Landscape is never corny

From Landscape is Never Silly (Landslag er aldrei asnalegt) by Bergsveinn Birgisson
Trans. Philip Roughton

Book One

Concerning the Weather and Dufgus’ Youth; Dósi Arrives

The weather is best on blustery days like today, when there’s a strong, high westerly and the clouds dash over the fjord and up the bay, blocking the sun now and then and kindling scattered patches of sunshine throughout the countryside. On such days the light isn’t everywhere, as when it’s cloudless. Yet the shine isn’t necessarily interspersed with showers. In a decent westerly, the clouds come rushing over the brims of the mountains lining the coast, and at noon the sunshine changes into margarine that drips glistening down the slopes. Endless sunshine isn’t any fun, and the full moon is far more delightful when it’s occasionally curtained by clouds. Now there’s a stiff westerly; the clouds have set off and there’s a storm in the offing. To me the clouds look like old men peeking meekly over the peaks down into the fjord, whispering something softly. But maybe it’s just the whine from the slaughterhouse.

Yesterday I went up the fjord and visited Gusi, but he was feeling sluggish, he told me. He absolutely won’t hear of doctors. No, the author of the fishes looks after me, he said, and when it’s my time to stop paddling, I’ll stop paddling.

Gusi talks continually about the author of the fishes, and generally compares mankind to fish on dry land. We sat in the kitchen and gazed out over the fjord.

Gusi grew up at a time when Christmas was a box of apples that arrived aboard a merchantman, and everything seemed to swirl with life here in the north. To me it seems like Gusi’s been here almost since God pressed his finger into the semi-solidified wax of the country, pointed down at the fjord and said: Here shall be life! Each and every farm along the coast had a landing place or boathouse, as well as a shed for gutting fish and baiting lines. Gusi’s shown me ruins here and there, pointed out a few mounds and weathered planks down by the sea and said: two boats fished from here and they were all relatives of yours; here’s where the sheds were. Fifteen people lived here. They were related to us through your late grandpa Friðrik. Here’s where they had their cows, and a few sheep. Look, the remains of the old kitchen stove are still here!

The men split into groups and went to sea in their little wooden boats in all sorts of weather and set lines made of hemp or hauled in fish on hneifar, pairs of hooks mounted on iron or wood, with a sinker at the bottom; the hooks were baited and spooled out by hand on the hempen lines. And the men never took provisions with them, out of some sort of superstition that such a thing tempted fate, and they said Matarfell (Food Mountain) when they meant Búrfell (Pantry Mountain), because if they said “Búr,” a sperm whale (búrhvalur) might come and send them to their deaths. I can picture Gusi, thirteen years old, sitting at the oars in some little boat or other, wearing thick knitted mittens with thumbs on both sides and having nothing to munch on.

Those were hard times, Halldór, says he who’s experienced a thing or two when it comes to work. If the weather appeared promising, they woke up at two or three in the morning and started by fetching bait, which they carried on their backs from the Co-op Building in Geirmundarfjörður over stony ground and narrow coastal paths down to the sheds. There they baited the hooks by the faint light of train-oil lamps until dawn, when the seafarer’s prayer was said and the boat launched from the boathouse. Gusi claims that he was often so tired that he fell asleep while drawing in the lines, but woke up whenever a fish was hooked. Sometimes he was seasick and vomited on his lines, yet didn’t stop fishing. That’s what he told me. And the merchantman that dropped anchor here in the fjord didn’t just bring boxes of apples for Christmas.

Once when Gusi was young he got to go along on a dory that went to fetch the supplies. When the net was lowered, he noticed something glittering white in the sunlight; the merchant had ordered this shiny white thing from down south. But what was he going to do with this item, to which nothing in the district could be compared? Maybe it was a work of art? Gusi couldn’t help but follow the crowd back to the merchant’s, hoping to receive some explanation for this thing.

The merchant was going to shit in it.

No. Bloody hell. Shit? Into glass?, said one of the old men, with a gasp, while others thought it absolute nonsense to even think of doing one’s business in such a glistening white object. But after the toilet started to secure its place there and become the recipients of people’s business, the little fishing village began little by little to disappear and transform into grassy mounds and weathered boards.

Dósi has come to visit, and plans to stay for the weekend. The man always had a good supply of whiskey and tobacco. When Dósi left, it was as if a hundred people had gone, yet Dósi was just one single individual. He was always impatient, and every time the fishing wasn’t going well he’d start going on about heading southward. We knew that they weren’t catching any more fish farther south, but now there was no getting around it, he simply had to move southward, where there was more going on, cable television and a shorter distance to the town’s pubs, and so on in that vein.

