Cold Bucolic Love: A Long Letter from Iceland—Bergsveinn Birgisson's A REPLY TO A LETTER FROM HELGA

Mike Broida

In the small slice of Nordic literature that’s recently made its way to America, it’s hard to find any that’s escaped the broad, posthumous influence of Stieg Larsson. For that alone, Bergsveinn Birgisson’s A Reply to a Letter from Helga, translated by Philip Roughton (AmazonCrossing, January 2013) is a noteworthy addition to the Anglophone lexicon, bringing with it a brief and vibrant tradition few readers this side of the Atlantic have ever considered.

Birgisson’s debut translation into English takes the form of the titular letter from an elderly Icelandic farmer writing to his old flame (the Helga), and it’s a form that works well to Birgisson’s intention. During the passionate and hearty yearnings by Bijarni (the farmer), you can almost feel the pen scratching the paper:

Helga—I never grow tired of speaking your name aloud and writing it: Helga…it kisses my palate before it opens my mouth as wide as it can—that I’ve loved you only to live in anguish and an intentional lovelessness.

Yet during anecdotes of Icelandic farm life, the letter melts away and the reader is fully immersed in Bijarni’s bucolic ideals of sheep farming in Iceland. As with any conceit, there are drawbacks Birgisson struggles to work around. There is a certain amount of assumed prior knowledge implicit in such a letter, and as a woefully ignorant non-Icelandic reader, I often found myself trying to play catch-up with the characters and the lovely scenery. The slow and meandering pace of the writing made getting bogged down in the vast details easy.

Birgisson, a professor of Nordic philology in Sweden, has also published several volumes of poetry. His prioritization of prosody over all takes center stage in each sentence:

I remember when I boiled the head of a huge cod that I’d caught in the lumpsucker net. I sat there in the kitchen, sucking the splendid sweetness from the bones, my chin glistening with oily broth—and thought that your kisses were even sweeter, more luscious than this!

Roughton’s translation sings; there’s great subtlety in the language: it comes across as loving and peculiar to me, an uninformed American, but is still foreign enough that I can tell that there is a beauty and rhythm of an Icelandic culture wholly separate from mine—where a kiss as sweet as fish broth is a much more flattering thing than it might be in mid-America. Roughton, having taught Nordic literature at UC-Boulder and University of Iceland, is able to walk the linguistic tightrope between keeping the poetic pacing of Birgisson’s story while not losing an unfamiliar audience. An accomplished translator, Roughton received the American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize in 2001 and won second prize in the 2000 BCLA John Dryden Translation Competition. Perhaps his greatest honor is as translator for Iceland’s sole Nobel laureate in literature, poet Halldór Laxness.

Interspersed with the star-crossed love is a deft and molded backdrop of rural Iceland. This is perhaps the true gem of the book, the slow and furtive joy of following Birgisson’s crafting of towering green mountains and sweet Icelandic dells:

I made my way lazily down the track by the sea on the old Farmall and with Kútur in the trailer over the Lambeyrar sandbanks and along the hard, dry grassland that was only lightly covered with snow up to the Skorar crags. Past Blóðbrekka Slope, where it’s said that a teenage boy in the Middle Ages cut his own throat and let himself bleed to death. The creeping thyme winds around the rocks there and every time I pass by the place I’m overcome with a deep-rooted weariness.

Birgisson’s long letter is filled with little moments like these, each of them a deeply imagined dive into what really seems like another world. In moments like these, Roughton’s depth of experience with Icelandic poetry is clear.

As the story progresses, the distinction between the land and Bijarni’s love for Helga becomes less and less distinct. Bijarni writes to Helga, “the vision of you naked in the sunbeams was refreshing to the eye, like a blossom on a bare cliff ledge.” And then later, he describes Helga as a great paragon: “…see how paltry I am in my mind, dear Helga, likening you, young and naked, to a tractor. I know I’m just befouling your beauty by comparing you to a worldly thing. Yet you were a splendid tractor.” For Bijarni, there is nothing more quintessentially beautiful than the farming life. As lovely as Helga is, she never escapes, in her own latitude, the parameters of Bijarni’s bucolic world. Often she becomes a lamb that “I started seeing…in place of that damned ewe lamb and felt as if you were near me again,” such that it often becomes hard to tell exactly what Bijarni truly loves about Helga.

This is not without intention, as Birgisson’s novel reflects a direct rejection of urbanity, a real return to the country. At one point in the novel, Bijarni considers moving to the capital city of Reykjavík but finds it impossible to “leave the district where my forefathers had lived for an entire millennium, to work in a city where one never beholds the product of one’s hands and instead becomes a renter and another man’s slave.” Though this choice is made very implicity by Bijarni, a more dubious side of him develops, eventually revealing to Helga that “I came to a crossroads in my life. The path that I’d followed up until then branched. I took both paths. Yet neither of them rightly, in the sense that I followed one of them—but had all my heart on the other. With you.”

A Reply to a Letter from Helga is Birgisson’s first novel to win a major Icelandic award, The Icelandic Booksellers’ Prize, as the Best Book of the Year in 2010. It was nominated for the Icelandic Literary Prize (Iceland’s top prize and Birgisson’s second nomination) and for the 2012 Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. Helga is one of myriad translated works being proffered by Amazon, and it very much seems to be a beachhead on the American literary landscape for more translation from Europe. There’s a twist of an ending, and though it’s perhaps predictable, the novel doesn’t hinge upon it. Brigisson’s long letter (but short novel) is a transcultural and evocative story about regret and choice, and, for the American audience, a thoughtful meander through the Icelandic countryside not often considered and now unforgettable.

Mike Broida graduated from Kenyon College in 2012. He currently works at an elementary school in Boston.

A Reply to Letter from Helga
Bergsveinn Birgisson
Translated by Philip Roughton
AmazonCrossing, January 2013
$9.95 paperback, ISBN: 978161218714
118 pages