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October 2011

Writing from Iceland

What sort of literature would a nation with a literacy rate of 100%, the highest per-capita publication of books and magazines in the world, and a population famous for its love of fiction and poetry produce? This month we find out as we showcase the work of writers from Iceland, the guest of honor at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. Iceland’s passionate literary culture has fostered a vibrant and diverse national literature, grounded in the sagas yet urgent as today's news.  The work gathered here addresses ecological and financial turmoil, as parking lots replace forests, tradition is acknowledged only to be subverted, and both social and natural resources are endangered.  But the news is not all grim, and the writers deliver it with sly wit and the Nordic flair for storytelling. Nordic Council Literature Prizewinner Gyrdir Eliasson discovers hell on earth, also known as Ikea.  Þórarinn Eldjárn tells how a common language destroys a harmonious Babel. In work by two former Sugarcubes, Sjón finds Marie Curie in a portrait by Edvard Munch, and Bragi Olafsson's Christmas tale blends chamber music and malevolence. Andri Snær Magnason’s young boy loses his grandfather and gains a sense of mortality. Gerður Kristný pens an ode to ice, snow, and national character, while Kristin Omarsdottir sets the table for some unusual guests. Olafur Gunnarsson channels Scheherazade in a classic tale with a twist. Sigurbjorg Þrastardottir visits a café with a life of its own. And Sindri Freysson realizes the real news never makes the paper. We thank Bókmenntasjóður/The Icelandic Literature Fund for their support.

Inferno
We had just moved into an apartment in the suburbs, with all the hassle of fetching and carrying and doing the sorts of things that you really wouldn’t bother with if you didn’t feel socially…
Translated from Icelandic
Multilingual
The Sound Words Have
Once there was a town where no two people spoke the same language. No one used the same words for anything. And yet everyone understood everyone else and they all lived together in peace and harmony.…
Translated from Icelandic
Multilingual
lithograph
By Sjón
marie curie and edvard munch lived in paris at around the same timemunch was interested in new discoveries and went to visitthe curies’ research laboratory on rue lhomond in the fifth arrondissementmarie…
Translated from Icelandic by David McDuff
solstice
By Sjón
when your eyespause on the ballthat hangs on the third branch from a staryou remember why it got dark and why it is getting light againthe earth (like the heart) leans back in its seatand like that it…
Translated from Icelandic by David McDuff
the stone collector’s song
i remember the thirst and the darkness i remember one-way streets i remember closed alleys and you you pointed to a cellar door there used to be a pub there which we visited a lot here it is you said…
Translated from Icelandic
2093
He lies and dreams. A great ash tree spreads out its crown and girls come with buckets and water its roots. He tosses and turns, then looks up. Beside him sits a gray-haired woman, stroking his hand.…
Translated from Icelandic
Multilingual
Patriotic Poem
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…
Translated from Icelandic
Multilingual
Skagafjörður
I try to be kind to the children so they’ll tend my grave when the time comes crumble biscuits in the grass on my birthday and recite the poem about the gambolling cows themselves grown old and…
Translated from Icelandic
Multilingual
The Chamber Music
Allegretto villereccio This Wednesday in the last week of November is the first winter evening of the season. Until now it hasn’t gotten that cold; instead, it’s rained every which way, and…
Translated from Icelandic
Multilingual
January 19th
Hildur is seven. She says when people die they lie motionless in a coffin –she shows me how–forever in heaven. She says she’s preparing herself. She says she will pick a very comfortable…
Translated from Icelandic
Multilingual
Three Women Poets
Three women poets in white bras sit at a small round table. Book in hand. A man in a pirate sweater comes in through the door out of the snowstorm and sits down at the women’s table. He takes off…
Translated from Icelandic
Your Dog
a dog lives it’s your shadow it learns about life learns to go to toilets learns to run forward with a lighter in its mouth once you take out a cigarette not only does it run forward with a lighter…
Translated from Chinese
Multilingual
four creaking wheels
Two middle-aged women, who do the paper-route, drag the cart beside them along the ice-covered sidewalk, silent beneath the hoods of their anoraks. They remind me of passengers hauling their luggage,…
Translated from Icelandic
Multilingual
Dessert
As I sit at the dinner table I watch the three men who have sucked at my breasts. One of them still sucks them, two sucked them for a time. I look at the sun pouring through the window and look at the…
Translated from Icelandic
The Slayer of Souls
The following tale could well have been told on the one-thousand-and-second night: In the first decade of the nineteenth century there lived in Reykjavík a merchant who sold new and secondhand…
Translated from Icelandic
Multilingual
Café Borges
In Café Borges on Bankastræti everyone has brown eyes. Here they once sold pantyhose– says Simone–that forked like paths in two, even three. Yes–says Tiziano–lovers…
Translated from Icelandic
Multilingual
Soul
By Hsia Yü
We had a visitation from a woman who’d been dead for many yearswe felt her presence but see her we could notheard her voice instructing us to turnthe hand-crank of the projector in the room (there’s…
Translated from Chinese by Steve Bradbury
Multilingual
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