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The Language of Origin

Written by: Dagný Kristjánsdóttir |

The short story “Fyrnist yfir allt” (1990; Time Heals All Wounds) is about a five-year-old girl who moves to Canada with her parents and is forced to take up a new language. She experiences the close connection between language and power, and she finds that, in both cases, she is on the wrong side. She knows how the foreign word is pronounced but she just cannot say it, and the tension and anger grows within her until she hits the girl who is teaching her. There is a snapping sound, and with it, the gate to her own language slams shut: the language of origin is put behind her.

The first-person narrator recalls this scene many years later when, in a London restaurant, she sees a well-dressed waiter drive a transvestite out with verbal abuse.

This short but complex story from Svava Jakobsdóttir’s (1930-2004) short story collection Undir eldfjalli (1989; Under a Volcano) can be read as a symbolic account of the author’s twenty-five-year long struggle with the creation and existence of the subject in language.

Svava Jakobsdóttir moved to Canada with her parents and siblings at the age of five, and grew up there. She was ten years old when she moved back to Iceland, and her relation to language never became automatic or uncritical, something that was already clear in her first book, the short story collection 12 konur (1965; 12 Women).

… “on my terms” …

In a lecture Svava Jakobsdóttir gave at the University of Oslo in 1979, she spoke of how only one tenth of women’s reality is visible in the prevailing literary tradition. “The remaining nine-tenths are hidden”. If a female author is to be true to her experiences, she must clear a passage to the surface for women’s hidden reality; and Svava Jakobsdóttir’s conclusion is as follows: “I want to say to the male literary tradition: very well, I will talk with you on the grounds of a concrete realism, but on my own terms – the inside shall be turned outwards”.

Gunnlaugsdóttir, G. Kristin (born 1963): Hvítur hjörtur, 1994. Tempera and gold on wood. Listasafn Íslands, Reykjavík

Svava Jakobsdóttir’s method is most obvious in her fantastical narratives, in which emotions are concretised and words become objects. In the short story “Veggur úr gleri” (Wall of Glass), from 12 konur (1965; 12 Women), a married couple’s lack of contact and the woman’s isolation is concretised in a glass wall that suddenly appears in the living room, between the man and woman. The woman energetically cleans and polishes it, just like all the other glass surfaces in the flat. Now and then, she sees the man stand up and say something on the other side of the wall, but it has no meaning for her. Finally, he dies behind the wall, at which point it has served its purpose and shatters into a thousand pieces.

This obvious move away from realism characterises only two of the short stories in 12 konur. Most of the stories are realistic snapshots of women’s reality, at all stages of life. If one reads them in the light of Svava Jakobsdóttir’s later works, one can observe in them a variety of recurrent motifs, such as people’s ‘betrayal’ of a moral or ethical requirement. One can see a flight from freedom into social roles, reification, and estrangement. One notices, furthermore, an intertextuality that does not only refer to literature, but also raises doubts about the extent to which literature creates reality, or vice versa.

In Svava Jakobsdóttir’s next short story collection Veizla undir grjótvegg (1967; Party Under a Stone Wall), half of the texts are written within the fantastical genre.

In an interview from 1990, Svava Jakobsdóttir discusses what she calls “emotional memory”, which is a memory that is unconnected to the intellect and thereby to concepts, but which emerges through repetition or by reliving an experience one “was not aware” of possessing. “There is, for example, no logical answer to a question such as: why do you plant a tree under a volcano? It could erupt, after all. Or – why do you love that man or that child? They could abandon you, after all. Or – why are you alive? You who will, after all, die […] I try, to the best of my abilities, to recreate in my texts the emotions that so often become either foolish or sentimental when one tries to express them in language. Perhaps they evade words and concepts”.

A Woman without a Brain

is a Woman without Problems!

