George Messo: The poet Kjartan Arnason has said of your work that it seems to be “a kind of notion of fiction”; moreover, that Bjarni Bjarnason “doesn’t exactly write himself into a tradition.” I wonder how you see yourself (and your own notion of fiction) in relation to that tradition – a long tradition of Icelandic storytelling – and why it might be that Arnason and others want to situate you on the outside?
Bjarni Bjarnason: Well, I think the whole of Icelandic literature is on the wrong path, and has been for a pretty long time, so obviously I’m on the fringe. I am actually rather surprised that I’m published at all, after having been underground for a decade.
I think Icelandic literature is stuck in solipsism. Icelandic culture is sold as something exotic and mystical, and most Icelanders are naïve enough to believe this myth.
All this started in the nineteenth century when we were a Danish colony. Like so many other colonies we had to find our own identity, to have some identity to fight for freedom for. So we were very busy finding what was Icelandic, collecting folklore and folk music, producing a lot of nationalistic poetry, and so on. This was necessary when we were creating an independent nation. Now we have been independent for a long time, but still the main question is: “What does it mean to be Icelandic?” I think the main question should be: “What does it mean to be human?” Or even just: “What does it mean to be?” So this is very simple.
One example of my being on the outside is the novel, The Return of the Divine Mary. It was published in 1996, after a lot of trouble finding a publisher. Even though it was published as late as 1996 it is the first novel in Icelandic literature that has absolutely nothing to do with Iceland. We have had fantasies before, even rather free flowing fantasies, but they have always, in the end, had something to do with Iceland. It’s just absurd that we haven’t been able to accept a novel that has nothing to do with Iceland before 1996. That fact indicates that we have really stuck our heads somewhere deep in the mud, and haven’t been able to get it loose.
Iceland is neither the beginning nor the end of the universe. Not even the United States of America is that. If you want to look at some geographical unit locked up in some historical time, and inside it, find a picture of the human spirit; it would be a better idea to look at the Roman empire. But even there, in the end, you would be staring at unanswered questions.
So I seem to lack a bit of respect when it comes to Icelandic Literature, because in that phrase people focus more on the word Icelandic than on the word Literature. And they focus on the surface rather than on the core, because they find that the matter which is talked about in our literature defines it as Icelandic, when it is really the way the matter is seen and how it is talked about that defines it as Icelandic. And I think that when you take the essence, the long tradition of Icelandic literature, which is the oldest in Scandinavia because all the literature about the Vikings was written in Iceland, and you point it at something other than the question: “What does it mean to be Icelandic?” then something special might happen. Then you take the Icelandic way of seeing and reciting, and focus it on the world.
So even if I don’t mention Iceland in my book about Mary, it is just as Icelandic as anything else that an Icelandic writer might write. You might even argue that because I forget Iceland as a material fact you get an even more Icelandic spirit in the work, because the special Icelandic way of telling a story stands out clearly when you don’t tangle it up with Iceland all the time.
But to analyze what makes the Icelandic way of seeing, or telling a story, special is rather fruitless. You should just enjoy it, because the story is older and more original than the analytical way of thinking. The core of Icelandic culture is storytelling, that’s why Iceland has been called “The Story Island”. Personally I think calling Iceland “The Story Island”, as people love to do when creating the exotic and mythical Iceland, is taking it a bit too far, because the core of most people everywhere is the story. The story is the basic unit in understanding.
But to use storytelling to answer the question: “What does it mean to be Icelandic?” when the essence of the word Icelandic is storytelling, is just asking for trouble. When defining a poem you should do like the poet Olafur Haukur Simonarson does, define it with a poem:
The poem is the bird
after it sat on the branch
but before it flew away.
The same thing counts with the self, as W. H. Auden said:
The centre that I cannot find
Is known to my unconscious mind
I have no reason to despair
Because I am already there.
So I try not to despair and look at something else with my writing.
After a decade on the outside, the writing of The Return of the Divine Mary propelled you from the “underground”, as you say, to the very surface of Icelandic literary life. That was your eighth book, and your second novel. Its nomination for the Icelandic Literary Prize brought you a lot of attention. Two years later your novel The City Behind the Words received the Tomas Gudmundsson Literary Prize and in 2001 with your fifth novel, The Cannibal Woman and her Husband, you won the prestigious Halldor Laxnes Prize. How much of a departure was The Return of the Divine Mary in terms of what you’d already been doing? And following on from that, what new possibilities for your writing did the recognition bring?
BB: The Return of the Divine Mary was a departure from what I had previously done, in the sense that when I wrote it I was more conscious that the daily whale-like reality going on around me, which some might have called Icelandic reality, had very little meaning for me.
Being an autodidact-outsider meant I was anonymous, and nobody expected anything from me. But after I had a book published and nominated for the Icelandic literary prize, suddenly the whale called Icelandic reality noticed me in its stomach, and people who hardly saw me before started forming opinions about me and what I did. This could have influenced me and my writing much more than it did if I hadn’t moved abroad directly after the nomination.
