by KATHARINE COLDIRON
Ófeigur Sigurðsson, Öræfi: The Wasteland (Deep Vellum Books, October 2018), pp. 352
Without atmospheric accumulation, glaciers would not exist. No matter how they begin, precipitation helps them grow so large as to dwarf human perspectives. Öræfi, Ófeigur Sigurðsson’s book about Icelandic glaciers and the people who tangle fatally with them, turns upon atmospheric accumulation in a similar way, except that the accumulation is literary instead of precipitative. Multiple influences stack up in the strata of its subtext: Victorian epistolary and Gothic novels, Samuel Beckett’s meticulous absurdity, Thomas Bernhard’s maddening sentence rhythms, and even Roberto Bolaño’s numbed-out recitations of mortality. It turns “sickbed literature” like The English Patient on its ear, focusing as it does on a patient who has no wisdom to offer up and a caretaker whom I exaggerate only slightly in describing as “cracked-out.” Sigurðsson takes on such a variety of moods and modes that he acts as a kind of ventriloquist, allowing an enormous variety of literature to speak through him. And it is wildly entertaining, this book. It’s both playful and deeply researched, bleak and yet hearty—like a pub full of friends clinking glasses just before the end of the world. Except the friends are all PhDs. And the pub is a gigantic igloo. And the end of the world is an April Fools’ Day prank.
It would seem from this description that there’s a lot going on in Öræfi, but the book’s atmosphere and its tangents are far more involved than the plot. The main event of the book, the fall of Bernharður Fingurbjörg into a glacier, and his recovery from the effects of nearly freezing to death, is iterative, appearing multiple times out of chronological order in the book. Before his fall, Bernharður has picaresque adventures with residents of the areas surrounding the glacier he explores: drinking with characters straight out of Ulysses named The Regular and Worm Serpent, making exuberant love to a fellow adventurer inside his luggage (which is as capacious as Mary Poppins’s carpetbag), passing stories and mythology with sheepherders, et cetera. It’s not a linear plot, or a linear book.
It is, however, a profoundly allusive book, and that quality begins with the book’s very title. Öræfi, in Icelandic, implies the book’s English subtitle, The Wasteland. Allusions like this, that require translation to be understood, can sink readers into despair, sensing that translation is impossibly imperfect, a hopeless business, and that no book can ever be truly translated and yet retain its essence. The fact that Öræfi’s hopeless business starts with its title is even more dispiriting. But here, I must celebrate the book’s translator, Lytton Smith, who has also wrangled the formidable Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller into English, along with other well-regarded Icelandic books. In this book, Smith has preserved a commendable number of language-based jokes and allusions, including a recurring series of puns concerning the words “caraway” and “carry away” and, subsequently, “cumin” and “come in.”
But most allusions are based on names. Our hero, Bernharður, is a toponymist, whose job is to study geographical place names. “Place names rise from the depths,” Bernharður writes in his journal at one point. He is Austrian, but he has an Icelandic name; his first name is a reference to Thomas Bernhard (Öræfi echoes Correction’s nested narrative strategy), while his last name means “finger-rocks.” The woman Bernharður cavorts with on the glacier is named Edda, which refers to the medieval texts that inform Nordic literature as the Bible informs Anglo-Saxon literature. The veterinarian who saves Bernharður’s life is named Dr. Lassi, which is the kind of humor this book loves: in naming a character charged with saving our hero’s life, Sigurðsson settles on a sweet yogurt drink. The Regular is anything but regular, as he changes aspects and moods several times, and Worm Serpent is a poet of diminutive size and mysterious abilities. Some of this allusion is meaningful and resonant (Edda), while some of it is just fun (yogurt drink). It’s a book to make a reader paranoid, reexamining every paragraph for ulterior significance.
Which means that it’s a book to light up the brain. Öræfi is occasionally tedious, but Sigurdsson generally knows when to change tacks in order to avoid reader boredom. He’s a skilled mixologist in terms of tone and style, a widely read and well-humored writer, and, truly, something of a genius. This book is his first to be translated into English, but it reads like the pinnacle of a long and lauded career. His metatextual abilities are already finely honed:
When it comes down to it nothing accurate ever gets written about anyone, a person’s character is always wrong and misrepresented, even if you write about yourself, your character is made to say something it has never said or thought, everyone is always making people tell things they never told, do things they never did; that’s how it’s always been done, writing about humans, dead and alive, humans get described mistakenly, made to use words they have never spoken, made alive when they’re dead…That’s folktales, said Sigurður.
In this paragraph, the author exposes the impossibility of the novel he’s (nevertheless) writing. That a character called Sigurður—the name of one of the most famous heroes in all Norse mythology—reminds the narrator that he’s talking about folktales, and not the kind of fictional narration Sigurðsson is performing through Bernharður…it’s so metatextual as to be confusing. But delightful.
Despite its weirdness, despite its cultural unfamiliarity, despite its difficult allusions, Öræfi is one of the most worthy books in a year stuffed with fascinating translations. It’s also one of the most intellectually engaging books on any shelf, any year. Whether with existential struggle against nature or absurd humor, it teases the mind relentlessly, joyfully. Sigurðsson’s wasteland is rich with possibility, both comic and tragic, and in its accumulation of meaning, it towers over its fellows—a massive glacier, awesome in scope, irresistible to an explorer.