Angels of the Universe by Einar Mar Gudmundsson; Translated by Bernard Scudder
St. Martins Press, 1997
I am admittedly obsessed with anything related to Iceland. With an astounding literary rate of 99.6%, and an amazing 1 in 10 Icelanders destined to be published authors, what’s not to like? As a result, I have read quite a few Icelandic authors in my day – Sjon, Halldor Laxness, Yrsa Sirgurdardottir, Arnaldur Indridason, Jon Kalman*. And while their styles and genres differ, I find all of their prose to be almost lyrical in nature. They almost beg to be read out loud. I am confident that as good as they are on paper, they are twice as good audibly. Maybe it has to do with their culture that is steeped in the oral histories of the Icelandic Sagas. Maybe it has to do with the beautiful, stark Icelandic landscape or the impact of entire days of daylight and entire days of darkness. Regardless, it is no surprise that I was practically giddy when I came across Gudmundson’s Angels of the Universe. The story of a patient in an Icelandic mental institution? Sign me up!
While Angels of the Universe is fiction, it is based on the life and death of Gudmundson’s mentally ill brother, and therefore feels intensely personal. The narrator of the story is Paul, and it is through his eyes that we see his gradual descent into schizophrenia, triggered by the break-up with his girlfriend. Because it is told from Paul’s perspective, the feelings are profound and almost palpable. Yet in true Icelandic nature, Gudmundson’s writing style is understated, and never overly dramatic.
The first part is focused on his childhood and family, and it is in this section that Gudmundson deftly gives the reader insight into Icelandic history and culture. The second part is deeply immersed in Paul’s time in and out of Klepp Psychiatric Hospital, and the friends he makes there. There is Oli Beatle that believes he writes songs for the Beatles; Viktor that believes he is Adolf Hitler; and Peter who is convinced that he is receiving his doctorate from a University in Beijing. Reminiscent of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, we see firsthand, the trouble that Paul and his friends get into while in Klepp.
For those of us not well-versed in the culture, there are some nuances and Icelandic-specific references that make it, at times, difficult to follow. But that is also part of its charm. It wasn’t the type of book that I just couldn’t put down, but preferred to absorb in small increments. While dark in nature, the story is written with such warmth and humor that it is almost comedic. And it is told with such compassion and tenderness, that it can only be written by someone who has experienced this firsthand. At once beautiful and tragic. Whether or not you are new to Iceland or Icelandic authors, it is worth a try. Note: It is hard to track down a hard copy so I ended up downloading the book while I continue my search.
* Please don’t ask me to pronounce the names of these authors.
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