If the recognition had any influence on my writing at all, then maybe I became even more protective of what I was doing, and began writing in an even more cryptic kind of way, which was closer to what, at least at the time, I preferred reading myself. This was a possibility since I had been accepted as strange. The Return of the Divine Mary was so unusual in the context of Icelandic literature, that after it had been accepted, I could be as strange and incomprehensible as I possibly could. People didn’t expect anything except something absurd from me.
When you are accepted as strange you are in some ways free. The problem is that you are partly placed on the same shelf as a lunatic, who is also accepted as strange. One is in some respects seen like a child. Critics say, just like one might say about a creative child, “the boy certainly has great imagination!” and then leave it at that, without going into what lies behind this imagination. Like a creative child you are somewhat admired but not taken seriously.
Were there any stylistic changes?
Since I wrote The City Behind the Words, I have been working with a lighter and more accessible style. In the book I’ve just been finishing (Faces) I work with what I call kitchen-table-style, that is, the kind of style you use when you tell a friend a story from your life over the kitchen table. This book is close to an oral tradition of telling a story. When you tell a story orally the quality of the style can best be judged by how well you hold the crowds’ attention. You are judged like an orator. If the listener forgets everything around him, even the storyteller, and is all ears, then the style works.
It’s very hard for me to go back and find out why my writing went from one place to another and say if this or that influenced me. A story is the logic of feeling, feeling is life, and life, of course, is a mystery.
For me it is important to die after every book, and, hope to be reborn.
And is there ever a script for the rebirth?
I don’t make a plan for what I am going to write in the future, because then I feel I’m tying up my soul with ideas. The soul is important, but ideas are like aeroplanes, there will be another one going tomorrow. Besides, creation is unexplainable and unpredictable and after finishing something, you can’t count on being able to create anything ever again. One has to accept this complete uncertainty in what one is doing, and love it.
A writer is just a persona, a role, made up because we need an excuse for those of our fellow men who have a need to look at the soul, independent from science and religion, history, and, if possible, the world.
A writer (or rather the subject behind this role, feeling its way forwards in murky waters) is someone allowed to look into the arcanum of life, and bring as much back to us as he can tell in a fairly accessible tale.
The huge facade we call “culture” covers this up and makes the ultimate personal meeting of the human spirit with the unknown look just as a new book by some named writer who is there and there in his career and writes in this and this style about this and this known subject who we can place in a curtain place in a discussion we already know by heart. Some writers even believe in this merry-go-round, and actually consider themselves the role, that is, writers. But this is just a social game one has to join to be allowed the position of the whisperer, the one who whispers secret words to strangers he will never meet.
This “meeting of the human spirit with the unknown” is one of the imperatives informing your novel The Return of the Divine Mary, newly translated into English by David MacDuff. You tell a story of a young woman who may or may not be the Virgin Mary returned to the late twentieth century. What was it that prompted you to want to re-write or re-situate the character of Mary? What is the story trying to make known? And what philosophical/theological reasons did you have for choosing Mary as a subject, if any?
What becomes known while you’re reading something of value is very simple and in a way banal. What becomes known is something that we almost all the time take for granted and put to the side by calling it a fact. What becomes known is this simple sentence: There is life.
I never got the idea to re-situate the character of The Virgin Mary in the twentieth century. I was just writing about this young woman, and suddenly found out that to me she resembled the Virgin Mary in many ways. So the person came before the myth. And the story came before I could analyze what it was saying.
It’s obvious, both in films and literature of today, that it’s easier to create a memorable foul character, in the spirit of Dracula or Hannibal Lecter, than a good, innocent, and beautiful character. The contrast seems to be normal/evil. We take it for granted that the normal is good, which is, to me, a bit scary. George Bush goes out as the normal guy, but how good is he exactly?
This, among other things, prompted me to try to write out a prodigious and interesting character who is all at once innocent, good and beautiful.
The Virgin Mary is a very special symbol in the sense that the amount of basic text about her in the Bible is amazingly small. In total it’s hardly more than two pages. When you compare this to the four hundred pages which, for example, Dracula has to sustain his “life” as a major symbol, it is hardly worth mentioning.
So there are few major symbols in the western world based on such a small amount of basic text. Maybe that is indicative of the qualities, and the characteristics, that the Virgin Mary stands for, so fundamental in human nature that we don’t need several hundred pages to tell us who she is. It would be like having some stranger telling us all about our own mother. Innocence, goodness and beauty are so basic in us that most of the time many of us go around thinking that the human being is basically a monster.
Iceland is a Lutheran country. The Mary of your novel, however, seems very much to exist in the spirit of Catholicism. How conscious were you of the different interpertations of the Virgin Mary by the Lutheran and the Catholic church while writing the book? And in particular were you conscious of any religious impulse in yourself?