In “Saga handa börnum” (Eng. tr. “A Story for Children”), the family’s precocious children would like to see what a human brain looks like. The mother sits on a kitchen stool while the oldest son saws up her skull, takes out her brain, contemplates it, and then goes to throw it in the bin. The mother is deeply hurt by this, so the brain is instead preserved in a jar and displayed as decoration in the living room. The loss of her brain does not affect the woman much: she does not, for example, find it more difficult to understand the Danish women’s magazines she buys.

This grotesque sense of humour is maintained throughout the whole collection, which begins with these words: “For as long as she could remember, she had decided to be true to her own nature and sacrifice her strength for her home and children”. (“Saga handa börnum”).

Svava Jakobsdóttir’s fantastical narratives are witty, their humour and irony emerging not least from their intertextual dialogues. The Bible acts as something of an internal text within her entire oeuvre, but she also refers to world literature, myths, adventures, and women’s magazines. Her epic texts are at their most gruesome and grotesque when she tackles traditional clichés and stock phrases, which people use without thinking: ‘sacrificing oneself’, ‘giving someone a hand’. The significance of religious rituals which in one way or another decide women’s position in society, is revealed when church ceremonies are merged (a wedding turns into a funeral), symbols are ‘misunderstood’, in the sense that they are taken literally, and concealed levels of meaning are, in this way, uncovered and made visible.

The bride in the story “Gefið hvort öðru” (Give Each Other …) in the short story collection of the same name, from 1982, is a perfectionist. This is why she chops off her right hand with clinical precision on the morning of her wedding. Do the marriage vows not call for the couple to: “give each other their hand”? The bridegroom does not want the chopped-off hand, but all ends well, in an exceedingly grotesque manner.

The Mirror

Bogadóttir, Johanna (born 1944): Stökkið, 1978. Lithograph. Listasafn Íslands, Reykjavík

The short story “Kona með spegil” (1986; Eng. tr. “A Woman with a Mirror”) is about a woman who has created the perfect home, and who lacks only a large mirror in the hallway trough which to increase the splendour of the living room. The mirror is too small and does not reflect what the woman wishes to see, so she takes the bus into town in order to exchange it. All the passengers are disabled, and the entire bus reverses.

The mirror reflects only one aspect of ‘reality’, just as the prevailing literary tradition only presents a small part of women’s reality. However, the mirror cannot show that which does not exist, and it cannot reflect the woman’s self-deception.

In Svava Jakobsdóttir’s mirror, women see “what there is”. They see themselves as an object, a doll, or a myth. They see themselves as attractive or repulsive, and the narrative reflects their position in front of the mirror. Later in her oeuvre, in Gunnlaðar saga 1987, a woman looks in the mirror and sees ‘herself’. And it ends badly.

Svava Jakobsdóttir’s oeuvre is often divided into two parts, the realistic and the fantastical, and it is the fantastical stories that have attracted the most attention and provoked the most analyses. This division, however, is a simplification of Svava Jakobsdóttir’s radical project. She has, in fact, never rejected the realistic art of storytelling, or its social and political references.

The goal of Svava Jakobsdóttir’s short stories from the 1960s is uncompromising: people’s mode of thinking – and thus their understanding of realism – must change immediately, or else there will be unpredictable consequences. Her use of the fantastical reaches its high point in the novel Leigjandinn (1969; Eng. tr. The Lodger), which begins with this sentence: “One’s position is so insecure when one is a lodger”. The novel’s centre of consciousness lies with the woman who is married to Peter. They live in a rented flat, but are in the process of building a detached house, like half of the Icelandic nation. A complete stranger turns up in their flat one fine day, and moves in with them. He makes himself comfortable in their hallway. They gradually become psychologically dependent on him, and call him the “lodger”. He finances the new house and moves into it with the couple. In the new house, Peter and the lodger begin to merge into one, and when a stranger knocks on the door, on Christmas Eve, the woman tries to open the door but cannot, because her arm has turned to stone. In the woman’s eyes, isolation and freedom are the same thing, and her dream about her own house, where she can lock herself in and become free, in fact consists of incompatible opposites. Through this basic idea, Svava Jakobsdóttir unites the three levels of the book: the woman’s psychology and her position within the family, the family’s position in society, and Iceland’s position in relation to other countries.

