Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Tale of Theology, Mystery, War Cakes, Prince Polo Biscuits and Spiced Peacock

Halldor Laxness was an Icelandic author, born in Reykjavik in 1902, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955, wrote over 60 books in a range of genres, and died in 1998. Probably his best-known novel is Independent People, the tale of Bjartur of Summerhouses, a man whose rigid notions of independence have consequences about as grim as any in literature. For example, returning from a long journey in search of a lost sheep, he finds that his wife has died alone in childbirth, but – mainly thanks to his dog (“the warmth of her lousy body, hungry and emaciated”) – the child has survived. As he struggles to straighten out his wife’s corpse, he considers his situation:

"This put him in no mean quandary, the independent man, for experienced hands were needed, probably female hands, he himself dared not have anything to do with it. Must he then ask help of other people? The last thing that he had impressed upon his wife was not to ask help of other people – an independent man who resorts to other people for help gives himself over into the power of the arch-fiend; and now this same humiliation was to be pronounced on him; on Bjartur of Summerhouses; but he was determined to pay what was asked of him."

Very much lighter in tone is my favorite Laxness novel, Under the Glacier, published in 1968 and translated into English in 1972 by Magnus Magnusson. This hilarious novel is available from the Random House imprint Vintage International with a forward by Susan Sontag. I have always liked the magical realist style of novels like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Hundred Years of Solitude or John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War, and I would have to classify this novel in much the same vein. It is the story of an emissary selected by the Bishop of Iceland to investigate strange tales surrounding a rogue priest living near the Snaefells Glacier, the place chosen by Jules Verne for the beginning of his Journey to the Center of the Earth. The story is told in a mixture of first and third person, with the bishop’s emissary usually referring to himself either as “the undersigned” or as “Embi,” an abbreviation for “emissary of the bishop.” His assigned task is to investigate a number of questions important to the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, including whether rumors of the Glacier church’s being boarded up are true, why the pastor hasn’t drawn his salary in over 20 years, and why he hasn’t divorced his wife, “even though it’s a known fact that she has never shared bed nor board with him.” Further, Embi’s instructions are to simply report the facts: under no circumstances is he to attempt to understand or interpret what he observes.

On his arrival at the house of Jon Primus, the errant minister, Embi is ushered in by a woman who leaves him alone in the house with all of the doors open. Sitting there in the cold, he considers what he should do:

“He had been sent here only to look for facts. If he had to sit here without food all night, that was as good a fact for his report as any other. It’s about as unscientific as it would be dishonest to stop a scientific process in midstream on moral grounds – for instance, because one’s feet are frozen.”

Finally, at midnight, he smells coffee and the woman returns:

“The woman poured the visitor a cup of coffee and invited him to help himself, then took up position by the door with a stern expression on her face. The coffee had a mouldy taste, and truth to tell I was paralysed by the sight of these innumerable cakes arrayed around such awful coffee.”

Included in this array of cakes – which he estimated to number in the hundreds – were “three war-cakes, so called because they became fashionable during the war.” According to the historical comments given on the website, war cakes used “ingredients that were available to the average household during World War II.” The website gives a recipe, but the real “flavor” of the war cake is probably best captured by the recipe in M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, included in her collected volume, The Art of Eating. A note from the publisher indicates that “How to Cook a Wolf was first published in 1942, when wartime shortages were at their worst.” Fisher’s war cake recipe calls for ½ cup of shortening, but she notes that “bacon grease can be used, because of the spices which hide its taste.”

In summarizing the state of the church, Embi includes the following comments in his report:

“I also note pro tem that the church seems only moderately suited to attracting a congregation. Windows boarded with boxwood, the main door securely nailed shut.”

Later, Embi notes that there are no front steps so that entering the church would be difficult in any case (“Cannot see how members of the congregation can gain entry into God’s House if one excepts gymnasts in the prime of life.”)

