Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Voices: Arnaldur Indriðason's parallel inner lives

Yesterday I compared Voices unfavorably to Arnaldur Indriðason's other novels about Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson. Today I'll highlight some of the good things and talk a bit about what I think Arnaldur was up to in that book.

I wrote that the novel's constricted setting (almost all the action happens inside a Reykjavik hotel) de-emphasizes the connection with Iceland and its soil that is usual in Arnaldur's books. But this does not preclude his customary wry observations about his country and, given the hotel setting, about its visitors,
"Tourists who were planning to spend Christmas and the New Year in Iceland because it seemed to them like an adventurous and exciting country. Although they had only just landed, many had apparently already bought traditional Icelandic sweaters, and they checked into the exotic land of winter."

There is Erlendur's spare, pointed retort to a hotel manager more concerned about business than about justice:

"I hope you're not disturbing my guests," he said.

Erlendur took him to one side.

"What are the rules about prostitution in this hotel?"

And there is Arnaldur's delightful deadpan slapstick. Here, Erlendur's investigation has him interviewing a prostitute whose stitches from her recent eye-catching breast-enhancement surgery are bothering her. The manager sees Erlendur and the woman, misinterprets their meeting, and tries to throw the woman out:

"Watch her tits!" Erlendur shouted, not knowing what else to say. The hotel manager looked at him, dumbfounded. "They're new," Erlendur added by way of explanation.

One reader complained here that the victim in Voices was especially pathetic and therefore less interesting. I think this is due to Arnaldur's narrow focus on the victim. Furthermore, he also focuses in more detail than usual on Erlendur, and the two characters form a pair of solitary bookends.

I respect Arnaldur for choosing bravely to turn his back on interaction, the stuff of which most novels are made, and concentrate so heavily on the victim's and Erlendur's parallel inner lives. I just don't think it works as well as his other novels do. It will be interesting to see if he tries this strategy in the future.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Blogger R/T said...

As for me, I was impressed by Arnaldur's ability to take a murder victim--haunted by his past--and Erlendur--haunted by his past--and deftly combine the two character studies within a single mystery. (To say more about involved "spoilers," so I'll simply leave it at that.)

September 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I'm reading Silence of the Grave now. Erlendur's own past is a part of that story, too, but for me the integration of his story and the victim's works better here. Perhaps this is because the startling transitions between present and past compel my attention. Or perhaps because the melodrama was a bit heavy-handed in Voices. Like you, I don't want to give too much away, so I'll stop here.

There is much to like about Voices, and I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it. It's just that The Draining Lake, Arctic Chill and now, I think, Silence of the Grave, set such a high standard.

Jar City is outstanding, too, taking unparalleled advantage of its setting.

September 30, 2009  
Blogger R/T said...

Jar City's focus on Iceland's fascination with family heritage was an important part of the novel's success. All this conversation has me on the verge of rereading each of the novels. I had hoped to receive a copy of Arctic Chill, but I must be on the outs with the publicists are Minotaur since it has not yet arrived. Perhaps it will arrive sometime soon.

September 30, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I marvel at Arnaldur's ability to tease mysteries out of his small, insular country and to build those mysteries out of the same stuff the country is made of.

September 30, 2009  
Blogger Barbara said...

For my money, Silence of the Grave is his real tour de force, though Erlendur and his team are less prominent. It's a beautifully layered narrative structure and probably the most realistic depiction of domestic violence that I've ever read in fiction. But I really like Arnaldur's focus on victims. So many books in our favorite genre use victims as a kind of throw-away resource, temporary place holders for shock and horror so that we can get on with exploring the criminal's cleverness and evil nature. The victim often is not of much interest as the detective and villain go at it. I think I like this series because Arnaldur combines the banlity of evil with real compassion for the victims of crime.

October 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Barbara, one reader's tour de force is another's piece de resistance. I won't try to compare this book to Arctic Chill or The Draining Lake, but I will agree that it set the course for those superb mysteries -- and that I'd have no quarrel with anyone who thought any of the three a better book than the others.

I like your analysis of Arnaldur's focus on the victims because it's unsparing in its repetition, and not because he wants to shock the readers. He makes a convincing case that this is how such violence really works,

As it happens, a section that Pete Dexter read from his new novel this week has a similar effect. It's about a high school football coach's torment of an ungainly misfit player, and the violence and its consequences are similarly unsparing in the telling. It is significant that the section was long; the length of the account and the repetition of the violence, with the gradual accretion of its consequences for the victim, its perpetrator, and the community's reaction is very much part of the point.

October 04, 2009  

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