Leigjandinn is a sharply political satire, and it makes liberal use of carnivalesque and grotesque effects. Power relations are repeatedly overturned, the border between subject and object is blurred, and the deprivations people suffer are made absolutely clear through the disabled bodies and caricatured grimaces.

Upon its publication, the novel Leigjandinn was interpreted as a traditional allegory on the presence of the American troops and the NATO base in Keflavík. The Americans took over the occupation of Iceland from England in 1941, and they “moved with the nation into the new house” when Iceland became an independent state in 1944. Three years later, the troops left the country as planned; but two years after Iceland joined NATO, in 1949, the government signed an agreement with the USA that it should return in order to guarantee Iceland’s safety in the light of the Korean War. From that time and up until 2006, there was a controversial American base in the country.

The Outside is Turned Inwards

Her work moves from the frustration and individual anger of the short story collection 12 konur via the ironic critique of consumer society and women’s position in general in Veizla undir grjótvegg to the satire of political and personal paranoia in Leigjandinn. Svava Jakobsdóttir’s path led, after this, to political activism, and she was a Member of Parliament for the People’s Alliance from 1971 to1979. During this period she turned, amongst other things, to drama and wrote two plays. She continued this work in the 1980s, with the play Lokaæfing (1983; Dress Rehearsal), which was staged in the National Theatre’s basement theatre in 1983. The emphases in this play are different to those in her earlier prose work, and Gunnlaðar saga (1987; Eng. tr. Gunnlöth’s tale) likewise confirmed the fact that Svava Jakobsdóttir wanted to change not only her society’s way of thinking but also its conception of its own history.

Gunnlaðar saga has two narrators, a mother and her daughter. The mother flies to Copenhagen to help her daughter who is in prison, accused of having tried to steal a golden vessel from the prehistoric section of the Danish National Museum. The daughter insists that she did not try to steal the vessel but was merely “demanding its return”.

Behind Gunnlaðar saga lies Svava Jakobsdóttir’s painstaking research into the sources on Gunnlöð in Old Icelandic literature. She compared the sources and presented her investigation in the journal Skírnir in 1988. She draws our attention to the fact that what Icelandic schools traditionally teach about Gunnlöð and the skaldic mead stems from the description in Snorri Sturlason’s Edda, 1220-1230. There, one reads that Odin seduces Gunnlöð, daughter of the giant Suttung, and thereby steals from her the skaldic mead that she had been charged with guarding. Svava Jakobsdóttir points out that the passage on Gunnlöð in the old didactic poem Hávamál (Eng. tr. The Sayings of the High One) has, broadly speaking, been interpreted in the same manner. Svava Jakobsdóttir comes to the conclusion, however, that what is here described is a religious ceremony, a coronation in a kingdom, in which Gunnlöð grants the future king Odin the right to rule through a sacred libation (“hinum dýra miði”, the precious mead) and a sacred embrace.

Gunnlaðar saga begins and ends in an airplane, 30,000 feet above the earth, in 1985, but most of the narrative takes place around the fifth and sixth centuries AD, partly under ground, at the roots of the tree of life, the ash tree Yggdrasil.

Hávamál relates that when Odin steals the vessel Odrærir, he breaks a ring oath he had earlier sworn. Svava Jakobsdóttir considers Snorri Sturlason’s account of the religious ceremony to be highly distorted, and the result of her investigation – into the content, that is, of the religious ceremony in Hávamál and its later lot in the art of storytelling and academic research – lays the groundwork for the two timescales of Gunnlaðar saga. The mother in Gunnlaðar saga is a modern woman who has been indoctrinated by the story of Gunnlöð’s deceitful and spineless nature. Her daughter Dís, meanwhile, believes that she has experienced the true historical story. The story of Gunnlöð the daughter tells her mother, day after day in prison, is Svava Jakobsdóttir’s attractive reconstruction of Nordic mythology’s conception of the world. Gunnlöð is a priestess, and in the Bronze Age society in which she lives, man and nature must be in harmony. Man has an ethical responsibility for nature and the environment, a responsibility that is enshrined in religion.

