doubt that Einar Már is both a popular and familiar face in Reykjavik. He looks out the window and then continues.

“In Nordic literature we also find a certain respect for those who stand outside society. We love the village idiots, who are everywhere, including the big cities.

The Anglo Saxon world takes very little in. They have a spiritual wall, whereas we northerners have been forced to be more open to the outside world. That was the case with France earlier as well. Frenchmen thought they were the centre of the world and they all had to read French literature, but not literature from other countries. Suddenly they had a problem when French literature no longer was that interesting.”

So you understand yourself as a writer and as a person in a Nordic context?

“Yes, I definitely see myself in a Nordic context. I have lived and worked in Denmark and the Faroe Islands. And I have connected myself to a poetics that has its roots in the sagas. People often come to me, and say that I write what they think. I have been a kind of ventriloquist for the people of Iceland,”  Einar Már says and seems happy with that role.

Einar Már has no more coffee and we agree that it is enough for today and go out. We look at the mountains and the church. Einar Már lights a cigarette. An elderly man with a bow tie and white shirt comes over and greets.

He says something in Icelandic, but when he hears that we are doing an interview he switches to Scandinavian, looks at me and says something that perhaps explains why so many in Iceland like Guðmundsson. “Einar Már is the only one in Iceland, who dares to say things as they are. Everyone else keeps silent."

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