Ofeigur Sigurdsson, Iceland
About the author:
Poet and author Ófeigur Sigurðsson was born in Reykjavík on November 2, 1975. He has published six books of poetry and two novels. Ófeigur has tried his hand at a number of things: working as a uniformed night-watchman at a hotel, pre-packing ham and bacon at a factory farm, exercising his brawn as a dock worker, and exercising his brains as a student at the Philosophy Department of the University of Iceland, from where he received his BA degree in 2007, with a thesis on the taboo and transgression in the works of Georges Bataille. Ófeigur is at the forefront of a poetic movement of dynamic young creative people, who have recently had a hand in reshaping the form of Icelandic poetry. He has translated literature and written for radio on writers including Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Michel Houellebecq.
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In the terrible winter of 1755-1756, Jon Steingrimsson travels through Iceland, dwelling in a cave in the south and writing letters to his pregnant wife in the north. He is under suspicion of having murdered her former husband and has been expelled from his position at his monastery. The south, however, is not a desirable place to be in: the glacial volcano Katla is erupting, shrouding everything in a cloud of ash, destroying everything in its path, and Jon is at risk of being buried alive in the cave. Despite this, he works hard to prepare for the arrival of his wife in the spring so that they can start a new life there away from everything. But the scandal of the suspected murder follows Jon all the way into the cave and tortures him there both day and night. Very soon, the general sheriff pays him a visit…
Reverend Jon Steingrimsson is one of the most remarkable people in the history of Iceland, and later became known as the ‘pastor of fire’. This unique novel portrays him as a young man in the dark times of the first sparks of the Enlightenment.
Translated by Philip Roughton
“In the morning I went off to cut a tumor from a man.”
(Autobiography of Jón Steingrímsson)
God’s dearest gift & precious wife
It is only by God’s ample mercy that we brothers have reached the cave safely following our trip south over the highlands and hither into the darkness. That we should have survived is a blessing and a miracle; in the mountains we were caught in the most violent of storms. Beloved Þórunn, I will soon place these scribbled words of mine in the hands of a man who stopped here in Hellar; he says that he will be going to Skagafjörður sooner or later. The man is large and wears an enormous red woolen cassock, he carries an infant on his shoulders, sells books but is illiterate himself. These are his traits. His name is Kristófer and he promised to bring these pages to you. I gave him a rixdollar for his trouble. In other words, if you receive these trifles, it is proof that we survived the murderous snowstorm on Kjölur; we brothers have made it to Hellar.
The land is a single living creature. A body. And Þórunn, how painful it is to have had to part from you, with our blessed little one in your own body; may our good Lord be with you and the good midwife when the child wishes to come forth into our dreary earthly habitation. We must content ourselves with written messages for the time being and trust to those who travel the country despite the perilousness and cold of the weather and the harsh conditions in the North. Did not Sheriff Skúli mention some bearers / couriers / postmen / letter carriers?… It may be that no one wishes to be a postman here in this country but for certain eccentrics and vagrants. It would be most pleasing if this were rectified, and I understand that Skúli is working on this matter somewhat with the counts in Copenhagen. There the postmen enjoy great respect and wear uniforms provided by the king’s tailor, with brass buttons and silk ribbons / stiff caps / a horse and a trumpet! These individuals are paid a good shilling for their journeys. And then there are the Taxis in Hamburg, who rush all over Germany!
Rave Media Reviews:
Four stars “...extremely interesting novel, original and flawless. With the description of the character of the historical period, the author blends flight of fancy.” Einar Falur Ingolfsson/ Morgunbladid Daily
Four stars°“The style is masterful and compels the reader into this narrow world which, however, spans the entire universe and makes more than a little reference to the contemporary world… but the novel’s center of gravity, however, are its characters, who spring vividly from its pages; especially Jón himself, who unavoidably awakens both affection and respect, as frail and human as he is, while at the same time imperturbable. The most remarkable thing about this novel, however, is the text itself: partly old, partly new, flowing like lava, fire simmering beneath. Incredibly witty, sometimes hilarious, at times lyrical and always lucid, always fresh, a true reading experience… an artfully drafted text to an extraordinarily well-conceived story that mirrors reality, both then and now. Undoubtedly one of the best novels of the year.” Fridrika Benonysdottir / Frettabladid Daily
A Novel of Jón and his Written Letters to his Expectant Wife when he Dwelt in a Cave over Winter and Prepared for her Arrival and New Times, by Ófeigur Sigurðsson.
