:: Article

Limitations of a War Waged with Humour

By Abe Nemon.

Hallgrímur Helgason, Woman at 1000 Degrees, translated by Brian FitzGibbon (Algonquin Books, 2018)

The most romantic thing, though, was the glow from the tiny shiny swastika on his chest. I felt ashamed, but there was no denying it: Hitler’s cross had the same effect on me as a beautiful rose. Nothing is so seductive as a taboo.

In case the hand-grenade on the front cover left you unsure, Hallgrimur Helgason delights in exploding taboos—continually, like a kid playing with firecrackers—and in his latest novel he has found just the narrator for it in Herra Björnsson, a near-death octogenarian living out her second childhood in a garage outside Reykjavik, “together with a laptop computer”, and the aforesaid hand-grenade—an old keepsake given by her father. Her account opens with a deadpanned series of statements which trade off her own decrepitude for laughs, mentioning her rheumatism, a “catheter and bedpan”, the “Via Dolorosa” of getting to the toilet, and the lovely fact that “there’s constipation everywhere,” the evident goal being either to provoke disgust or, for a certain type of reader, a sense of morbid delight.

Yet Helgason is also canny enough to imbue his heroine with a kind of winning humour, worldly-wise and streaked with poetry. “Emails come and go,” she rhapsodises from behind a computer screen, “and good old Facebook just keeps on going, like life itself. Glaciers melt, presidents darken, and people lament the loss of cars and houses. But the future awaits at end of the baggage claim carousel, slant eyed and smirking.” (It is a credit to translator Brian FitzGibbon that Helgason’s various registers come across so distinctly.) As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Herra’s curmudgeonly attitude and determination to live and die on her own terms (culminating in her cremation “at 1,000 degrees,” which she boldly schedules despite the wishes of her grown-up sons and their wives) is less about being offensive than reclaiming the sense of agency she feels the universe—with its capricious God (“that universal idiot”)—has denied her.

Interestingly, Herra’s character was inspired by a real Icelandic woman, Brynhildur Georgia Björnsson, who wrote a memoir about her life that Helgason has loosely fictionalised. Like Brynhildur, Herra (né Herbjorg) was born in 1929, the granddaughter of one Sveinn Björnsson, who would become Iceland’s first Prime Minister. How a Prime Minister’s granddaughter ends up living in a garage is part of the book’s running commentary on contemporary Icelandic history and politics, which chronicles everything from the abandonment of outlying island communities to the pre-2008 fraud, tax avoidance, and subprime loan-based economy, of which Helgason has been an outspoken critic. Herra holds a dim view of modern Iceland which is echoed in her dismissiveness towards her sons, each of whom has gone off and adopted some worldly trade. The book’s chapters flit forward and back in time, and while there are some amusing interludes set in the 2000s—especially chapters fifty-three and fifty-four, where Herra battles with her daughter-in-law, the “ruthless bitch” Ragnheidur and that “bearded twat” she’s cheating with, and learns computer hacking in order to surveil and destroy this two-timing threat to her progeny—these more contemporary episodes often show little in the way of reflection on past events, an element oddly absent from the novel generally.

The book is at its most compelling when the action moves to Germany in 1940, and World War Two breaks out. Grandfather Sveinn is, at this time, the Danish ambassador to Germany, Iceland being in the possession of Denmark, which was then invaded and occupied by Germany. Iceland was subsequently occupied by the British, creating a geopolitical pretzel which prompts a heated argument between Herra’s mother, the homely island girl nicknamed “Massa”, and her father, Hans, who rebels against his ambassador father and decides to join the SS. Hans is obsessed with the minutiae of who rules who: “We are just small change in the world’s pocket, sullied by thousands of dirty fingers. Danish yesterday, German today, British tomorrow. We own nothing, are nothing, and can do nothing.” His wife responds with a line about the Icelandic spring which, Helgason jokes, could have come straight out of Laxness. The reasons emphasised to explain Hans’ decision to join the Nazi Party are based on status and a feeling of powerlessness, an analogy between the Icelanders controlled by the Danes and Germany under the Treaty of Versailles. When Massa pointedly asks what the difference is between Iceland before the war, and occupied Denmark now, her husband says, “Because the Danish bastards deserve it.” The book doesn’t have much to say about the racist side of Dad’s ideology. This reflects a larger issue, not so much with the story itself, but with the picaresque tone Helgason has adopted in telling it. What is in many ways the novel’s strength, is sometimes its limitation.