The central theme of Under the Glacier is Embi’s journey of self-discovery, complicated both by his general youth and inexperience and by the surreal nature of the life he finds at Glacier. Central mysteries in the novel include rumors of a casket abandoned in the glacier, and the nature of the pastor’s wife, who is rumored to be dead. Theological debates about the necessity of saying something at a funeral are interwoven with discussions of reincarnation couched in terms of geophysics, “cosmobiological induction,” and “bioastrochemistry.” In addition, music is thrown into the mix, with Embi observing one of three itinerant mystics – called The Drop – as he seeks some central musical truth:

“The Drop sat kneeling and touched his lute with long pauses in between searching for the note that can only be sought far back in geophysics. It has been proved that there was a dry spell on earth once for 200 million years. Not a drop from the sky. No life possible. Yet the idea of water, which is the idea of life, continued to live in the deserts of the earth. Perhaps this lute-player had captured a note of the drop that went on falling in remote caverns of the Andes for 200 million years. Let us hope and pray that the music of the absolute is not just yet another variant of the Anglo-Saxon antimusic that blares out from the ghetto blasters of the world night and day.”

As this passage illustrates, Laxness’ novels include biting political commentary, here slipped into Embi’s descriptions with little warning. For example, in a follow-up of his initial encounter with the “innumerable cakes arrayed around such awful coffee,” the undersigned describes the next day’s offering:

“And though a detailed description of such a banquet does not directly concern this report, I cannot but emphasise the crucial change that has taken place since last night, in that a new sensation has now overthrown the war-cakes – foreign wafer-biscuits coated with melted chocolate. These are Prince Polo biscuits of the kind the undersigned was offered this morning at the parish clerk’s, specially manufactured in Poland for the Icelanders. Concerning this foodstuff I refer to Tumi Jonsen the parish clerk. In itself it is no small compliment to the morals of a nation to point out that when it had become wealthy and no longer knew how rich it was, it did not copy the example of other prosperous nations by eating many kinds of steaks and pates on weekdays and spiced peacock on Sundays, washed down with piment and claret; instead, Prince Polo biscuits were all that the nation indulged in as a sweetener after the centuries of black pudding and whale meat.”

Laxness’ commentary is particularly amusing in light of the fact that Prince Polo biscuits remain popular enough that an Icelandic commentator recently joked on the contemporary tourism website ( ) that “coke and Prince Polo is the national dish of Iceland.” Concerning “spiced peacock on Sundays,” Alan Davidson notes in The Penguin Companion to Food that peacock was once regarded as essential banquet fare (Cicero commented in the first century BC that it was “daring” to host a peacockless banquet), but despite its historical popularity, peacock seems to have been tough and not particularly good to eat. Instead, the bird’s continuing popularity for 1,600 years seems to have been due to presentation; Davidson notes:

“It is true that there were occasions when peacocks made a wonderful display on the table, feathers fully fanned out, bodies gilded with real gold leaf, flames spitting from their mouths, a sight that would impress anyone.”

Eventually, peacock appears to have been replaced by turkey as the banquet fowl of choice, rarely appearing on menus after the 17th century.

The ironic writing style evident in Under the Glacier is reminiscent of skaz, described by Jeremy Hicks in the introduction of his translation of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s The Galosh as, “the use of an unsophisticated but highly colorful language put into the mouths of characters who themselves typically tell the story.” The technique is clearly evident in the work of a number of Russian authors, including both Zoshchenko (who I will discuss in a later post) and the generally better-known Nikolay Gogol. Laxness’ technique is not exactly the same, but it comes close in some of Embi’s observations, such as the one quoted above about access to the church.

In her introduction to Magnusson’s translation of Under the Glacier, Susan Sontag notes that this novel is unlike any of Laxness’ others, offering it as the only novel she knows that encompasses all of the nine genres she lists, ranging from science fiction to philosophical novel to sexual turn-on. Overall, she offers the following summary:

“This is a novel of immense charm that flirts with being a spoof. It is a satire on religion, full of amusing New Age mumbo jumbo. It’s a book of ideas, like no other Laxness ever wrote.”

While I can’t claim Sontag’s literary breadth, I would have to add that Under the Glacier is a novel quite unlike any other I have ever read, by any author.

No comments:

Post a Comment