Monday, June 25, 2018

Seven Icelandic Short Stories, edited by Ásgeir Pétursson and Steingrímur J. Thorsteinsson

Hard lives in a harsh land
Halldór Laxness
Seven Icelandic Short Stories was published in 1961 by the Reykjavik Ministry of Education, presumably for the purpose of educating English-language readers about Icelandic literature. The introduction by Steingrímur J. Thorsteinsson gives a brief and interesting overview of the nation’s literary history. Each of the volume’s seven selections has a different author and translator. The final story is by Halldór Laxness, winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize in literature, the only name here likely to ring a bell with most English-language readers.

The first story featured in the collection is an anonymous tale from the 13th century, “The Story of Audunn and the Bear.” In this fable emphasizing right manners and gratitude, Audunn travels to Denmark to give the Danish king the gift of a polar bear. Despite its antiquity, this brief example of Iceland’s medieval literature is admirably clever and still quite entertaining.

The book’s remaining selections were all originally published from 1905 to 1927. All the stories are concerned in some way with the lives of Icelandic common folk such as farmers, fishermen, and shepherds. In Einar H. Kvaran’s story “A Dry Spell,” the narrator operates a country store in a rural town, where he is witness to agricultural life during the haymaking season. In a similar vein, “The Old Hay” by Gudmundur Fridjónsson is about an industrious farmer who prides himself on his private stockpile of hay. When weather conditions threaten to starve the region’s sheep, his neighbors come begging for him to give up his stash. In “The Fox Fur” by Gudmundur G. Hagalin, a farmer is troubled by a chicken skulking amongst his sheep, until he finds the animal dead, shot by a hunter. In an oddly comic twist, he claims the kill as his own, and the fox fur becomes his prized possession and source of vanity.

The seafaring life is also well-covered. In Jón Trausti’s “When I Was on the Frigate,” a traveler in a small coastal town needs transportation to the opposite side of the fjord. Due to the bad weather, the only ferryman he can get is an old fishing boat captain rumored to be mentally ill. The story provides some good sailing action, but is primarily a touching character study. The best selection in the book is “Father and Son” by Gunnar Gunnarsson, a moving depiction of two poor fishermen, a father and his twelve year old son, who share a hard but honest life devoted to one another. Laxness provides another strong entry in the volume’s closing selection, “New Iceland,” which is also the name of an Icelandic settlement in Manitoba, Canada. With hope for a new and prosperous beginning, a farmer moves his family to this foreign outpost, but finds that life in the New World may be even more harsh than the life he left behind in his homeland.

Though some stories are stronger than others, there really isn’t a bad selection in the book. As intended, this volume would make an excellent introduction to any reader looking to investigate Iceland’s literature. The stories included here give the reader a fascinating glimpse of life in the harsh climate of this North Atlantic island, and they all aptly demonstrate the literary merit one would expect from such a book-loving nation.

Stories in this collection
The Story of Audunn and the Bear by Anonymous 
A Dry Spell by Einar H. Kvaran 
The Old Hay by Gudmundur Fridjonsson 
When I Was on the Frigate by Jón Trausti 
Father and Son by Gunnar Gunnarsson
The Fox Skin by Gudmundur G. Hagalin 
New Iceland by Halldór Kiljan Laxness

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