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Rosa Candida by Auđur Ava Ólafsdóttir – not totally convincing

August 7, 2021 16 comments

Rosa Candida by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2007) French title: Rosa Candida. Translated by Catherine Eyjólfisson

I received Rosa Candida by the Icelandic writer Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir through my Kube subscription and I’m not sure I would have bought it myself.

Arnljótur Thórir, “Lobbi” is twenty-two and lost his mother Anna in a car accident. He lives with his ageing father and has a twin autistic brother. The three men try to survive Anna’s death, each in their own way. The father, who was much older than his wife, tries to cook his wife’s recipes. Lobby was close to his mother and loved working with her in their greenhouse. They grew roses, especially an eight-petal one, Rosa candida. Lobbi worked a few months as a fisherman to fund his dream: he wants to go abroad and restore the famous rose garden of a monastery.

Lobbi leaves his father and brother behind, but also his daughter Flóra Sól. She’s seven-month-old and lives with her mother Anna. Lobbi and her had a tryst in the greenhouse and accidentally conceived their daughter. Anna is still a student. She and Lobbi barely saw each other during her pregnancy and after the baby’s birth. He doesn’t feel an attachment to his daughter and yet carries her photo and talks about her to strangers. He knows he ought to feel something more about his daughter.

After an initiatic journey, Lobbi arrives at the monastery and is welcomed by Father Thomas, monk and film buff extraordinaire. Lobbi came with three cuttings of rosa candida, to add them to the monastery’s garden.

Lobbi starts working at the garden, finds a new routine in the village and spends evenings watching films with Father Thomas. He’s content with his life when he receives a letter from Anna, telling him she needs time to write her dissertation and that she wants him to take care of Flóra Sól for a few weeks. Lobbi accepts and plans for their arrival.

The whole book is about growing and blooming, as a plant and as a person.

There’s an underlying comparison between the garden’s restoration and Lobbi’s growing-up. He opens out as a man, as a gardener and as a father. He needed to leave Iceland to become an adult and grieve his mother. Her rosa candida, and thus part of herself, will survive in the garden of the monastery. Flóra Sól, with her flower name, her age is the personification of blooming. The monks grow fond of the roses and start going out of the library to enjoy the garden.

Rosa Candida is told with Lobbi’s candid voice and there are beautiful passages about fatherhood and how he builds a connection with his daughter. It is a coming-of-age novel with Lobbi learning to live on his own, thinking about life, death, sex and his place in the world.

The book is built with a certain timelessness and “placelesness”. There are no cell phones but they watch videotapes. Lobbi still goes to the phone booth. The village is set in a non-described country with a language only spoken locally. It sounds a lot like a remote village in Italy, but who knows.

Rosa Candida is well-written and poetic, with a slow pace to match the speed of plants growing and the time Lobbi needed to mature and figure things out.

I feel like I should have loved this book but I just can’t. Lobbi grew on me but the whole setting felt artificial to me. The coincidences of the names –two Annas in Lobbi’s life, his mother and the mother of his child–, Flóra Sól, a baby with a flower name whose birthday is the day (but not the year) when Lobbi’s mother died. The way the story is set up in an undefined time and place, to build a feeling of universality. Well, it didn’t quite work for me.

I think that the best novelists don’t need artificial devices in their books to reach universality. They tell stories set in their time in such a way that centuries later, people still connect with them. Think of Jane Austen or Balzac. Great novelists stories set in their country and readers abroad feel close to the characters.

Lobbi’s story is about grieving and growing as a father but if you want to read a beautiful book about grief and fatherhood, rush for A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do by Pete Fromm, a book that touched me a lot deeper than Rosa Candida.

PS: I usually don’t participate to Women In Translation Month hosted by Meytal ,mostly because I don’t read English translation of books and I live in a country where reading in translation is not an issue. However, Rosa Candida qualifies for it, so I’ll add my stone to the WIT edifice.

Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason

May 6, 2018 6 comments

Artic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason (2005) French title: Hiver arctique. Translated from the Icelandic by Eric Boury.

When Arctic Chill opens, Inspector Erlendur is on a crime scene. Elias, a ten years old boy has been murdered. He was born in Iceland from an Icelandic father and a Thai mother. Could it be a racist crime? Erlendur and his team are on the murderer’s trail and will make lots of detours before finding the culprit.

What can I say? I’ve heard a lot praise for Indridason and was utterly disappointed. I thought that the plot was trite, the investigation was dragging along, the ending was banal and unsatisfactory. Erlendur and his colleagues Elinborg and Sigudur Oli aren’t that fascinating. It took 404 pages to reach the conclusion in a tepid style. I didn’t even have the satisfaction to learn about Iceland. It didn’t help that the characters’ Icelandic names with their “dur” and “borg” endings evoked pictures of Vikings with swords, helmets and sheep skin clothing rather than 21st century human beings but that’s on me.

