"Under the Glacier" by Halld

A young theology student investigates the strange goings-on around a mountain in western Iceland in this fantastic and ironic novel.

By Andrew O'Hehir
March 30, 2005 1:00PM (UTC)
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If there were any justice in the literary world -- and of course there isn't -- this amazing little volume would inspire a cult following. In her introduction (by coincidence, her final published work) Susan Sontag observes that it's every kind of novel at once: science fiction, allegory, philosophical novel, dream novel, erotic novel, etc. But none of that sounds very funny, and "Under the Glacier" is hilarious, in a deadpan, northern-edge-of-the-world sort of way. If Flann O'Brien and Nabokov were laconic Icelandic fishermen, equally dedicated to pulling one another's legs and debating the nature of God -- and then if their brooding cousin Dostoevski came to visit -- this would be the halibut-stained manuscript they'd produce.

The only book I've ever read that strikes me as similar is Stanislaw Lem's science fiction masterpiece "Solaris," the basis for the Andrei Tarkovsky film. Like Lem's book, "Under the Glacier" is both a modern novel and a luminous tale of timeless mythic profundity. Its author, the Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, wrote many other novels in his long career, including "The Fish Can Sing," "Iceland's Bell" and "Independent People"; he died in 1998 at age 95.

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"Under the Glacier" is set in the remote rural west of Laxness' treeless island nation, where certain women can raise the dead -- and indeed are known to arise naked from their biers after their own deaths, to bake bread for the pallbearers -- and people are sometimes turned into great salmon. It's also the story of an Australian millionaire who has built an intrusive McMansion right behind the crumbling Lutheran church, and whose acolytes include a trio of unwashed Hatha Yoga practitioners from Ojai, Calif.

The entire text of the novel purports to be the report of an unnamed young theology student commissioned by the bishop of Iceland to investigate the strange goings-on around Snaefellsjökull, the glaciated mountain at Iceland's far western tip. (If that sounds slightly familiar, it's meant to: It's the extinct volcano through which the explorer Dr. Otto Lidenbrock descends in Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth.") The bishop is concerned with the question of "Christianity at Glacier," which is in fact the novel's title in Icelandic: Why has the local pastor boarded up the church, refused his salary and become a blacksmith and handyman? Where is his long-missing wife? What about the reports of an illegal funeral in which a casket was carried up onto the glacier?

Furthermore, the bishop seeks to dictate his emissary's style and limit his interpretations: "Don't be personal -- be dry!" he instructs. "Write in the third person as much as possible ... Don't forget that few people are likely to tell more than a small part of the truth ... Remember, any lie you are told, even deliberately, is often a more significant fact than a truth told in all sincerity. Don't correct them, and don't try to interpret them either." These instructions prove inadequate to protect our young narrator -- who calls himself "Embi" (for "emissary of the bishop") -- from the glacier's mysterious influence.

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As soon as our befuddled young man arrives at Snaefellsjökull, people begin to tell him that the glacier is said to be the center of the world and is a prodigious energy source. (Laxness didn't invent this belief; Snaefellsjökull today is the site of annual New Age pilgrimages.) On the other hand, maybe Embi is just wired; the serving woman in the pastor's half-abandoned house never feeds him anything but coffee and cake.

You could describe "Under the Glacier" as a record of Embi's frustrating but often hilarious interviews with locals or as a series of mind-opening philosophical discourses. It's really both; as Embi converses with the enigmatic pastor Jón Prímus (so named for his facility at repairing primus stoves), or with the parish clerk who is so noncommittal he signs his letters by writing "God is said to be great," Laxness remains just as enigmatic himself. He gently mocks both Embi's Lutheran orthodoxy and the pseudo-Hindu inanities of the Californians, but pastor Jón's faith is another matter entirely.

When Embi insists to Jón the importance of delivering sermons, at least at Christmas and other ceremonial occasions, the pastor answers: "Oh, no, better to be silent. That is what the glacier does. That is what the lilies of the field do." As Embi only incompletely and reluctantly realizes, Jón is a Christian mystic of the old school, convinced that shoeing and feeding horses pertains more to "the cure of souls" than preaching the gospel. In shuttering the church and turning to the outdoors, repairing farm implements and living off donated fish and bread, he is returning his religion to its ancient roots.

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As the glacier approaches and retreats, the sea birds call from the cliffs and the events of the novel grow more fantastic and ironic, pastor Jón remains its anchor. Embi meets the belligerent truck-driving poet Jódínus Alfberg and his employer, the mysterious Icelandic-American-Australian businessman Prof. Dr. Godman Sýngmann, aka "the Angler" and "the Tycoon," who hopes to harness galactic powers through the glacier in order to reanimate the dead. With fateful consequences, Embi even meets the immortal Celtic-Spanish pagan-Catholic sex goddess Úa (who has many other names as well), who was married to pastor Jón and then became Sýngmann's adopted daughter, before dying and/or being turned into a fish.

Got all that? When pastor Jón is finally convinced to hold a funeral for one of these people in his ruined church, wearing a too-tight cassock that has been gnawed by insects and mice, the result is one of the most moving Christian sermons to be found in all of literature. Such is the wondrous strangeness of this book: At its most ironic it is also most devout, in its darkest hour it is most illuminating. And as in any mystical journey, Embi only finds himself when he is completely lost.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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