Frankfurter Buchmesse 2011 Challenge: Englar Alheimsins

The Icelandic book I read this month and had planned to review for the challenge was Eftirmáli Regndropanna by Einar Már Guðmundsson, but as it turns out, it doesn’t seem to have been translated into German (I was convinced it had been, but I can’t confirm it). As it is too late in the month to find another book to review, I am instead reviewing another book by Einar that I read several years ago: Englar Alheimsins, which was translated into English as Angels of the Universe (by the late, brilliant Bernard Scudder and published in 1995 and again in 1997) and into German as Engel des Universums (by Angelika Gundlach and published in 1998). It is his best known and most popular book to date, and has been included on the literature curriculum in Icelandic schools. It earned the author the Nordic Council's Literature Prize in 1995.

The story has been filmed (the author writing the script) and I can recommend the film, although not for people who only enjoy happy endings.

The narrator, Páll, tells the story of his life from birth to death, from a normal childhood to life as an adult with mental illness who spends long periods of time locked up in a psychiatric ward.

This is a brilliantly written book with a narrator who is open and honest about his problems and has been hailed as a very realistic portrait of mental illness. It isn’t all about being ill and unable to function – Páll also discusses his attempts to have a normal life and tells the stories of some of his friends and the book is in part a criticism of the attitudes towards the mentally ill and how they are treated. This is by no means a piece of mis-lit, however, as the narration is too upbeat for that and there are moments of humour, some of them absurd and others tragi-comic, but also poingnant moments when one wants to reach out to the narrator and give him a comforting pat on the back. Einar writes with respect and love for his character, which is no surprise, as he wrote the book in memory of his deceased brother, who suffered from mental illness much like the narrator, and it is fact a novelisation of his life, although of course Einar takes poetic licence and changes things to suit the story.

Anyone who wants to sample some of the best of modern Icelandic literary fiction could do worse that start with this book. If you want to start with something more upbeat, check this space in late December for my review of next month’s Buchmesse Challenge book: 101 Reykjavík by Hallgrímur Helgason.
4+ stars.

Disclaimer: The thoughts expressed in this review are drawn from a longer article/review I wrote many years ago (in Icelandic) that never got published.


Eva said…
This sounds quite interesting to me! I've got Independent People out from the library right now, and maybe I'll get Angels of the Universe as a follow-up. :)

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