I wouldn’t call myself a christian, I didn’t want to be confirmed, for example. But still, I felt it would have been much too easy to disrespect the traditional view of the Virgin Mary, especially the view of the Catholic church.
The Catholics had a problem with Mary. After the Fall from Paradise, everybody was conceived in sin. But Jesus was obviously unstained by sin. So, what about his earthly mother?
After discussing this question for decades, even centuries, the Catholic church came to the conclusion that a sinless being like Jesus Christ, had to come from a sinless mother. And suddenly Mary was presented as the first sinless human since the Fall.
The Catholics didn’t have a problem with the fact that if they where going to use this argument fully it meant that the parents of Mary also had to be without sin, since they managed to create her sinless.
As usual the Catholics put a brake on the logic before it got out of hand and every forefather of Jesus up to god, who is both Jesus´s father and forefather at the same time, was declared sinless. If that had been the case, then Jesus of course, wouldn’t have had a thing to do on earth. His life would have been meaningless and he would probably have been analyzing the absurdity of being, his nausea and angst. With a sinless human race ruling the world poor Jesus would have become unemployed. The world had to be as full of sin as possible so that when he took the sins of the world on his shoulder, and freed his followers, he was instantly a great hit.
Now, when the Catholics came to the conclusion that Mary had to have been born without sin, they had another problem. What was her sinless body like? Was it made out of earthly or heavenly matter? If it was made out of earthly matter, then she was definitely buried somewhere on earth.
After thinking about this for a century or so, the Catholics came to the conclusion that the body of Mary was made of heavenly stuff and therefore, after her earthly breath had passed from her lips, she was, body and soul, taken into heaven. To me this seems to mean that she was literally all soul.
These beautiful beliefs of the Catholic church I respect in my book. Even though Iceland is a Lutheran country, the book is, as you point out in your question, in the vein of Catholic belief and this alienates it still more from the average “Icelandic” way of thinking.
And that was something you wanted to emphasize?
When I used the Bible as a source of inspiration for the book, I used the Catholic Bible, not the Lutheran one. For example, I call Mary’s stepmother Judith, a name Catholics recognize spontaneously as coming from the Bible, but to Lutherans it’s just another name. The story of Judith is told in the apocryphal books which belong to the Catholic Bible, but not to the Lutheran. When Luther read them he said that they certainly made good reading, but were less holy than the old and the new testaments. So he cut them out of the Lutheran Bible. This wasn’t good news for the women in Lutheran countries because the most memorable descriptions of women in the Bible, those of Judith and Susanna, occur in the apocryphal books. These women get much more space in the Catholic Bible than the Virgin Mary.
If you were to try to come to the bottom of the phrase “femme fatal” I guess you would end up analyzing the story of Judith in the apocryphal books. The Judith I present in my book about The Virgin Mary is, in every way, I hope, true to the traditional presentation of Judith as the archetype of the femme fatal. With Judith I don’t try as hard to brake out of the myth as with Mary, mainly because she hasn’t got that much space in the book. What was interesting to me was to let these two great women of the Bible interact, and in a way, measure their strength against each other.
Another thing more alive in the Catholic church than the Lutheran is the idea of Hell. How does this figure in the novel?
In chapter four of my book, which to my great delight you’re publishing, I have the protagonist, Michael Von Blomsterfeld meeting Mary and hiring her as an assistant in his Circus, which he calls: The Circus of the Divine Order.
The circus is, for Michael, a place where the laws of nature are worshipped to the extend that the things that are done within the arena sometimes seem miraculous. The miraculous is, to him, in a way just an illusion, a trick. He creates a mechanical circus, which produces miracle-like images. This he can do since he is a brilliant technician, and therefore has better control over things in time and space then the ordinary man thinks is possible. The mechanical circus is a metaphor for hell. Michael is showing hell in the streets and people applaud. But in the end it explodes and out of it flies a dove.
There are those who argue that if a law of nature is universal it means that everything in the universe must obey it, and that includes god. So then god wouldn’t be almighty if he had to obey laws of nature. Michael Von Blomsterfeld would agree with this, so that’s why, when he calls his circus, the Circus of the Divine Order, there is a hint of conscious, or unconscious irony in that name. He is, in a way, provoking God with his circus. The circus is a picture of his religious crisis. When Mary steps into his circus arena the crisis rapidly evolves into psychosis.
Maybe this psychotic state is in a way hell, and since Mary is attracted to Michael she has to go through hell to get to know him. Perhaps one always has to go through hell if one really wants to get to know another person. But it’s difficult to say where exactly that hell is located.
Usually locations stay where they are supposed to be but people wander. But hell seems to wander like a person. Even if you have found paradise, and decided to stay still there, one day you are in hell. And you don’t even know it.
Not knowing where you are and who you are might be an indicaton of that.
This interview took place shortly after Bjarni Bjarnason and George Messo met at The Centre for Writers & Translators on the Greek Island of Rhodes in 2001.