Christian doctrine gets a riotous, increasingly cryptic comeuppance in the Icelandic Nobel laureate’s whimsical 1968 novel, previously unavailable in the US.
It’s narrated by “unordained priestling” Embi, sent by the Bishop of Iceland to investigate unseemly activities rumored to be ongoing at the remote parish of Snaefellsjoküll Glacier, tended by unconventional minister Jon Primus—who shoes horses and repairs machinery while letting his church fall into ruin and failing to give the dead Christian burial, among other abominations. Embi’s report documents his meetings with the unflappable pastor, and with the local and itinerant eccentrics who comprise his isolated little world. These include: pastoral housekeeper Miss Hnallpora, who plies the emissary with cakes while recalling her vision of a golden-fleeced “fairy ram”; querulous builder and sometime poet Jodinus Alfberg; a trio of “Winter-Pasture Shepherds” who quote Buddhist wisdom while pursuing suspiciously unspiritual agendas; and the self-styled patron saint of the community “at Glacier,” Professor Doctor Godman (!) Syngmann. He’s a Falstaffian Christ-figure, an entrepreneur and philosopher devoted to saving humanity through the practices of “epagogics” and “cosmobiology” (which he explains in deliriously funny conversations with the obliging Pastor). When Syngmann dies, and the issue of proper burial is (so to speak) reborn, Embi falls into the quasi-maternal clutches of middle-aged siren Gudrun Saemundsdottir, who drops by claiming to be Pastor Primus’s long-absent wife (and Syngmann’s adopted daughter), revealing her own lavishly picaresque history, and explaining to the distracted Embi logical connections between Catholicism and brothel-keeping, while carrying him off “to the end of the world.” Embi recovers; but whether this impishly chaotic novel does depends on how you read it. Is it an overextended anticlerical joke, a boisterous folk comedy, or, indeed, both?
Readers familiar with Laxness’s earlier works shouldn’t overlook this fascinating appendage to them. Those unfamiliar might do better to begin with Independent People or World Light.