Reviewed by Jane Tompkins
Tantalized by the mystery that surrounds Erlendur Sveinsson, hero of three novels by Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason reviewed here last month, I plunged ahead and read—and in some cases re-read—several more; the best are named above. In both Outrage and Black Skies Erlendur’s colleagues Elinborg (in Outrage) and Sigurdur Oli (in Black Skies) take over while Erlendur is away in the East Fjords—his sojourn there, the subject of Strange Shores.
In contrast to Henning Mankell’s Wallander, who approaches the grimness he encounters in his job with determined stoicism, careful not to attribute meaning to events one way or the other, never considering the possibility of finding meaning, much less redemption, either here or in the hereafter, Erlendur, no less fatalistic, inclines to a broadly psychological perspective, seeing the cruelty people visit on one another as stemming from past abuse, bound by an inescapable chain of cause and effect, a sense of fatality that includes the impersonal forces of nature and time. The harshness of fate arouses his compassion for people who are suffering, his vocation having made him aware of the painful situations human beings often find themselves in, especially women and children. Though he has no prescription for their ills, on the inside his heart is soft.
The deprivations evident in the life of Indridason’s Erlendur are severe and frequently extend to those around him. At the end of a workday, he sinks exhausted into his living room chair and falls asleep. If he eats, it’s a frozen dinner from the microwave. In Black Skies, we see that a similar regimen applies to his colleague, Sigurdur Oli. The one time he has dinner with another person (neither man has friends or relations whom he meets socially), it’s with his ex-wife, Bergthora, who hates him. The couple has been arguing:
There was a long silence. The wine was from Tuscany, smooth and mellow on the palate; the music over their heads was Italian too, and the food they were waiting for. Only the silence between them was Icelandic.
It seems no amount of sentient pleasure can withstand the basaltic gloom that surrounds the people in Indridason’s stories. If it’s not the terrible cold or the awful murders that prevent the experience of pleasure, it’s the bad family scenarios.
But Sigurdur doesn’t give up. He’d planned the dinner in hopes of reviving the marriage and afterwards wants to see Bergthora again for another try. At novel’s end, while lamenting his own failure to pay more attention to the relationship, he still holds out hope. All is not lost, though happiness continues to elude him.
Stubborn and persistent, Indridason’s characters inhabit a world where happiness is rarely present. In Outrage, Elinborg’s marriage to an auto mechanic is solid; he’s a steady, supportive man who takes care of the children when her job keeps her out late. Her eldest son is another story; he leads an entire life she’s unaware of until she stumbles on his blog, where his talking about her to strangers hurts her feelings. But Elinborg’s feminine status lends her an advantage in Indridason’s eyes—her interest in Indian cuisine gives her a kind of satisfaction not available to his male characters; her family and her cooking provide a cushion against the overwhelming demands of police work. Though she feels the strain of balancing one against the other, Elinborg’s lot is about as close as anyone gets to happiness in the eight novels I’ve read.
But happiness is not what Indridason, or his alter ego, Erlendur, are looking for. That would be a bridge too far, or, possibly, not far enough. In Strange Shores, the direct sequel to Hypothermia, Erlendur falls further into the grip of his central compulsion: to discover the fate of people who were lost long ago in the Icelandic wilderness—as his own brother had been when they were children. In the East Fjords near his childhood home, ostensibly on vacation, he hears about a woman named Matildhur who set out one morning many years ago from Eskifjordur to Reydarsfjordur by way of the Hraevarskordur Pass on a visit to her mother and, struck by a blizzard, was never heard from again. Sleeping rough in what remains of the house he grew up in, Erlendur spends every waking moment in an attempt to determine what happened to her.
Before he sets out on his quest, he has a vision, or enters a kind of fugue state, in which he imagines himself asleep on the floor of the abandoned farmhouse, suddenly awakened when a being, whom he calls the traveller, appears in the doorway: “Why are you here?” asks the traveller, to which Erlendur replies “Who are you?” Three or four times in the novel some variation on this scene recurs, coming out of nowhere. The traveller’s repeated query poses the question the novel is asking: Why is Erlendur doing what he’s doing? What is it, really, that he’s after?
Of course, at one level, it’s the whereabouts of his brother who disappeared in a snowstorm when he was eight years old, the brother whose loss, we know from the other novels, has always haunted Erlendur. But behind that lies the further question: What meaning does his brother’s fate have for him? Why does it make him feel incomplete, baffled, unable to focus on his own life? Why, on his time off, is he driving around the countryside interviewing cranky old people, drinking indifferent coffee, smoking too many cigarettes, eating convenience store food and shivering at night, when he could be going to a warm country, or spending time with his daughter?
The mystery at the heart of Indridason’s crime novels is not whodunit, though we want to know that, nor whether the perpetrators will be brought to justice—when Erlendur finally discovers what happened to Mathildur it never crosses his mind to bring charges. Knowing the truth is the only thing that will allay his hunger. But only somewhat. In the end, the truth leaves him feeling empty. In his compulsion to know, what he finally encounters is the void.
In the last scene, a variation on the fugue state with which the story began, Erlendur meets the destiny that has been awaiting him all along. It both is and is not what we expect. An epigraph to the novel conveys, perhaps better than any analysis can, the spirit of Indridason’s writing:
May my poem pass like a breeze
through the sedge by the Styx,
its singing bring solace,
lull to sleep those who wait.
In unpoetic paraphrase, Indridason offers us his books as a way to distract ourselves while we are waiting to die. At once satisfying and foreboding, his novels are a powerful narcotic, doom-ridden but also inviting, and superlatively well-made. Read at your own risk.~