I remember the day when Dósi ran aground. The fog was so thick that afternoon that you could barely see your own fingers in front of your face, and Dósi took the wrong heading sailing in and knocked into Heljarsker Skerry. He radioed me, because he was afraid he’d punched a hole in the boat, but luckily it didn’t leak much. I followed him into the harbor, where we hoisted his boat with the crane. Afterward it was as if everything was against him here in the village; as if he always felt there was nothing going on here. The signal was always cutting out on the television, or it lost power, and finally Dósi went southward and managed to rent a big single-residency house with a satellite dish, and maybe he’s happier than all the rest of us here. Who knows?

On the Weather and Fishing

There’s a northeasterly gale today, with swiftly-moving fog and a drizzle here at the coast, but it’s clearer farther inland. Everyone’s ashore. Yesterday we sailed out to

Hámundarhryggur Ridge. Ebbi caught a 50-kilo halibut, and Bensi, who was fishing near him, said that Ebbi had stolen the halibut from him. Otherwise it was slow going for most everyone but Gusi. He bounced back strong from his sluggishness and hauled in 800 kilos that week, out by Heljarsker Skerry. Resilient, that Gusi.

When the television cut out here in the fishing hut, we played cards, and Ebbi told the story of when he’d been on watch on the Dagrún and they sailed into the humpback whale sleeping on the surface. The humpback was startled when the boat ran into it and splashed sullenly after they’d passed it. Bensi made his usual remark, that Ebbi was the only one who’d seen that humpback. Kalli: The story of the humpback that was in heat and turned its white belly toward him and started humping the keel. Bensi: The story of when the creature dragged him out to sea for three hours, against the current, and was probably a giant octopus, as declared by a monster-expert from the south. Ebbi said that his hook had gotten stuck on the bottom.

It’s one of the wonders of the world how these brothers, Ebbi and Bensi, can put up with each other. Yet they’d never bear separating, and they even help each other when they run into trouble. Like when the unloading crate swung into Ebbi and broke his thick glasses, which were held together by tape ever afterward. Ebbi couldn’t complete the unloading himself, because he can’t see a thing without his glasses. Bensi took over and helped his brother. Otherwise you might have thought they were sworn enemies, because if Ebbi asks Bensi to back up, Bensi goes forward. And if Ebbi has an opinion about something, for example, that the gannet is a beautiful and majestic bird, Bensi makes it completely clear that no blasted bird is lankier or uglier. One time Bensi took a bag of garbage with him to sea instead of his lunch. Bensi accused Ebbi of laying out the garbage bag for him and yacked into the radio about it all day long, but Ebbi was entirely innocent.

I saw Bensi for the first time as a teenager, when I came here to fish with Gusi. I was startled and thought, where have I seen this man before? I pondered this for a long time, until Gusi cleared it all up for me. I was probably thinking of images of Jón Sigurðsson, because the two of them were almost identical. When Bensi was in the south for the fishing season back in the day, he was always jokingly called The President. And if they’d kept any tissue samples from President Jón, and if Bensi is cloned from them, it’s a sign of changed times that Jón Sigurðsson is a small-boat fisherman up north at the Iceland Sea.

If Ebbi buys anything in the south, it’s completely useless junk to Bensi, but what’s extraordinary is that these brothers are totally dependent on each other. Ebbi never got his driver’s license, so Bensi does the driving, whereas Bensi can’t even boil an egg, and won’t hear of learning how. Ebbi is the cook. That’s why Bensi always lets Ebbi unload his catch ahead of him, so that he can go up to the house and cook. And when Ebbi bought curtains for the kitchen window in the fishing hut the year before last, and tried to make it look nice, the other one called it blasted girly crap that prevented you from seeing the weather. Ebbi is more of a woman than Bensi. Once he mail-ordered the book Ships and Boats of Iceland, which sports many hundreds of pictures. He peruses it every day and talks about how this and that boat is beautifully built, while others are terribly ugly. I must admit that for me it’s more about boats being able to float.

The same stories and the same murmur of the wind in cold northeasterlies.

When the Philosophizer Came to the Village

Easterly gusts and substantial waves. No fishing weather today. Hauled in a ton yesterday in around three hours. Huge fish.

