Jun 13, 2006

Under the Glacier, by Halldor Laxness
Translated by Magnus Magnusson, introduction by Susan Sontag. New York: Random House, 2004. (Original Icelandic edition 1968.)

This book was published in a slightly different form, under the title "Christianity at Glacier," a title which I prefer for this book.

Who could be immune to the charms of a narrator who refers to himself throughout the tale as Embi? Embi is the "Emissary of the Bishop," sent from Reykjavik to Snaefells to investigate and report back on various suspicious events purported to take place at the remote Glacier. Embi meets Pastor Jon Primus, who is a practical man, insightful and brilliant. Or perhaps he is highly impractical, and possibly insane. As Embi travels to the community around Glacier he finds a boarded-up church, a pastor who repairs primus stoves and shoes horses instead of preaching, an abundance of coffee and cakes but little food, and passionately articulate people who rarely make the sort of sense that we can understand.

Glacier is far more remote than geographical distance would indicate, and not one person that Embi encounters is normal in any sense of the word. It is hard to classify this wild, funny, compassionate story. In her introduction Susan Sontag discusses elements of fable, science fiction, philosophical novel...but the title of her introduction says it best: "Outlandish."

Embi and Pastor Jon Primus are characters I will remember a long time, but they are not characters that will always remain in my heart, such as Alfgrimur in Laxness' The Fish Can Sing (which rates 5 puffins).

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