Thursday 19 July 2018

The flirtations of an Icelandic octogenarian misfit who lives in a shed

Fiction: The Woman at 1,000 Degrees, Hallgrímur Helgason, Oneworld, ­hardback, 446 pages, €17.98

The Woman at 1,000 Degrees by Hallgrímur Helgason
The Woman at 1,000 Degrees by Hallgrímur Helgason

Tanya Sweeney

In 2006, Hallgrímur Helgason - by then an Icelandic writer of some international acclaim, thanks to his cinder-black novel 101 Reykjavik - volunteered to canvas for Oddny Sturludóttir's election campaign. His job was to ring a list of numbers to talk to them about Iceland's Social Democratic Party.

The third person on his list was Brynhildur Georgia Björnsson, granddaughter of the first president of Iceland. She was an old lady living in a garage, but her sparkling wit kept Helgason on the phone for well over 40 minutes. "After hanging up, I honestly asked myself why this woman was not a household name in Iceland," he later wrote. Björnsson died a year after that fateful phone call, but Helgason, unable to shake the beguiling character from his mind, decided to write a semi-fictionalised version of her life. At the outset of the novel, we find our heroine, Herra Maria Björnsson, living out her final days in a garage, with a number of fictitious Facebook accounts for company.

She has outlived a three-month cancer prognosis by more than 12 years, and in time this becomes one of the least remarkable and impressive things about her. She is not averse to flirting with young Australian men on the internet, and hacks into her daughter-in-law's email account (where she is having an online affair) for fun. She goes on 'toilet strike' to antagonise her care-givers. Herra also sleeps with a German hand grenade (she throws visiting nurses off the scent by telling them it's a cooling device) and rings the local crematorium to pre-emptively book her own 1,000-degree cremation.

In the end, she is found clutching the grenade (the reasons for which unfurl in the tale), and sporting a swastika mark on her arm. "This didn't look good. It was like the opening to some third-rate crime novel," recalls Herra.

It's an understatement to say that she has packed plenty into her 80 years. From multiple marriages, flawed motherhood and traumas - oh, and a kiss with a pre-fame John Lennon in Hamburg - against backdrops as diverse as Nazi Germany, South America, Denmark and rural Iceland, hers is a story that's dizzying in its scope. The 120 vignettes that make up the book come at breakneck speed, bringing the reader from one era to the next, and lending Herra the air of an almost fanciful, unreliable storyteller.

Using a rich variety of tones and landscapes, Herra recounts her upbringing on a small Icelandic island, where her father dispatched her and her mother, only reclaiming them seven years later. Much like Brynhildur, Herra's father was one of the few Icelanders who elected to move to Germany to fight with the Nazis. In 1942, and at the age of 14, she is sent to Germany at her father's behest to meet her mother at a train station. Her mother never arrives. And for a good few years, there's not much to laugh at.

It's Herra's slightly detached re-telling of this cavalcade of horrors and atrocities that really jolts the reader. Occasionally, her account is pitched somewhere between pragmatism and bravado with the odd shocking detail thrown in (like being taught how to masturbate by the daughter of a concentration-camp director).

Events detailing the absolute worst of humanity unfold, and yet somehow Herra retains a sense of humour about it all. She is the doyenne of making the best of life's lemons. Above all, she is a survivor, or at the very least, a woman who was strong enough in the first place to withstand life's rich, often cruel, tapestry.

In current fiction, there's a joyous strand of lovably dysfunctional and crabby misfits. Gail Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant is one, as is Susan Greene, the protagonist of Sarah Haywood's The Cactus. They're characters, essentially, who give a writer the chance to divine a line between bleakness and humour, but there's something else afoot. These are complex beings attempting to map out their own traumas, or struggling to make sense of their lives. Herra, after 80 years of really living, is as wise and learned as they come, and Helgason's writing is suitably dense with substance and richness.

It's evident, not least given that the book clocks in at a hefty 446 pages, that Helgason has spent much time imagining the details of Björnsson's varied and extraordinary life. This, coupled with his own astuteness as a writer, has resulted in one of the most original novels of the year.

Helgason notes in his acknowledgements that, shortly after the book's Icelandic publication, he received a call from an Icelandic sailor who told him that the old lady appeared to him in a session with a medium, and that she was "not amused".

The rest of us, meanwhile, are amused, appalled and affected in equal measure.

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