The five years of World War Two are offered as a tragicomic Odyssey which might as well have been given the title, “The Education of Herra Bjornsson”—or how the insane experiences of a girlhood in The War invalidate all your precious nostrums. Good little girls are meant to go to school, but at Herra’s Danish school they put poop in her shoes and endlessly call her names on account of her being Icelandic and the daughter of a Nazi. Her first significant education comes, instead, from a Danish sex worker, who teaches her about turning men’s tulips into cucumbers, but becomes distraught and throws the young girl out when she inadvertently lights upon the devastating truth about why the woman has turned to prostitution.

As the war goes on, Herra befriends people and then watches them be murdered, sometimes inadvertently causes them to be murdered, and sometimes even has to commit murder herself. In each case, death comes suddenly and arbitrarily; events are out of Herra’s control. The swastika which a jealous girl carves into Herra’s arm while holding her down symbolises her transformation into an unintentional Nazi when she is merely trying to survive. After the war, Herra earnestly seeks happiness and has four children, only for more woeful sorrows to follow. However, by this point, we are given to understand Herra has been so psychologically damaged by her experiences that it is not surprising that her sons grow up totally alienated from their mother, and only come calling when she is ailing or they are seeking money.

Helgason’s narration is consistently amusing, full of humorous similes and bizarre metaphors, equal parts mordant and macabre—the dancing kind. Her maturation into womanhood is represented as:

A little pupa [that] insinuated into itself into my gut and was mutating into a caterpillar, then a worm, and finally a small hamster. And when I saw the sea stretching out beyond the pier, the hamster suddenly expanded into a full-grown beaver that pressed his snout up my throat and repeatedly started to click his tongue against my gum.

After being told by a prostitute that, “All men are Germans”, Herra runs to a bathroom stall:

Then I spotted a mop in the corner, which I instinctively grabbed and shoved between my legs and started to ride like a demented witch, crying out in Danish, “All men are German! All men are German!”

But Helgason’s fondness for mixing the beautiful and taboo is never more crowd-pleasing than when he’s making fun of Nazis—not exactly a daring target, mind you—a running thread of mockery which reaches its apotheosis in the appearance of the obligatory David Lynchian court jester character, Aaron Hitler, who approaches Herra in the abandoned Hamburg train station amid the Allied bombing of that city. This “half a man … in half a coat, with half a hat on his head, hairy cheeks but a bare chin”, speaks in elliptic drolleries and malapropisms of Hitler quotes, professing himself to be the half-Jewish brother of “Dolffy”, and comically saluting Herra and a Nazi guard, abruptly yelling, “Half Hitler!”

In telling Herra’s sea-tossed life story in the manner of a rollicking picaresque, relating the relentless battering of fate heavily seasoned with a humour that defies the downbeat mood her Via Dolorosa life would seem to foreordain, Helgason seems to be hoping that maintaining a sort of upbeat stoicism, a constant burlesque and pantomime, will rope in readers as co-conspirators and get them to accept Herra as a purveyor of hard-won wisdom. The book’s central message is that bad things happen to good people like Herra, because life has no external meaning—God’s a capricious douche, what can you do?—and so it is up to each of us to supply meaning, to seize our fates and have our fun.

If Herra’s boundary-breaking is harmful to those around her, she never broods on it longer than it takes to tell the story. It is as though a critical mass of bad things having happened, and the mere fact of having survived for so long, make it unnecessary for Herra to do anything but recount her story and have readers sit in wonderment at her endurance of so many horrid episodes, appreciative of the self-deprecating humour which makes even the worst of it pleasant. Nor does Helgason engage with why, for example, Herra’s father actually becomes a Nazi, a highly consequential event that gets reduced to the level of kitchen sink drama. Despite his membership in an organization notorious for committing war crimes—he is, after all a member of the SS—Dad is strikingly innocent of any actual malice, and is even too sick to his stomach to partake in the despoiling when he has switched sides to join the Red Army as it ploughs toward Berlin. Not the least of the novel’s elisions, finally, is that this elderly woman—sick, dying, unable to move across a room without significant pain—seems remarkably cheerful for someone in that condition, utterly content with her computer, her dud grenade, and her scheduled cremation at 1,000 degrees. It is as though Helgason’s picaresque mode has room for (more or less) gentle mockery of war, genocide, and old age, but not for sustained engagement with the unamusing (and enduring) costs of Herra’s worldly ills. In this novel-length war against boredom, waged with jokes, sometimes a credible evocation of truth is the ultimate casualty.


Abe Nemon is a young man seeking employment. He will go anywhere in the world, “fetch you a hair off the great Cham’s beard, do you any embassage to the Pygmies,” if you pay him to do something stimulating involving literature and writing. He has an M.A. in English, is interested in stylistics, books old and/or translated, and digital rhetoric. The website The Old Book Appreciator may be seen as a kind of showcase for his skills. He lives in Ohio with his books and no pets.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 28th, 2018.