Paper thin plot + No real literary creativity + Rather boring book = short billet.

Why bother to write something then?

Because of my only rule : one book, one billet. I’m often behind with the writing and I feel that if I let myself not write about one book, other deserving ones might know the same fate. I need to respect this rule.

And also because I want to know: is this a bad one in the Erlendur series or are all the books like this? Please let me know what you think of Indridason if you’ve already read something by him.

Theatrics in Reykjavik

September 26, 2013 14 comments

The Pets by Bragi Olafsson. 2008 French title: Les animaux de compagnie.

September proved as challenging as predicted. Every year I swear I’ll be better organised and every year I’m as overwhelmed as the year before with school, things to buy, activities to schedule, etc. The Pets was our Book Club choice for September. It’s as crazy as the month and it kept its promises of entertainment. You may have noticed, this book is filed under the category Beach and Public Transport. I use this category for books that don’t require much concentration. It doesn’t mean they aren’t good books; they’re entertaining. The Pets sure fills the bill but reading it on the beach or in public transports might win you strange looks for the constant chuckles and reading it during a flight might give you the creeps. After all, as Olfasson mentions it:

Really it’s no small risk one takes, boarding an airplane. For three hours (not to mention on longer trips) one is locked in a tight, uncomfortable space, way above any civilization, with unpredictable people, who could drink themselves senseless or spill their food and drink over you—and the only place of salvation is the toilet.

Olafsson_petsSo we’re with Emil S. Halldorsson who is flying back to Iceland after a shopping trip to London. He comes home with CDs and books and gifts for his family and friends. As he settles on the plane, his neighbour starts talking to him. He introduces himself as Armann Valur, linguist. The guy is a complete nut case and he invades Emil’s privacy. Of course, Emil can’t get rid of him. On the plane and later in the airport, he also chats with Greta, a woman he had a secret crush on years ago. He has the opportunity to chat her up and he manages to have a rendezvous at his apartment later in the evening.

At the same time Emil is flying back to Reykjavik, we follow Havard Knutsson who has just come back to town after a long stay in Sweden. He intends to meet with Emil with whom he had spent a fateful summer in London five years before.

Arriving at his apartment complex, Emil learns through his neighbour that someone has tried to visit him just before he came home. Then he realises that he has accidentally taken Armann’s spectacles with him. So he leaves him a message on his voicemail to let him know where his glasses are. After that, he’s preparing coffee when he sees Havard coming over and hurriedly decides to hide under his bed to avoid him. Havard notices the coffee in progress, climbs through the window and settles to wait for Emil’s return. Emil dreads meeting with Havard and doesn’t show up.

Acquaintances (Armann, Greta) and friends arrive at Emil’s and Havard opens the door, welcomes them and starts a party while they’re all waiting for Emil’s return. Surely, he can’t be far away, since he was making coffee? That’s where Sartre proves right “Hell is other people”. Or perhaps it’s a remake of Goldilocks and the three bears with reversed roles. Havard, Armann and Greta make themselves at ease at Emil’s while Emil is hiding under his bed and listening to everything. Emil doesn’t lack a sense of humour or lucid self-analysis:

I pause for a moment over the word supernatural. Here I am lying under my own bed, recalling the ridiculous death of several animals which my companion and I were paid to look after five years ago, and now this Havard, whom I thought had cleared out of my life and was under careful supervision in an institution abroad, is back to haunt me, standing just a partition’s width away in the living room. Am I imagining all this? Am I all right? Is something strange going on in my brain, just as I imagined a few hours ago was the case with Armann Valur? Am I experiencing what I felt earlier today, that I don’t really belong here, that this isn’t my own home? Is the eccentric up there playing with me?

That’s Emil in all his glory. The first part, relating the trip back home, is already funny, the second part can be hilarious. It shows a lot about Emil and his immature doormat attitude. Things happen to him, he never leads the dance. He’s thirty-something and has a son who lives with his mother in Denmark. He doesn’t see him very often. He has a girlfriend, Vigdis, who works in a hotel in another town but he doesn’t really miss her and doesn’t hesitate to invite Greta over. He’s a bit naïve; during his first trip to London, he expected to find books at bookmakers’:

He discovered that one could walk into certain offices—that I initially took for printing firms because bookmakers was printed on the signs—and bet on horses and dogs, amongst other things.

