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Friday, May 21, 2004

101 Reykjavik (By Hallgrimur Helgason)

Every now and then you read a book or watch a movie which changes the way you want to live your life. It's the ultimate compliment to a work of art if it makes you want to start talking like its lead character, or model your own life on theirs. It doesn't happen very often. The last time it happened to me was when I watched Pulp Fiction in the cinema on a quiet sunny Sunday in Sydney, NSW, Australia, and I knew I had found something which connected with me. All those cheesy jokes and cheap suits and retro references! Such brutality, such splendid banality! From then, my way of living was forever changed. Recently I came upon a book which seems like an Icelandic version of Pulp Fiction, minus the gangsters and gore. Strip away Tarantino's violence and what do you get -- endless witty jokes about rock bands and TV shows. Life in the media age. This is the style of writing which dominates Hallgrímur Helgason's 1996 novel 101 Reykjavik. It is kind of like a Tarantino take on day-to-day life, like going to the shops for milk or hanging out with your buddies in the bar, and packed with thousands of reference-dropping commentaries. Ashing a cigarette leads to a reference to David Bowie, "ashes to ashes". Characters don't leave a house, but make an "Elvis exit". 101 Reykjavik is the kind of novel packed with so much 90s-style referential wordplay that, when you're finished reading, you think: "Hey, this would make a good movie." In fact, it has already been made into a movie, directed by Baltasar Kormakur, and starring Victoria Abril.

Smoking in the snow: 101 Reykjavik, by Hallgrimur Helgason.

Other reviewers have described this novel as the "pathetic narration" of an "emotionally retarded slacker whose most intimate relationship is the one he cultivates with his porn collection" (Baltimore City Paper Online.) A little bit harsh, I think -- the lead character, Hlynur Björn Hafsteinsson does indeed enjoy porn, like many folk, but that is no reason to crucify him. He is no doubt a voyeur, but I think Hlynur's absolute obsession -- his core obsession if you like -- is what he calls the "theater of the real". He likes movies, but not to follow the stories -- just to check up on what the actors are doing these days. In one scene he watches a video of live births in American hospitals. In another episode he sneaks into a bedroom where two young people are having sex, pulls up a chair and begins offering critiques! This is how he describes it:
I gradually realize this is the first documentary I've seen about the Icelandic species. And I've got to say it reminds me a bit of Icelandic movies. CHILDREN OF NATURE. There's no plot in it. No angle variation whatsoever. Looks like we're in for an epic feature. Talk about dragging it out. Start to think about the zapper in my inside pocket. Saw a nature documentary the other day about those cameramen who make wildlife movies. Some British pony-tailer who dug himself into a hole for a fortnight in the hope of catching a shot of a hare shag. But he didn't even so much as get a hard-on in those two weeks. Maybe I just don't have the patience.
The Guardian writes: "this lusciously deadpan narrative - dazzlingly translated by Brian Fitzgibbon - is more than funny. It is not so much peppered with gags as infused with a wild, anarchic take on the world that is caustically, worryingly truthful." According to this other site I found: "Hlynur (the protaganist) is a true product of our postmodern global culture. Well beyond slackerdom, he lives at home with his mother and depends on social welfare. He's a quick-witted and articulate young man, and there's nothing wrong with him -- other than a total lack of ambition, an off-kilter sense of morality, and a nagging set of existential woes. Against the backdrop of Reykjavik's storied nightlife and amid the swelling global presence of Icelandic culture, Helgason portrays with brutal honesty and humor a young man who takes uselessness to new extremes, and for whom redemption may not be an option. 101 Reykjavik is a spectacularly inventive, darkly comic tale of depraved and inspired humanity."

The story is basically this: Hlynur is living in Reykjavík, one of my favorite cities, with his mother, who later turns out to be a lesbian. His mother gets a sexy new live-in girlfriend, who Hlynur also sleeps with. "I guess now we're fucks-in-law," he muses. Apart from that, Hlynur's life revolves around going to pubs and parties, and regular trips to the unemployment office. One of the reasons I decided to buy this book was to get an insight into Iceland's storied nightlife, since I was unable to go out when I was there last. Once I started reading, I discovered that Hlynur lives an idyllic, if aimless life, just like me. But what is wrong with being lackadaisical, what's wrong with going with the flow? That's the trouble with the world, there are no many people with aims, everybody aiming for the top... I'd rather be a bottomfeeder, fill the space that others leave behind. That is my ambition, if I must be forced to use such a term. So, I guess I have this in common with Hlynur: we're both bottomfeeders. The happiness of the unemployment lines; our freedom urgent as a blue sky, as Hakim Bey might have put it. Corporate high-flyers will never understand the simple pleasures of being alive. They can have their money, and I will take my precious moments, wherever I can find them. One day I will be dead, and they will mean no more to me.

