Öræfi: The Wasteland
by Ófeigur Sigurðsson (2014)
translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith (2018)
Deep Vellum (2018)
352 pp

Death metal is one of the most challenging genres that ever existed, in death metal there are swift chapter divisions and the feelings and emotions lie deep, the way burning magma does, down in the dark glow of the human soul, apathetic and venting simultaneously.

That the protagonist of this novel is not only called Bernharður but was also born in Austria gives a rather large clue to one of the author’s key influences: Thomas Bernhard. Unlike Bernhard, though, Bernharður is rather kind about Vienna, and, while certainly darkly humorous, less prone to bilious scorn. But the novel certainly inherits Thomas Bernhard’s style of reports of reports of reported speech, leading to sentences like the following which closes the first section, much as mathematical brackets close a formula.

I’ll keep this mysterious treasure here with me instead and think of you, said Snorri’s Edda in the trunk, Bernharður said and the Interpreter interpreted, Dr Lassi wrote in the report, or so Bernharður wrote to me in a letter, Spring 2003.

An explanation is in order. Bernharður was born, as mentioned, in Vienna, in 1975, of an Icelandic father and Swiss mother (“an EFTA love affair”). When he was younger, his mother returned traumatized from a trip to Iceland. At the time of the novel’s story, as a late-20s research student in toponymy, Bernharður set out to visit the remote district of Iceland, Öræfi, meaning the wasteland, its name stemming from the devastation wrought on the area in 1362 when the Öræfajökull volcano erupted, destroying the Litla-Hérað region. It was forty years before anyone resettled the area, and it was given the name Öræfi, literally an area without a harbor, but which became a synonym for wasteland. The main part of the novel opens:

I was past exhaustion, writes the Austrian toponymist Bernharður Fingurbjörg in his letter to me, spring 2003. I crawled, Bernharður continues, into the Skaftafell Visitor Center, where I promptly lost consciousness. When I came to, a crowd of people was staring at me, but no one came over to help; my head was swimming; there was a large, open wound in my thigh, reminiscent of a crater, and I thought I saw glowing lava well from it, a burning torrent pouring itself out like a serpent writhing its spinal course towards a head that was actually a seething magma chamber. I was delirious. For a long time, no one did anything, then finally after much staring and gesturing a doctor was called; she happened to be on a camping trip with her family in Skaftafell at the time and came running full tilt to attend to me. I cannot find my mother, I told the doctor in my delirium, I cannot find my mother, I remember saying. I started to cry.

The doctor, Dr. Lassi, is actually a veterinary surgeon who, to save Bernharður’s life, tranquilizes him with a powerful animal sedative and amputates his wounded leg (“frostbite and septicemia and gangrene had begun to develop”) and, something she describes with a little too much relish, much of his crotch. While under sedation he raves in a mixture of Icelandic and his native German, for which she uses a (female) translator, who is referred to simply as the Interpreter. She writes up her report, ostensibly for a medical journal, but actually, as she tells the Interpreter, whom she is also trying to seduce, she aims for this to be:

A book entirely unlike anything anyone has ever written in Iceland, a medical history of Bernharður with biographical overtones yet mostly about the wound to his thigh and the amputation; a medical history with a biographical element but all wrapped up in national lore, even, my darling, global sensibilities. 

Later Bernharður reads her report and uses it to reconstruct what happened in a letter he writes to the author, someone he met on a bus to the Öræfi region. That letter is discovered some time later when Bernharður’s possessions, but not Bernharður himself, are disgorged by a glacier in the remote wilderness. “The glacier gives back what it takes, they say, and eventually brings it to light,” are the novel’s opening words, and a recurrent theme. And so when we hear from another character, Snorri’s Edda (the name a reference to an epic piece of 13th century Icelandic literature), we get:

I’ll keep this mysterious treasure here with me instead and think of you, said Snorri’s Edda in the trunk, Bernharður said and the Interpreter interpreted, Dr Lassi wrote in the report, or so Bernharður wrote to me in a letter, Spring 2003.

Quite how someone who had just had one leg removed could get back out on the glacier so quickly, to be able to vanish, is one of the book’s mysteries, as is what befell his mother years earlier. And indeed the end of the novel deliberately adds to the confusion by posing different alternatives to the origin of the letter and the reality of the story we are reading.

Toponymy is one key to the novel, in a country whose literature and history is founded on sagas, and one wonderful extended paragraph reads:

Place names often describe the terrain or soil, I wrote in the notebook, place names can describe local conditions or landmarks themselves; really, one could say the place names are the landmark, symbolically; they are often formed by the lay of the land or its landmarks, the shape or relation of one place to another, they often give the hint of mineral strata or some other geographical formations, or vegetation, they might describe color, can be metaphorical names, symbols, they are boundary markers, shore markers, the boundaries of pastures, they are taken from livestock, wildlife, from farming, from work methods or procedures, shipping routes and anchor points, trails, plentiful resources, travelogues, sundry incidents and events, battles, weather patterns, temporal markers, legends and oral histories, the names of people, doppelgängers, references to pagan religions, to Christian faith, the Church, political assemblies; place names are set upon landmarks and landmarks show people the way; place names are a testament to the people who settle a land or region, to their life, work and thoughts; place names are precious cultural histories documenting ancient eras, our attitudes today and a view to the future; place names are themselves people. 

But this is a novel where digression is a virtue. Amongst other topics we get:

—A history of the laconic and hardy souls of the Öræfi region, who ring each other up but then say nothing, simply enjoying the mutual silence. When one is prevailed upon to write an account of a particularly epic and dangerous journey undertaken in extreme weather (to deliver the post on time — shades of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s Heaven and Hell trilogy), he entitles it “Minor Incidents During a Pleasant Journey.”

—A discussion of music starting with Haydn but which segues into a discussion of death metal, notably the iconic “Blessed Are the Sick,” by Morbid Angel, the album cover taken from Jean Delville’s Les trésors de Satan.

—A Bolañoesque extended list of the various suicides, and attempted suicides, in the region over the last few hundred years

And towards the novel’s end, we get a diatribe against the reforestation of Iceland and the odd “animal welfare” rules that require wild animals to be slaughtered for their own welfare. Here the voice of Thomas Bernhard really does come through his namesake:

…my parents were tormentors of animals but they were simply performing their duty, they were not evil by nature, just low-minded and with bad taste, my parents were Eichmannic animal torturers for the state and I am an animal torturer for the state, whole generations are stuck in this torture mine, extermination is our ever-present guiding light, always the only solution…

Highly recommended and one to watch in the 2019 Best Translated Book Awards.

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