I wanted to write about the Second World War from a woman's perspective

Interview of Hallgrímur Helgason by Bernard Strainchamps (January 09, 2018)

Hallgrímur Helgason is an Icelandic author and artist. He has written several novels, as well as a children’s book, poetry, has worked for film, radio, and theatre, and regularly publishes articles in Icelandic and international newspapers.

Our offices in Paris are located Rue de Paradis (Paradise Street), between Passage du désir (passage of desire) and rue de la Fidélité (Fidelity street). You are talking about Paris in your book, have you lived in Paris? Do you know this area – the 10th arrondissement?

Yes, I spent five years in Paris, back in the nineties. Unfortunately I still never really mastered the French language. I was a lonely painter back then, hardly meeting people at all. At first I lived in the 11th, in Rue Sedaine, for a year, but for four lovely years I lived at 10 rue Martel in the 10th, the street of Julio Cortázar (he used to live at no.4), just off the corner from rue de Paradis, so I know this area very well, and love it very much, all this force of life in the narrow streets and great mix of cultures, from all the bourgeoise chandelier shops in Paradis to the African hair stylists on Sebastopol, from the sweaty human traffic around St. Denis to the cool oysters and steak bernaise at Brasserie Flo. My best friend in Paris now lives rue d’Hauteville, so I still take the metro to Chateau d’Eau if I’m in Paris. This all is the reason for this short passage in the book. It really is a happy greeting, almost a love letter, to those streets. Long live the Tenth Arrondissement!

On a more serious note, what motivated you to write this new “saga”?

A chance meeting with the lady who was the inspiration of my main character Herra. I accidentally called her up, when I was working for my ex-wife during her election campaign. And this old lady told me she was living in a garage. I came across an incredible woman, very witty and intelligent, a lady who had had a very eventful life. Later I found out that she had already written her biography, her father too, and her grandfather… The fact that her grandfather was the first president of Iceland also allowed me to write about the destiny of our country in the 20th century.

Who are these “silent men” in Iceland?

Iceland was the land of silence. Nowadays, with talk radio and TV, things have changed. But when I was growing up I hated this fact very much. If there was a problem, people just decided not to talk about it, hoping it would solve itself, go away or something. It was true for families and it was true for society in general. Politicians never talked about certain things, for example our dependency on the American army base, and all the profiting that came from it. All the rich mafia guys that controlled our land were totally invisible. Nobody knew who they were. So our culture was full of secrets, and all the papers printed every morning was just some lies about our country as “we wanted it to be”, not as it was in reality. So I was brought up in reading lies every morning. It was a bit like living in the Soviet Union.

This culture of silence has long been our tradition. Just the other week I read the traveling account of a German woman who was living in a farm in the west of Iceland back in the thirties. Every time the neighbors came for a visit they were offered coffee and stuff, but to her surprise people just sat there in silence and drank their coffee. There were no questions, no news told, no hunger for information. So this is where we come from. For a thousand years Iceland was populated by silent people who only left the farm twice a year, to go to the next farm for a cup of coffee. But because they had been living in silence for all this time, they did not really know how to talk anymore. This is the reason for the joke in the book, that Icelanders can read the sagas written 1000 years ago, for the language has not changed during all this time, because we left it unused.

When the war is over for men, it is only starting for women, with rape. Terrible things happen in the 1945 Berlin setting you are depicting!

I came across this fact in reading about the Second World War, especially a book that is a diary of an anonymous woman in Berlin, that she wrote after the war. I also read similar things from the experience of Icelandic women that were stuck in Germany at the end of the war. I wanted to write about the Second World War from a woman’s perspective, I thought we had seen so many books about the manly side of it already.

How can one write a novel that gathers together fictional characters and historical ones that are well-known to the reader?

By trying to make the historical characters seem fictional and the fictional characters seem historical. You have to allow yourself the freedom to turn the dull facts of history into an exciting story and you also have to try to make your made up story seem authentic and real, almost a historical fact, so that the reader can believe in it. This is really every writer’s assignment.

With internet and globalization, isn’t Icelandic culture also threatened?

I guess it would be, had we not prepared ourselves for it. Back in the sixties and seventies people were really afraid of all the US influence, all the pop music and the films, all this Tsunami of the English language and Anglo Saxon culture, so we all geared up and really tried our best in protecting the language, finding our own words for all the new technical stuff, all the new things that washed up on our shores, like telephone, television and computers… We even went further than you French people, in your anti American stand. We heavily supported our literature, gave grants to writers, financed the theatre, started doing our own films, and our pop stars finally had some hits abroad. On the whole we developed a strong art scene, so the Icelandic culture was in good shape at the beginning of globalization. And we still owe a lot to the cultural protection campaigns of the past. The international finance system may have harmed our economy, but I think culturally speaking, we have profited from the big international influence of the past years. Because we were in good shape, we did not drown in it, but used it for making our culture be heard in other countries. Today, Icelandic pop bands travel fifty countries a year, and almost every week there is an Icelandic book published abroad.

Why did you choose to stop the novel in 2009? How is Iceland today? [Editor’s note: this interview was conducted in 2013]

I wanted to place the story right after the crash of 2008, so it could comment on it. I started writing the story in 2009 and finished in 2011, and the old lady did not really want to live for a long time. The basic idea was that she has decided to die, makes an appointment at the crematorium, and uses the time she has left to tell us her life story. Therefore it had to end shortly after it began. Plus, if I would not have stopped in 2009, the book would have been 1800 pages in French instead of roughly 600…
Iceland today is sober. Party times are over. Still we really don’t know how we are doing, if we are living in a false reality or not, if we’ll have another crash soon or not. There still are some secrets hidden from view, important facts about our economical situation, that people have a hard time dragging out into daylight. Our culture of silence is not totally dead…