On the way back to land I started thinking about whether the jackpot I hit at Selbrún yesterday was only a coincidence. It was like I had a gut feeling about it. As if something steered me there; maybe yesterday was completely planned. Or was it just random? And Gusi, Bensi, Kalli, and Ebbi, Sigursteinn the district-council chairman and his wife, the priest, and everyone else was here in Geirmundarfjörður by sheer chance; or was it our determined destiny? And who decides? Then I thought of the spider web in the packhouse, and whether we weren’t like the flies that the spider catches and fastens to its net. Maybe someone’s caught us like that, in a kind of net of destiny and fastened us to Geirmundarfjörður.

But no, that doesn’t add up. Because if we want, we can always go southward like Dósi. So we must be able to choose, too; but do we see the spider web that we’re caught in? Maybe no one sees it but God, or Bensi with his big binoculars. He can see all the way south to the next town if there’s good visibility.

I thought myself fairly philosophical when I brought this up in the fishing hut the other evening, but Bensi said that there was hardly any remarkable wisdom in comparing humans to flies. Ebbi said that he’d best leave his own head out of it, seeing as how were onto philosophical subjects. It’s actually a rather common concept here in the village. Philosophy.

I remember that I was sitting on a block of driftwood by the crane the day that the philosophizer came walking down the little pier. He was probably one of those tourists who lose their way north of Nasir and don’t stop driving until they reach our fishing station, where the road ends. Bensi and Ebbi were tinkering with their boats; it was warm and the wind was westerly. The philosopher asked how the fishing was going.

Ebbi told it like it was, that they were catching lumpfish in nets, and that the hauls had been good at the start of the spring, but they’d started dwindling as the fishing season went on.

Fishing!, came a cry from the next boat, and Bensi stood up from the engine and informed the man that they hadn’t had any bites here all season, neither lumpfish nor anything else.

What about the terns? How is their nesting going?

Ebbi said that he’d rarely seen as many nesting terns on the hillocks as now. The hatching ought to go splendidly this year.

Terns!, murmured the other man into his engine. We haven’t seen one single tern here. A few barren birds came in the spring. They all flew away.

Then the conversation shifted to serious matters and Ebbi asked whether the newcomer was a fisherman from down south. The philosophizer said that he’d never gone to sea; he was studying philosophy and was writing a thesis about someone name

Jón Dún Skotus, who’d written about whether God was the subject of theology or not. And this was then connected to Freud and about what he said was the subject of psychology, which was then connected to some other man who was named Kirkjugarður (churchyard) and what he said was the subject of philosophizers. I remember that the priest always calls Freud Mr. Froth, because he taught that people were full of black froth that could spew out at any moment. The priest calls psychology Blackfrothophy.

The philosophizer said a lot of things about this Jón Dún that I don’t remember anymore, except that he also specialized in the Holy Trinity. When I asked him what the Holy Trinity was, he scowled and said that it was complicated, and not easy to understand at a glance.

A few others had gathered to smoke and one of them asked the philosophizer what philosophy was, after all. Well, he said, philosophy is the mother of the sciences, for example.

And what’s the father, then?, asked Ebbi.

You can be so childish, said Bensi. Don’t you know that science and religion have no father? It’s all begotten by the Holy Spirit, which has no gender. Just then the priest drove into the village. He was in his old Ferguson, and told us that he was working on the gearbox of his Land Rover. The insomniac bags were in their places beneath his eyes; he was wearing blue overalls and was smeared with motor oil. Gusi had set aside a few small cod for him the day before, to hang to dry in the spring breeze.

Speak of the devil, said Ebbi. We were in fact just discussing spiritual matters— here we have a philosophizer from the south!

I remember the priest saying something about heathens in tunics rambling half- naked around colonnades, thinking up all sorts of useless rubbish; for example, these cod here, he said, pointing down at Gusi’s bucket. These aren’t cod, say the philosophers, but imitations of cod. Everyone agreed that this was absolute bollocks.

No, listen to me, said Ebbi, you’re not about to go eating imitation cod with genuine seal blubber, which made everyone laugh. Except for the philosophizer. He said that philosophy had at least sought the truth, and wasn’t making it up, as religion did.

Now I say, like Pilate, said the priest, turning his baggy eyes toward the philosophizer: What is truth? But without further ado, the priest jumped onto his Ferguson and drove away, with his cod and the truth.

Gusi stuffed Borkum Riff into his pipe and lit it. There was a high westerly and the air was warm and fragrant with vegetation and seaweed. The eider drakes at the landing stage cooed at their hens and the creek by the buildings sputtered onto the beach. I remember it well, how the stream sputtered onto the beach. Gusi calmly asked the philosophizer why people should actually study philosophy.

