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October 2011

Writing from Iceland

Image: Elín Hansdóttir, Untitled (2009, detail). Archival inkjet prints. Courtesy of the artist and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik

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.


Strindberg had ended up after death here, in a branch of IKEA in Iceland.


The Sound Words Have

Once there was a town where no two people spoke the same language.



Marie was alone there and showed the painter how she and Pierre / wrestled with radium


The earth (like the heart) leans back in its seat

the stone collector’s song

Sulphur–pyrite–opal / and jasper–dear friends!


He’ll eat anything except people and foxes.


Patriotic Poem

The cold makes me / a lair from fear.



I try to be / kind to the children / so they’ll tend my grave


The Chamber Music

I'll possibly throw myself onto the pyre.



You have all sucked at my breasts.

Three Women Poets

A man in a pirate sweater / comes in through the door

The Slayer of Souls

She very much enjoyed being made love to by her husband in a bed that had belonged to another woman.


four creaking wheels

perhaps they’re kindling the ovens at the crematorium.


Café Borges

Up and down the hill the dead pass, patting the café wall.


January 19th

She says / she’s preparing herself.



Book Reviews

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s “Down the Rabbit Hole”

Reviewed by Thomas Bunstead

"Down the Rabbit Hole" is told from the point of view not of a gangster, a cop or a prostitute, but that of a young child.

Meir Shalev’s “My Russian Grandmother and her American Vacuum Cleaner”

Reviewed by Emma Garman

Happily for psychological posterity and for us, Tonia Ben-Barak and her never-ending battle against grime have been commemorated by her grandson

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