Reviewed by Christiana Hills
Before traveling to a foreign place, we go into it thinking we have some idea of what the experience will be like. But it always turns out differently, and when we return home and our friends and family ask us how the trip went, this disconnection between our expectations and the actual experience can render us speechless. As humans we often desire perfect narratives that cleanly open and close, yet the string of new sights and sounds and tastes and architecture and landscapes and faces blurs in our memory in a way that we can’t simply retell. One might say it is like trying to recall a dream and only being able to capture one or two beautiful moments that have nevertheless already started to slip away.
Like a memory of a place we’ve never been, Oddný Eir’s Land of Love and Ruins mixes the strange and the familiar in dreamlike prose. It takes the form of a diary that follows the wanderings of a young author as she negotiates her own place in the world while trying to better understand her relationships with her lover, her family, and her country. The book is deemed semi-autobiographical; the many ties between the author’s life and that of the narrator (also named Oddný), paired with the intimate voice in the diary style, led me to think of them as one and the same.
Throughout the book, Oddný seems torn between wandering and settling down, a tension evident in the book’s very first words: “It’s strange being home. I’m relieved, though I still feel a bit homesick” (9). Such a strange homesickness for elsewhere characterizes the wandering quality of this book, a tension between desiring the familiar and something beyond it. Early on in the story, Oddný recalls a moment when she had her palm read by a gypsy woman. When the woman tells her she will be wandering for a long time, she immediately sees it as a curse. Yet it is this tension that keeps Oddný moving toward discovery.
We learn she is a writer, but only discern inklings of what she’s actually working on based on her meditations on Iceland’s relationship to its land scattered throughout her diary entries. She questions its future in the wake of the financial crisis, but she also delves into its past to learn about how its people used to live in greater harmony with the landscape. Another theme she constantly returns to manifests in the reality of making this writing, as she struggles to find a balance between finding peace and quiet on her own and building better relationships with those she loves, especially her archeologist brother whom she calls Owlie and her ornithologist boyfriend whom she calls Birdy (their real names are never revealed).
A literal wandering characterizes the way Oddný lives, in that she doesn’t seem to stay in the same place for long. The book opens with her visiting her family in Reykjavik, but she stays in various writer’s residences, camps in the wilderness with Birdy or near the archeological site where Owlie is working, and even travels abroad to meet with other artists and activists and visit the home of Dorothy and William Wordsworth. As readers, we feel this constant movement in the diary headings that note the place where Oddný is writing from. Indeed, these changing place names often announce a move more than the writing itself does, leading the reader to come to expect abrupt moves from the narrator, like writing in an attic of a city house in one entry or camping in the shadow of a volcano in the next.
There is also a wandering quality in the writing itself, which can flow from recounting the day’s activities to questioning global crises to musing intimately about Birdy. This varied stream of topics is reflected in the multifaceted tone Oddný uses, from her childlike nicknames for everyone she knows (like Birdy and Owlie) to her mature meditations on what she sees wrong with her country. But like a dream, these narrative shifts grow more familiar as we fall deeper into the book and come to know Oddný’s unique style.
One key point in the text passes so quickly you could miss it, but for the fact that Oddný ruminates on it at later points in the text. She meets with a former lover in a café and, to avoid mentioning their relationship from twenty years ago, they discuss how the love of nature, which is important to Icelandic identity, might be rescued from “the claws of nationalism”:
I said that that was absolutely right; the distinction between nationalism and patriotism wasn’t clear enough. So I came up with new alternatives, taking only twenty years to find the right terms: mó∂urjar∂arást or mó∂urjar∂arumhyggja, that is, love or care for mother earth. I find them a bit beautiful—though maybe not very manageable. Maybe it’ll take another twenty years to find better terms?
My coffee cup was very deep and the cinnamon roll a big spiral. (162)
Indeed, it’s not the events of this book that one remembers, but the intimacy with which Oddný expresses her many passions, an intimacy that takes small details, like an Icelandic neologism or the size of her coffee cup, and uses them to shape the way she thinks about larger concerns for her landscape and the people who dwell in it.
Philip Roughton seems to have been keenly aware of the importance of letting the text speak for itself. He doesn’t try to guide us through the writing—he pushes us in headfirst. For example, while the book is filled with references to Icelandic writers and historical personalities from the Icelandic sagas, Roughton was not tempted as other translators might have been to illuminate these references with paratextual devices like footnotes or a glossary. While it seems these references would probably be familiar to Icelanders, the intimate way in which Oddný speaks of these names alongside those of her own ancestors and living relatives evokes the closeness she seeks with her land and its history.
Roughton masterfully achieves this complex voice in his translation, with a diverse range of spot-on word choices that show the many sides of Eir’s humor and wisdom. One amusing moment comes when Oddný and her friends discuss how they might translate Snoop Dogg lyrics into Icelandic after seeing him in concert:
In the taxi on the way home, I suggested to Birdy that we translate Snoop’s lyrics into Icelandic, and asked whether we couldn’t just translate Doggystyle as ‘a dog’s mannerism.’ He asked in surprise whether I really didn’t know what doggystyle meant. Oh, not the way a dog is? I asked. No, in general, it means the sex position from behind. Oh, I completely missed that. (157)
Like a stream of improvised rap lyrics, Eir’s words in Roughton’s rendering come through unabashed and free of the self-consciousness that can often hamper writing that’s all too aware it’s going to be read, an effect that left me wondering at times whether I was actually reading a diary that was never meant to be published. When a paragraph break is all that signals a sudden shift between topics or styles, we have the refreshing experience of writing that doesn’t have to explain itself, but rather that merely continues in its flow as it pulls us along for the ride.
Eir, Oddný. Land of Love and Ruins. Tr. Philip Roughton. Brooklyn, NY: Restless Books, 2016.
Read Amanda Sarasien’s review of Christiana Hill’s translation of One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin.