Woman at 1000 Degrees
Translated by Brian Fitzgibbon
Workingman Press 2018
I've traveled down some of Hallgrímur’s literary paths before. Most famous for Reykjavík 101, the novel upon which the film was based and arguably the leading satirical Icelandic author, his specialty is skewering hagiographic biographies. This is a different sort of biography, partly based upon real people and events, but ultimately a work of fiction.
The woman of the title is one Herra Björnsson, born in 1929, and telling the story from 2009, living in a converted garage in downtown, lying on a bed all day with a hand grenade, a personal computer, cigarettes and memories. And what memories they are! Europe in World War II, Argentina in the late forties and early fifties, partying with the Beatles in Hamburg, mothering (in a fashion) four children and having numerous sexual partners but few real lovers.
This is a book that closely examines the human condition, with a special emphasis on war and how it destroys the lives of women and men, even if they survive the battle. Iceland, and its relative lack of importance in the scheme of things is a recurring sub-theme, as is how the cult of personality destroys lives. Helgason’s writing is always sharp, and the translation is excellent. That said, this book might be a little too quirky for a mass audience, I got a lot out of its small details, especially the Icelandic history, but the average reader might find it fussy and odd; the protagonist doesn’t generate much sympathy; the other characters even less. It is a funny book at times, but not a happy one.