Saturday, November 30, 2013

Nordic humor and satire from Hallgrímur Helgason

I've run into deadpan Danes, wisecracking Swedes, jovial Icelanders, and Norwegian authors who enjoyed a good joke, and the one Finn I've met was a gregarious hotel clerk who radiated benevolence and good fellowship. In short, if dour, gloomy Nordics exist, they cheer up when they see me coming.

So I was not shocked by the following in Hallgrímur Helgason's The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning:
"I understand the smoking ban is on its way up here [to Iceland], in a sunny sailboat named the Al Gore. ... Only when you've had some fifty warless years do you start worrying about things like air quality in bars."
and
"Getting Friendly off my back was like dumping a loud girlfriend with a Texan accent and a cell-phone addiction."
and
"She smells like a New Jersey Devils' banner that's been hanging on the dim corner of a seedy Newark lounge for the past twenty years."
and
"I don't know. I just hate it when people discriminate against me, only because I kill people."
Along the way, Hallgrímur's satirical targets include sanctimonious public apologies and spurious declarations of corporate duty to the customer. And I have to think that his decision to make the protagonist a Croat is a bit of sly fun at the expense all the crime novelists who have found it expedient in recent years to people Europe with Balkan characters, usually one per book, generally dark and forbidding, all the better a background against which we are asked to contemplate big subjects like human depravity and the vicissitudes of history. (I can't be sure, but I think those characters have tended to be Croats rather than Serbs, possibly because Serbs were the bad guys in the recent Balkan wars, as opposed to World War II, when Croats filled that role.)

The Icelandic author's decision to make his protagonist/narrator a foreigner also affords him the opportunity to observe the oddities of his own country: its silence, its high prices, its cleanliness, its difficult language, its beautiful women. And the briefer glimpses of the protagonist's native Split tally with my recollections of that marvelously situated city.

I'm not sure how well a middle section works in which the multi-named protagonist has an emotional crisis and undergoes a kind of exorcism. The section is melodramatic, and Hallgrímur has more fun when the soul-savers turn out to engage in some of the same crimes as the protagonist does.  But even there Hallgrímur works in a few good observations and jokes.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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11 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

Is there a translator who deserves some of the credit? Or has the author written in English?

My recollections from nearly 2 years in Iceland remind me that the natives did not lack a sense of humor. I think one needs it to live there. Those who didn't have it seemed instead to have alcohol. Perhaps there is a reasonable connection between the two.

November 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The author wrote this novel in English, according to biographical information included with the book, though he had written previous books in Icelandic.

As smoothly as the book reads, it does have one consistent, and consistently annoying quirk: the use of some for approximately. Some authorities regard this as an annoying affectation, and I agree with them. Even if I did not, I would still think that the author used the word too much. That Hallgrímur wrote the book in a language other than his first may be responsible. But I hardly think this should affect anyone's opinion of the book one way or the other.

Nordic people may be morose at home; I have met them on the road, most often at crime fiction conventions, where spirits tend to run high.

Iceland has occupied a special place in my here since the first panel I moderated at a Bouchercon convention in 2009, when I had to introduce Yrsa Sigurðardóttir as one of my panelists and did a reasonable job pronouncing her name. Yrsa was also the source of my favorite moment at any of the crime conventions I have attended.

December 01, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Icelanders are fiercely protective of their own language and resentful of intrusions from other languages into their culture. So, I am surprised that an Icelander would write in English.

BTW, I am shutting down all Blogger operations. A trusted friend told me a lot about Goggle's pernicious data collection and marketing practices within Blogger, and I have decided not to be a "victim" of their so-called free blogging platforms.

I will, however, continue to visit your site.

December 01, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I always think of the Icelandic language's tendency to use old words to denote new technical objects and concepts, rather than importing terms from other languages. But I am not shocked that an Icelander would write in English. Iceland is so small that I figure any Icelander who wants to expand his range in whatever field of endeavor has to know a language other than his own. It's no shock that a few of them might be confident enough of their grasp of the foreign language to try writing in it.

What did your friend have to say about Blogger's data gathering? I wonder, too, if part of the fuss about government data-mining serves as a convenient diversion from the data-mining (and labor) practices in which corporations engage.

December 01, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

As for the data-mining issue, I am assured by someone who is very tech-savvy that social network sites (like Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others) are enhancing their bottom-lines by selling culled information about participants to all manner of commercial and government entities. While I am not paranoid about the government or "big business," I am limiting my exposure to being used as a tool by those whose ethics may be questionable. Okay, I guess I am paranoid.

The bottom line is this: I have "killed" all of my blogs (except one--and I will be very careful about what I post there I the future). And I will continue to drop in at some of my favorite sites. I just hope NSA and Wall Street are looking the other way.

December 01, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've often remarked that I am just old enough to have caught the tail end of the 1960s when I was a kid, so I remember when young people were said to be skeptical about the power of corporations. Now they worship at the altar of Apple and Facebook.

December 01, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Born long before you, I do not worship at the altar -- instead I shudder, especially as I observe the minds of youngsters being numbed and lobotomized by gadgets and social media. But I guess I am nothing but a Luddite. Imagine me being the old goat who is yelling, "Hey, you kids, get the hell off my lawn!"

December 01, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if the U.S. is unusual in the extent to which its young people are in the vanguard of worshiping corporations. In some parts of the world, gadgets are a necessity, rather than lifestyle accessory. I once remarked that the U.S. did not lead the world in mobile-phone usage, to which a practically minded colleague replied that such phones were in wider use where land-line service was poor.

The problem goes deeper than Luddism. I am typing this comment on an Apple computer that I bought because it had the features I was looking for. And I bought the computer in an Apple store. But i cringe when I see shoppers crowding and buzzing and milling around the store like worker bees. The real drones in America are the people, I suspect predominantly young, for whom a computer or a phone is not just a useful product, but rather a lifestyle accessory,

December 01, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., you might enjoy this post I made about Alan Glynn's novel Graveland.

December 01, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Thanks for the pointer. I will check it out. Now, with the evening getting shorter, I must return to reading and planning for my classes this week. With only 2 weeks remaining the semester, I might just survive.

December 01, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

With much to be thankful for. I'm doing a bit of reading and planning myself, for a trip to Chicago, which I do not consider work.

December 01, 2013  

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