Little by little, the mother becomes convinced that her daughter’s story, and thereby the story of Gunnlöð, is correct and true. She and the lawyer attempt in vain, however, to convince the judge of this, and Dís is declared mentally ill. The mother then steals the goddess’s golden vessel from the courthouse, where it was presented before the court as evidence, and at the end of the novel she has it with her on the plane in her carry-on luggage.

According to the supreme law of the goddess, one must not mistreat the earth’s body or mine it for iron for the production of weapons. Odin swears at his coronation that he will respect these laws. He does not plan to keep his promise, however. He steals the golden vessel, the symbol of symbols, and sets himself up as a deity, and the earth responds with crop failure, drought, and finally “the end of the world”. The destruction of the world in the past has its counterpoint in the Chernobyl disaster of the present, which the mother follows in Copenhagen in 1985.

Demanding the Return of History

In Gunnlaðar saga the country of guilt is described thus: “Long before I can remember, it sank like Atlantis, and no-one goes there without risking their life. There is no phone connection there, and even though my voice could reach you from there, you would not understand the language I would speak. It is not a human language. For the land is inhabited only by women, and their voices are quieter than silence. Some women, however, maintain that, in certain currents, the fish are able to understand the murmur of their voices in the deep surge of the waves”.

The sunken country can be interpreted as being the nine-tenths of the iceberg, the part of women’s reality lying silent and invisible in the ‘ocean’, which in turn becomes a metaphor for language and the literary tradition.

The lost, mythological society that Svava Jakobsdóttir creates in Gunnlaðar saga is not a myth of an original matriarchy, a kind of reverse patriarchy. The goddess’s power is both spiritual and worldly, and the loyalty to her is a loyalty to life itself. Women play a significant religious role in the society that is described, but the genders divide the tasks between them and respect each other’s abilities.

There is a sense of utopia in the old society’s respect for nature as well as in the mutual respect between the genders, but both elements contain a political message for the present day. Seen through the eyes of an Icelander, the book’s description of the ancient society is not detached from a recognisable reality. Svava Jakobsdóttir’s mythological world is rooted in the Old Icelandic literature, which is in turn intertwined with, and forms a part of, Icelandic culture. She reveals the hidden meaning of the myths, and our conception of both the past and of history changes.

Gunnlöð is only a young girl, but she has been brought up and trained for many years to be a priestess like her mother. She learns that part of the goddess’s law of life is death, which people should not fear. The goddess’s law is based on equilibrium; but it can never be taken for granted. It must be created and recreated every single day. Destructive forces exist, and they can only be held in check by proceeding with caution, by observing the religious rituals with concentration, and by believing in humility.

Language and Emotions

In the short story collection Undir eldfjalli (1989; Under a Volcano), the author continues the line of questioning begun in Gunnlaðar saga about ethics, about what is important, and about the extent to which, and the manner in which, this can be expressed in people’s relations. The self-image that can be created or broken up through language is the subject of the story “Fyrnist yfir allt” (Time Heals All Wounds). In a number of the texts in Undir eldfjalli, the superficial meaning is undermined through a confrontation between text and sub-text. However, one cannot say that the philosophical investigation of these late stories focuses on revealing language’s lack of meaning; rather, they express a powerful longing for meaning.

Since 1990, Svava Jakobsdóttir, who was a literary critic by education, has written articles on intertextuality and religious allegories in the work of the nineteenth-century poet Jónas Hallgrímsson.

Translated by Brynhildur Boyce