Thursday, September 10, 2009

Icy jokes

Let's put to rest for good the base canard that the Nordic peoples are dour. Sure, they commit suicide a lot, and those long winter nights let them do so under the cover of darkness. ("`It was about eight o'clock,' she said. `Still pitch black, of course,'" runs one off-hand but telling bit of dialogue in Arnaldur Indriðason's Arctic Chill, italics mine.)

There are no knee slappers in Arnaldur's novel, but there is plenty of wit from this artful Icelandic crime writer. Here's the closest the book gets to a bawdy nudge in the ribs, protagonist Erlendur Sveinsson and his girlfriend, discussing whether two formerly married partners can find true love:

Perhaps, says the girlfriend. "Yes," says Erlendur, "but what if one of them finds this true love at regular intervals?"

In a similar vein is another joke that may not even be a joke in the original Icelandic but works nicely in English. A well-dressed colleague of Erlendur's is knocking on doors questioning neighbors the killing that has set the story in motion. One of the neighbors mistakes him for a Jehovah's Witness and politely but firmly closes the door in his face. He knocks again and, when the woman she opens the door a second time, says "You haven't heard the news, have you?"

"The news" is the killing, and "You haven't heard the news?" is a sly, amusing reproach to a woman who thinks she has just shut the door on a Christian proselytizer.

More tomorrow, perhaps, on small ways Arnaldur articulates big themes.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Blogger Dana King said...

I've read SILENCE OF THE GRAVE and have JAR CITY on the TBR pile. To me, he's the best Scandinavian crime writer working today. I'll add this (and probably THE DRAINING LAKE)to my wish list.

September 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've now read "Jar City," "The Draining Lake" and "Arctic Chill" with "Voices" and "Silence of the Grave" to come. With the slight hesitation about my inability to read him in his original language, I have no hesitation in calling Arnaldur one of today's best crime writers.

September 10, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The thing that surprised me when I moved from Sweden to England was that when I told them to go away, in England the Jehovah's Witnesses actually do. In Sweden all you got was their foot in the door.

September 11, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's an interesting sociological nugget. I wonder how J's Witnesses generally behave in Icelandic. Arnaldur's invocation of them may have had special resonance if they are especially persistent in the Nordic countries.

The only thing I ever accepted from a Jehonvah's Witnesses was a car. I bought the car from a colleague who was a JW.

Hmm, do you suppose cars owned by Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to accept infusions of gas?

September 11, 2009  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I read Haldor Laxness's Independent People a few years ago and I've got to admit that I found a lot of it grimly hilarious. Perhaps unintentionally hilarious in places but hilarious none the less.

September 12, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps the terse prose style of Icelandic and its predecessor languages lends itself to deadpan humor, as in this example. Arnaldur Indriðason attributes his own prose style to that of the sagas. He in turn attributes that terseness to the scarcity of calfskin, the surface on which the old Icelandic scribes wrote. Expensive material meant little room wasted words and long, flowery digressions.

September 12, 2009  

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