It’s perhaps a little late to call this news. Thor Vilhjálmsson, one of the most widely known contemporary Icelandic writers, has passed away yesterday at the age of 85. I’m not sure why, but I expected this to be bigger news than it actually was according to its media coverage. I expected to read lengthy obituaries and tributes everywhere, but instead I hardly read anything, with the main local newspapers dedicating only a few hasty lines to this very important loss. I don’t know if this is once again the Icelandic way of dealing with things or it is just that pulling your hair and mourning when writers die is out of fashion worldwide. However, I know I was expecting more for one of the countries with the higher per capita books consumption. I mean, the tire serial killer got more coverage on Icelandic newspapers for his petty crime than Thor Vilhjálmsson for his death. Just saying.
I shouldn’t dare talking about this because I’m quite ignorant on the subject: I actually only read one book by Thor Vilhjálmsson. Anyhow, I felt saddened and embittered in reading about his death, so I might spend a few inadequate lines on it, after all. Only a few months ago we were sitting next to him at the screening of Sara Driver’s You Are Not I. Time is as deceitful as ever.
I remember when years ago, with my mother, I went to one of the few decent bookshops we have in my hometown. By her, I was offered a book as a present. Even when my family had to face a period of crisis and there was not much money for any extra, a book was always something I was encouraged to get. That day, I started browsing the shelves and, honestly, there wasn’t much besides the worst of best-sellers. Un-books, I would call them. In a small corner of one of the shelves of that bookshop however, the owner kept a few books by an Italian publisher specialized in Nordic literature. There were no more than ten of these books altogether. I managed to make my mother buy for me not one but two books in that series, one by Arto Paasilinna and the other by Thor Vilhjálmsson. Thor Vilhjálmsson’s book was his extraordinary Morgunþula í stráum (Morning Verse in the Grass, in English), which is based on the Sturlunga Saga.
I reckon it was Fall 2005 and apparently Italian publishers had just discovered Thor Vilhjálmsson at the time and they were promoting him as the next probable Nobel Prize winner. Sadly,Vilhjálmsson never won the prize. The publisher in question was doing some kind of promotion, but without too much conviction: getting hold of one of Vilhjálmsson books wasn’t — and still isn’t, outside Iceland — the easiest task. I was very lucky to find Morgunþula í stráum in the most unlikely place of all. If you knew about my hometown, you’d understand what I mean.
That was a strange period: I was resurfacing from illness, I was confused, I didn’t have plans. I didn’t even remotely think about moving to Iceland, not more than I could have thought about moving to Mars or Cambodia anyway. If you except Tove Jansson, I was not especially into Nordic literature at the time. I was definitely more into Asian books. But in general, books were something I was thinking about constantly, a tangible link to the world, an obsession. I remember I just picked those books because… Well, in Paasilinna’s case the summary sounded too much like something Kaurismäki would have come up with in one of his film’s scripts, and if I have to be totally honest I don’t remember why I absolutely wanted Vilhjálmsson’s book as well.
If I count with the aid of my fingers, I realize it’s not a long time ago that I read Morgunþula í stráum, but I have to admit with shame I don’t remember all the details about the plot and the characters. What I remember vividly is the atmosphere of the book. An intense, almost ferocious, but at the same time lyrical atmosphere. Pathos pervaded every page of it. A darkness so deep and overwhelming I rarely encountered in other works of fiction. It was one of these books in which you sense a greatness of stature difficult to put into words; a strength, an immeasurable but at the same time controlled passion, a sense of death even, something impossible to communicate in a few lines. I was attracted but at the same time I was sort of driven away by the unequivocal nature of these qualities. Although I got to the end of the book and I greatly admired the man behind the literary work, as a reader with a sensibility barely compatible with Vilhjálmsson’s style and narration, I felt defeated. I looked for the other book by Vilhjálmsson which was available in translation in Italian (Grámosinn, inexplicably translated as Justice Undone in English — but English translators are often not the subtlest bunch), in the hope to make up for the weakness of my previous experience, but unfortunately it was always out of stock/print.
Icelandic writers are still widely unknown abroad, translations are few and some of them are second-hand — translations of translations, that is. Halldór Laxness is also not as popular as one would expect. Italian editions, for instance are almost non-existent. And Laxness is a Nobel Prize winner! Just imagine the way other writers from Iceland are treated… Icelandic authors are not fashionable enough yet, unlike authors from other Nordic countries, like Finland or Sweden. I am hopeful that, in spite of the dark times we’re in, Vilhjálmsson and other relevant Icelandic writers will be given more extensive distribution, also abroad, in the next future. I’m confident history will do justice to a man of this literary stature.