Reykjavik 101 unloads on you like a stand-up-comedian; it is dark and cynical at times, but relentlessly clever in the wordplay department. Here is a typical extract:
The Castle at midnight. Not exactly wicked. Despite the name, it is just a cellar. "The Dungeon" might have been more apt. You step down into the past. A dire bluesy little piss hole: a murky cave, phoney brickwork on the walls, complete with (fake?) swords and armour. Prehistoric rock music spurting through the speakers, a tinny sound, like the records have been dug up in some archaeological find: Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin. "Eye of the Tiger", as it happens, when we walk in, myself, Throstur and Marri. A trip down mythology lane. Feel like I am in one of those QUANTUM LEAP episodes. Ancient Greece, except everyone's wearing jackets. Bacchus behind the bar cracking his whip, the old master torturer, fat and furious, thrashing the mob -- eternal slaves to alcohol with blistering wounds on their backs -- impressively equipped: the beer taps like levers on the torture rack, the thumbscrews tightening each time they're pulled. He can afford to laugh with the arsenal he has behind him: Hot Shots on the shelf, Black Death. Juggling his bottles like guns, he levels them at his victims, metallic spirit measures screwed to the nozzles like silencers. Uncapping the beer bottles with his teeth, he hurls them into the room like grenades, shakes Molotov cocktails. Pours boiling acids into poisoned goblets, and the customers sign their credit-card slips like they were signing their own death warrants. A highly combustible situation.
One of the things I like about Iceland is that it is so small, it is easy to get the hang of it. If you have been to Reykjavík, if even for a weekend, you have probably visited half of the sites visited in this book. It is the kind of place where everybody knows everyone, and everybody experiments with everybody else's scene. After spending some time in the heavy metal Castle, Hlynur and his crew move on to a place with a totally different scene and style of music -- Duran Duran is being played. Can you imagine young people in England or America being so promiscuous about their choice of music? It doesn't happen. Later, Hlynur confesses a love of Lionel Ritchie's 80s ballad Hello. In Iceland they seem to give everything a try; they mix and match; it's a big melting pot of influences and creativity. There is none of the genre snobbery I was brought up with in Australia: "I like techno -- there's no way I am going to that headbanger crap!" contrasted with "I can't stand that techno shit. Give me music with a bit of guitar in it!" Anyway, here are some of the cooler extracts from the book, the ones which struck me as particularly funny:

We're in a queue in front of the K-bar. There's a new bouncer who obviously hasn't done his homework. Doesn't know us. I've never seen him before, apart from the tattoo on his neck. A little bit more originality, please...
Guildy is telling the story about when he met Bryan Ferry in Amsterdam. Good story. Good music. Good view. There's a kind of Polaroid atmosphere here. One that calls for instant developments. If only Rosie would shut up. He's still trying to open himself to me:
"But I've always wanted to get back into costume design. I've done everything in hair now, everything I could do really, and I want to get out of hair and maybe work in theatre or something..."
"Yeah," I say, and manage to establish some eye contact with the video presenter sitting beside me. It works. He's obviously used to this from his TV work. I think it's what they call a cue. One glance and he knows he's on, he has to say something:
"But you HAVE actually worked in the theatre before, have you not?"
Good. We've slipped into the chat-show mode at last...
I have only been to Iceland once -- it was in late summer. Very pleasant I thought it, if a little too windy at the time -- and it amazed me with the most amazing skies I have ever seen. I will always remember that crystal clear Icelandic sky -- the sun hanging like a jewel in the blue, the clouds whizzing by just hundreds of meters off the ground. One night I saw the aurora. Next time I go to Iceland (estimated late 2005 or early 2006) I want to go in the middle of winter, like January or something. I have already started my saving campaign. I want to see what real Arctic dark and cold is all about, and I want to stay a long time -- at least six weeks. Plenty of time for hanging round boozy pubs and hotsprings -- I can hardly wait!

Here is how Reykjavik in the winter is depicted by Hallgrímur Helgason:
Reykjavik on a dark winter morning: a small town in Siberia. Snow drifting in the glow of lamp posts under a dome of darkness, enshrouding a shivering salted sea of porridge and shorelines of milk curds. Masticated frozen mush around the darkness. The mountains -- heaps of ancient debris, forsaken refuse, a junkyard from heathen times, scrap iron from the Bronze Age. Hardened glacial diarrhoea, hideous mounds of mould, encircle this transient town of cards, a camping site littered with computers doomed to disappear in the next blackout.
One other site I visited (from Sweden) also provided this pithy review: "En ung manns seksuelle følelser går når han oppdager at han har hatt sex med morens lesbiske elskerinne, og at hun antageligvis er blitt gravid." I am just trying now to guess what that this means. How about: "A young man's sexual fantasies run amok after he has sex with his mother's lesbian girlfriend." After Hlynur does eventually has sex with his mother's Spanish lover, he ponders: "I guess that makes us fucks-in-law." It's a witty remark, but also full of pathos, when you think about it. And when you think about it, there's plenty of great wit and pathos in this book! And so there should be.

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