Walking into the night, by Olaf Olafsson. New York: Pantheon, 2003. 265 pgs.
Olaf Olafsson never disappoints! This novel develops from an usual perspective: that of an Icelandic man who becomes butler to William Randolph Hearst.
It has been about 25 years since Kristjan Benediktsson left his wife and family in Iceland, suddenly and with no explanation. Christian, as he now calls himself, has a checkered past that is revealed slowly, throughout the novel, in Olafsson's signature style. Must of what we learn about Christian is from letters that he writes to his wife--letters that he will likely never send. Is he expiating his guilt, trying to explain himself to Elisabet--or to himself, or is he simply trying to maintain some connection to his past?
After the dissolution of his old life, Christian takes a position as manservant/butler to "The Chief": William Randolph Hearst. The year is 1921, and Hearst is spending much of his time at what we know as Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, California. The Ranch, as Hearst prefers to call it, becomes a retreat for the rich and famous, and for an Icelander with a secret past.
It is interesting seeing Hearst portrayed through the eyes of an employee. As Hearst's butler, Christian has a formal yet intimate relationship with his employer. I would like to think that the briefly sympathetic glimpses of the Chief show a side of him that really existed. Meanwhile, we see how he manages his house, his staff, his lover. As Christian prepares for parties, guests, and everyday life at the Ranch, we learn about how Hearst collected the furnishings and art to fill his castle, the daily menus that were printed for guests, and similar fascinating tidbits.
Meanwhile, the title of the book foreshadows the life of the man from Iceland: Kristjan's slow walk into the night, with portents of hiding, forgetfulness, darkness, and oblivion.
The Chief is calling. Sometimes I think everyone is afraid of him except me. I'm afraid of nothing but myself.And,
I'll always be a stranger here, so there is little to remind me of what I miss...As the book draws to a close, will we learn if Christian's wife Elisabet is alive, is forgiving? Will he be confronted by one of his children? Will he allow his past to live again in the present?
This is a beautifully told and ingeniously organized tale, with a memorable protagonist. Don't, ever, miss an Olafsson book.