Jaunā Gaita Nr. 94, 1973

JG 94

This issue of Jaunā Gaita is devoted to the literature of modern-day Iceland, and includes the first fairly comprehensive selection and discussion of contemporary Icelandic poetry and prose published in Latvian. The translations, editing, and analyses are mainly the work of Gunars Irbe and Māra Kaugara (Sweden), who not only drew upon their personal knowledge of Icelandic letters and landscape, but also were able to obtain the advice and co-operation of several leading Icelandic writers.

First settled during the 9th century by the rebellious subjects of King Harald Hårfager of Norway and the site of Europe's first assembled parliament (A.D. 930), Iceland lost its independence in 1262 and did not completely regain it until 1944. Seven centuries of Norwegian and Danish oppression, coupled with natural disasters, decimated its population. Nevertheless, during its 1000 - year history, Iceland has produced a literature, beginming with the magnificent Sagas and Eddas, as rich, varied, and permanently significant as any nation in Europe. "The people of Iceland passionately needed literature for survival amid the hardships of nature and the outrages of centuries of foreign exploitation, against the menace of ice and fire", according to Thor Vilhjąmsson, one of the most important Icelandic novelists today, whose essay "Writing in the Shadow of the Sagas" introduces this issue. Active volcanos and immense glaciers, deserts of lava flow and volcanic ashes are still an ever-present reality in modern Iceland; so are uneasiness and resentment about the dangers of Great Power interference in Icelandic affairs. Also, writes Vilhjąlmsson, "verse-making may be regarded as the predominant national affliction", and "a person is hardly considered normal who cannot compose a piece of verse". The heroic saga tradition, best represented by Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laxness, is still present; however, most writers, as interpreters of the national experience, have moved away from it and concern themselves with more immediate issues, personal and political.

Eleven prominent contemporary poets are represented - Einar Bragi, Hannes Pétursson, Johannes ur Kötlum, Johann Hjalmarsson, Jon Oskar, Jon ur Vör, Sigurdur A. Magnusson, Snorri Hjartarson, Steinn Steinarr, Thornsteinn fra Hamri, and Vilborg Dagbjartsdottir. Gunars Irbe's analysis of Icelandic poetry describes it as "bewitched by its time"; niamely, it mirrors not only the violent and extravagant forms and colors of the Icelandic landscape, but even more so uneasiness about the future of humanity, dissatisfaction with Iceland's political fate, protest and sadness. The thematic and stylistic range of the poems themselves exhibits infinite variety: loathing for the world's evils joined with self-contempt for submitting to them in Johannes ur Kötlum and Thorsteinn fra Hamri; a highly personal, sometimes grimly humorous probing of nature in Jon ur Vör; the somewhat surrealistic quality of Johann Hjalmarsson; the simple, lyrical beauty Vilborg Dagbjartsdottir's images. Njördur P. Njardvik's essay on Snorri Hjartarson throws into high relief the myriad strands of Icelandic poetry. Njardvik calls Snorri's poetry "simultaneously classical, nationalistic, and modern"; permeated with all the traditions of Icelandic verse, yet partaking of all the trends of Western European poetry; with haiku-like perfection mirroring the beauty of nature- as well as psychological exploration and the panorama of Icelandic history.

The prose selections include an exerpt from Njordur P. Njardvik's grimly satirical novel,"The Population Planning Ministry", which envisions an Orwellian future when hypocritical politics will control even the right to propagate, and Gudbergur Bergsson's "The Local Candidate", in which regional politics and populace are portrayed bestially gross and stupid. By contrast, there is Indridi G. Thorsteinsson's "The Valley", a lyrical paen to the Icelandic land and those who remain close to it. Irbe's essay on "Tropisms in Icelandic prose" traces the dual ideological trends in its history: on one hand, an attraction toward all things Icelandic, especially nature and historical heritage; on the other, an almost chauvinistic revulsion against all things foreign and imposed by superpowers. Today, while Laxness continues the grand epic tradition and Vilhjąlmsson's highly individualistic style, which transcends realism, is more Western European than Icelandic, the literary scene abounds in novels dominated by contemporary political and social concerns. Political anger emerges in repeated castigation of Iceland's forcible involvement in the global strategies of superpowers and the noxious influences of foreign cultures and capital.

This issue also includes Irbe's survey of the high points of Icelandic history and his "travel notes" about visiting "the land of ice and fire".

In addition, of interest are numerous reviews of recent Latvian works on literature, philology, history and art.

The cover is by Hringur Johannesson, an Icelandic painter born in 1932.


I. Š.-L.

Sigurdur Greipsson's vocation is to watch over the geysers, his avocation - to live in intimate empathy. (Iceland, 1972)

Jaunā Gaita