The long title does not lie: this is truly a novel in which the narrator knows deep down that he is preparing for new times. It is a historical novel about Jón Steingrímsson, the so-called “fire-priest,” when he was young and in love; it is also a novel about an alleged crime, the narrator being the accused and having to deal with the charge. It is about Iceland under a dark cloud of volcanic ash, at a time when a tiny gleam of the Enlightenment reached the country in the guise of men such as Regent Skúli, Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson, who all play a role in this novel, which is, forgive the expression, enlightening about the Enlightenment in Iceland.
This story of Jón is told through his letters to his wife, which is highly appropriate: the epistolary form was quite common in Europe in the late-eighteenth century, and by means of even just this one element Ófeigur Sigurðsson grasps the spirit of expression recognizable in texts from this period. He also captures the style extremely well and presents a credible image of the written language of the period without ever being pretentious or using archaisms that would be strange or unwieldy; because of this, the reader comes much closer to the historical period and characters.
Nor is the time period chosen haphazardly, or it is perhaps on the author’s side: the year is 1755, when the Great Earthquake shook Lisbon to its roots and Katla spewed its most violent eruption over the people of Iceland. The protagonists, the brothers Jón and Þorsteinn Steingrímsson, are in fact located beneath the volcano’s shower of ash, since they and a worker live in a cave in the Reynir District on Iceland’s south coast.
The Enlightenment is perhaps the historical period that we, at least in northern Europe, understand to some degree as the actual start of a new era, with two main trends taking precedence: ideas on mastering nature and secularization. At the same time this entails a paradox, precisely because the latter occurred to some extent due to the overwhelming force of nature. For instance, the Great Earthquake in Lisbon gave Voltaire reason to criticize religion, and especially the idea of the philosopher Leibniz that we live in the best of all possible worlds. This raised the rhetorical question: how could such a thing happen if God exists and we live in this best of worlds?
The paradox is found in the fact that at the same time, people began to apply their powers of knowledge to a greater degree against nature, no less the optimism of the Enlightenment than the promises of religion; knowledge and control of nature thus became the new Eldorado or the promised land of the Enlightenment, in which one not only tends one’s own garden but also clears new lands. Now we most likely face the idea that knowledge and control of nature have led us down an alley in which the revolution will be made by nature and not by men, because it is entirely unfeeling and overcomes all species, including man.
In his story, Jón truly stands at a crossroads, as underlined by many different things: by his scholarly pursuits in the cave where he and his brother are staying, by the visits made by the main messengers of the Enlightenment to Jón in his cave, where he is engaged in translating none other than Leibniz, thus perfecting the irony; the world where he is living seems to be one of the worst possible: Katla is spewing ash over everything and he is to a certain extent a refugee, due to the suspicion of murder laid by all the slanderers in the country upon him. The only thing that gives him reason for optimism is his love for his wife, who will join him the following spring, and the child she is bearing.
This is precisely what makes the story so exceptionally well conceived; the hostile environment cannot overcome the love carried by the letters, sometimes with the help of St. Christopher, apparently; something involving yet another doubling of viewpoints in this neatly composed story.
Another striking aspect of the novel is found in the poetic insertions, in which the style is reduced to staccato lines of verse, so to speak; these are prose passages for the most part, but inserted into them are slashes, as are used to mark lines of poetry within a prose text. To me, these often appear to indicate a different level of consciousness, dreams or actually Jón’s musings, but whether they actually belong to the letters isn’t always easy to tell. The reflections and descriptions can be exceptionally beautiful, as may be seen in the description of the earthquake of 11 September 1755, which without any doubt can be considered one of the most sublime achievements in Icelandic literature this year.
However, it is not only these passages that are a pleasure to read. The entire book, which is so well written, gives us not only an exceptionally good work of fiction to read, but also illuminates the ideas and movements that still set their mark on our lives. At the same time it reminds us of nature, which gives everything and spares nothing. Gauti Kristmannsson / Vidsja, RUV (Cultural Program, Icelandic Broadcasting Service)