The philosophizer drooped his head meaningfully for several moments, as if really thinking hard about the best answer, before saying: I don’t know about others, but I’m studying philosophy in order to understand the world better.

Then some of those gathered looked up at the mountains and saw how much ice had melted from the ravines in the warm weather, while others looked out at the fjord and noticed the waves breaking on this side of the skerry, which meant the weather wasn’t good for fishing. Ebbi and Bensi looked at each other, then both at the philosophizer, and

one of them said: What is it, friend, that you don’t understand?

Chapter Headings Book One

Concerning the Weather and Dufgus’ Youth; Dósi Arrives On the Weather and Fishing
When the Philosophizer Came to the Village
The Funeral of Snæfríður and Reflections on the Next World A Chapter on Women

On Mink Hunting, Karl the Adventurer, and the Priest’s First Mass On Bliss of the Spirit and Seal Blubber
Gusi Comes to the Pier and Tells a Story
The Chapter on the Lost Halibut, and the Poet Enters the Story The Mess Begins in the Heart

The Story of the First Meeting between the Poet and the Priest On the Imbalance of Fortune and God
The First Short Story
The Housekeeper Arrives

The Advertisement
A Bit about Feelings toward the Housekeeper
The Housekeeper Asked Whether She Would Like to Go to the Dance
The Day before the Dance
The Dance
After the Dance
The Housekeeper Leaves
A Bit about Heavy-Heartedness
The Priest Visited, and Reassurance at Hneitisstaðir
The Chapter on the Widely-Read Man from Bolvík and the Priest
The Second Short Story
A Brief Consideration of the Sex Life of Female Seals, the Weather, and Moods A Trip to Town, with a Stop at the Priest’s
On Fishing and Dreams
The Poet Departs
Gusi Visited and Brought Fish for Dinner
The Priest’s Second Mass
A Brief Chapter on the Incident
Halldór Writes about the Handle
On the Eagle
A Dream and Visitation to the Priest
Halldór Goes to the Priest and Asks for a Poem
Memories of Dufgus Tímóteusarson

A Visitor Emerges from the Blizzard Book Two

The New Diary Consecrated with a Narrative about the Winter The Road Opened after the Thaw. Dósi Arrives
The Spiritist Comes to Geirmundarfjörður and Seeks a Connection A Dream, Jónmundur Visited

Concerning the Start of Heavy-Heartedness [fragment]
On Lumpfish-Fishing and the Weather
A Few Words on the World’s Inconstancy and Cotton-Grass A New Housekeeper Arrives
Visit with Jónmundur at Hneitistaðir
Swimming with the New Housekeeper
Thoughts on Tomorrow
A Visit to the Priest
The Priest Visited Again
Halldór and Arnheiður Go for a Picnic
The Priest’s Final Mass
Help Sought from Companions
The Sheep Fed and Folk Come Knocking
The Birthday Party and the Situation Worsens
The Visit to Jónmundur the Hunchback
The Trip Southward
Back to Geirmundarfjörður
The Morning Before the Fishing-Trip
The Final Fishing-Trip

The Letter

In a letter prefixed to the main text of the book, Sigursteinn Benónýsson, the district-council chairman for the district of Geirmundarfjörður in north Iceland, introduces the publisher to the book’s manuscript. Sigursteinn informs the publisher that he and his wife, Sigurlína Þrastardóttir, have written up this account, which is concerned with life in their district, from the diary of Halldór Benjamínsson, the great-grandson of a certain Bernódus, who served as parish director for Hneitisstaðir Parish in Geirmundarfjörður for many years.

Sigursteinn says that they had heard rumor of Halldór’s writings for a long time, and on bad-weather days were accustomed to seeing a light burning late into the night at the fishing hut or the Reading Society’s headquarters, where Halldór spent a lot of time. As it turns out, says Sigursteinn, Halldór’s diary is an important source for the way of life in Geirmundarfjörður; a way of life that is now on the verge of dying out.

Sigursteinn informs the publisher that he has corrected Halldór’s spelling, which

is not very good, and made certain other edits, including adding chapter titles. He has made an exception with Halldór’s advertisement for a housekeeper, to give an example of the diarist’s own way of writing. Sigursteinn has also added chapters in places where Halldór’s diary is silent, in order to provide the narrative with better fluidity and context and thus give a better picture of life in Geirmundarfjörður.

Sigursteinn points out that the narrative might make it seem as if the wind never ceases to blow in Geirmundarfjörður, but that this isn’t quite true: when the weather was decent enough, the men sailed out to fish, and didn’t have time for writing.