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by Brad Leithauser

Pub Date: Jan. 24th, 1997
ISBN: 0-679-45083-1
Publisher: Knopf

 A Northern Saga, longer than an Arctic shadow and tougher to swallow than frozen venison filet, from a gifted poet and novelist (Seaward, 1993, etc.) who seems to have had a lot of time on his hands. Freeland can't be found on any map. Close to Greenland and Iceland, it's a former Scandinavian colony that lies just below the Arctic Circle and gives shelter to some 60,000 souls scattered across four small islands. The Freelanders, like most island people, live by fishing and, like all good northerners, love to drink. Lately, however, their children have been fishing less and drinking more, and quite a few have taken up hard drugs. This is the social crisis that Hannibal Hannibalsson, the President of Freeland, has to address in his campaign for reelection. ``I believe now,'' Hannibal declares, ``as I have always believed, that Freeland is the true world-light and if we remain faithful to ourselves we're the one true good hope of this troubled planet--the one true good hope!'' Hannibal's childhood friend Eggert Oddason, our narrator, is somewhat more cynical, adhering to the duty developed ``over a literary career spanning three decades and forty-nine books, to rail against my country and countrymen.'' Like most political pundits, Eggert starts with public issues but is more interested in private lives, and we soon learn how Hannibal managed his climb to the top and just how much it cost him and his friends--Eggert not least of all--for him to get there. A record of women shared and stolen takes up much of the story, as does a weird mystical quest for the ``Freeland Saga''--the ancient Freelandic epic poem whose possession by Iceland is a constantly simmering provocation. But it is hard to find much surprise in such an obvious election-year allegory, and it is harder still to see why such epic treatment was required. Skillfully crafted and conceived, but far too long and obvious.