You’d want to give him self-help books and urge him to grow up. He’s afraid of Havard and when he unravels the events that took place in London five years before well, you can understand why he’d rather dodge out of seeing him. Honestly, I couldn’t pity Emil’s predicament. He had brought it all to himself with his cowardice. However, who says “Sorry, I don’t want to talk” to someone who starts up a conversation on a plane or a train? Who is able to go out politely but frankly of a relationship they don’t want to pursue? Don’t we all know people we’d rather avoid and whose presence we dutifully bear? I’m a quiet person and for me, hell is chatterboxes who want to make me talk when I don’t feel like to. They exhaust me especially when they relate mindless stories about acquaintances or colleagues I don’t even know. I know someone like this. When I say it doesn’t interest me, she says I’m too intellectual and not enough interested in other people. It makes me want to isolate myself in a bubble of silence. Perhaps I should try hiding under the bed?

Anyway, it was funny to imagine Emil under his bed, witnessing everything that was happening without intervening. Olafsson has a wicked sense of humour and has a way with words, as you can read it here:

 “But I am asking you, Armann,” Havard interrupts. “Do you think I’m ugly?” Armann hesitates for a few seconds and then says: “I think you harmonize quite well”

Or

The smell in there was the smell of yesterday, or all the yesterdays that had been since it opened—stale cigarette smoke that seemed somehow to choke any possibility of good memories.

olfasson_animauxI couldn’t help imagining what a great theatre play this book would make. It has everything to be staged. Not too many locations, lots of comic effects and funny dialogues, this seems a good recipe for a comedy. Once again, this book was on my TBR thanks to Guy’s review. Thanks Guy! You can also read Max’s review here.

PS: An anecdote about names again. Emil S. Halldorsson. When I thought about him, it reminded me of a comic film by Les Nuls where one character named Emile is constantly urged to have a chewing-gum because of his chronic bad breath. (“Prenez un chewing-gum, Emile”) One day at diner, I mentioned this book to my family and that Emile brought back memories of that film when my daughter said. “Me, it makes me think of Emile Zola”. Before you go straight to cloud nine thinking how nice it is that a twelve-year old mentions Zola, let me bring you back to Earth: she only knows Zola because he’s a street name. She knows he’s a writer, sure, but she remembers him for the street name. We have this strange habit here, we name streets after writers, musicians, poets and less bucolic, war heroes. Some writers are eternal more because of their street name than because of their literary merits. And they become garages, cafés or driving- schools because owners name their business after their address. I’ve seen a Zola car workshop and a Balzac driving-school.

Book Club: would you like to read The Pets by Braggi Olafsson?

September 1, 2013 10 comments

September is usually a busy month. Children are going back to school, activities such as football, track and music resume. After the relative idleness of August, bye-bye cicadas, welcome back, busy little ants. Unless an Icelandic volcano plays tricks on us again, this is what September should be like. It called for an entertaining novel to relieve the stress and it’s going to be The Pets by Braggi Olafsson. So last month our Book Club was exploring the condition of women in the Victorian Age, now, we’re headed to contemporary Iceland.

Here is the blurb:

olfasson_animauxBack in Reykjavik after a vacation in London, Emil Halldorsson is waiting for a call from a beautiful girl, Greta, that he met on the plane ride home, and he’s just put on a pot of coffee when an unexpected visitor knocks on the door. Peeking through a window, Emil spies an erstwhile friend—Havard Knutsson, his one-time roommate and current resident of a Swedish mental institution—on his doorstep, and he panics, taking refuge under his bed and hoping the frightful nuisance will simply go away.

Havard won’t be so easily put off, however, and he breaks into Emil’s apartment and decides to wait for his return—Emil couldn’t have gone far; the pot of coffee is still warming on the stove. While Emil hides under his bed, increasingly unable to show himself with each passing moment, Havard discovers the booze, and he ends up hosting a bizarre party for Emil’s friends, and Greta.

An alternately dark and hilarious story of cowardice, comeuppance, and assumed identity, the breezy and straightforward style of The Pets belies its narrative depth, and disguises a complexity that grows with every page.

Doesn’t it sound marvellous? It’s a find we owe to Guy’s eclectic tastes for books and it seems funny in the department of odd relationships between bipeds. I had to show you the cover of the French translation of The Pets, Les animaux de compagnie. I think it’s excellent.

I will publish my billet at the end of the month. Anyone interested in it is warmly encouraged to reading it along with us. I’ll read all the blog posts you’ll publish about it and of course, you’re more than welcome to leave comments and links below my billet.

More info about The Pets?

Disover Guy’s review here and Max’s here.

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