Apr 20, 2006

Dreaming of Iceland: The Lure of a Family Legend
by Sally Magnusson, Hodder & Stoughton, 2004.

Rating: 4 puffins!

Scottish journalist and broadcaster Sally Magnusson explores her Icelandic roots with her father, the famous Magnus Magnusson, as she convinces her father to accompany her on an odyssey back to Reykjavík and the old homeplace at Laxamýri.

Magnus is well known as the 25-year veteran of BBC's Mastermind quiz show, and is highly respected as the translator of works of Halldor Laxness, and many Icelandic sagas. He is portrayed as a brilliant, irascible individual. It is a pleasure discovering Magnus through the eyes of his daughter.

The journey takes only 4 days but encompasses several lifetimes, literally! Sally interweaves her history and that of her parents, and as the pilgrimage takes place she interposes family stories ... some of which turn out to be true, some which fade in the light of scrutiny, and some which turn out to be more interesting than the family sagas which emanated from them.

Early in the journey Sally discovers something essential about her father, when she unwittingly disparages Icelandic moss as being "sickly green."

"The moss matters to Icelanders," Sally’s father tells her, and she realizes that he is "pre-emptively offended on his countrymen’s behalf ..." [See my similar reaction to Bourdain's film, below. You don't need to remind me that Icelanders are not my countrymen. I only forgot for a moment.]

Sally, meanwhile, proceeds to refer to Icelandic moss in increasingly glowing and laudatory terms throughout the book, at regular intervals. On the way to the Blue Lagoon, the road 'takes us across miles of grotesquely formed lava where heroism beyond the call of duty has long been demanded of the moss.'

Other highlights: Magnus relates his father meeting his future wife at a perfume counter in Reykjavík, where she sold him a bottle of 4711 (one of my favorite perfumes, which also happens to be a cologne when used by men). The Magnussons are related to the builder/founder of the Hótel Borg, who also happens to be the Strongest Man in Iceland and a glíma wrestler: Jóhannes Jósefsson (Jóhannes á Borg). They are related as well to Jóhann Sigurjónsson, a famous Icelandic playwright and poet, and the grandson of Laxamyri's founder.

Sally provides what could be the ideal epitaph for this book when she quotes Pastor Jon from Laxness' Christianity at Glacier as follows, "The closer you try to approach the facts through history, the deeper you sink into fiction." --Also a suitable motto for my husband's genealogy research!

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