Vigdís Grímsdóttir

 

 

 

(Iceland)

 

 

  Do You Believe in Magic?

 

Trúir þú á töfra?, novel, 2011

My village nestles in a deep valley between tall mountains. Some say that it is in the Western Fjords, others that it’s in the Eastern Fjords and yet others maintain that it is in the highlands; if truth be told, the people who live here haven’t got a clue where they are …

 

 

The narrator is a twelve-year-old girl who is named after Nina Björk Arnadottir, her mother’s favourite poetess, and she describes life in her village which, surrounded by a dark wall, rests under a heavy glass dome. In this shut-in world an experiment to create the perfect community is taking place; here each and everyone plays whatever part he or she is allocated, under a reign of terror by the powers that be; here life is completely choreographed.

But little Nina has her hopes and dreams and, driven by her namesake’s poems, genuine curiosity and a yearning for beauty, she seeks the freedom everyone is missing.

 

Do you believe in Magic? is a story that takes place in the near future and leads its readers into a maze of arbitrary power and cruelty that no-one understands – as well as to the pure joy of life inspired by the scent of the past and the fragrance of the future.

While this work by Vigdis Grimsdottir is a true ode to poetry it also reveals a human being’s vulnerability in a complicated struggle for existence where only magic can light up the path.

259 pp

 

 

Chapters in English available

 

 

  VIGDIS GRIMSDOTTIR (b.1953) has received widespread recognition for her work and her books have been translated into several languages. Vigdis has won many prizes for her writing, including among other things, the Icelandic Literary Prize. Two of her novels have been adapted for the stage in Sweden and Iceland, and one of her novels, Cold Light, has been made into a major motion picture.

 

 

For further information please contact:

Forlagid Publishing

 Braedraborgarstig 7

101 Reykjavik

Iceland

 

vala@forlagid.is

ua@forlagid.is

 www.forlagid.is

 

 

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DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC?

 

 

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor;

it must be demanded by the oppressed.

Martin Luther King

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

The story of my childhood passes underneath the glass dome within the wall, and in hindsight I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on anything; I am sure of that now, even though I didn’t always think like that when I was a little girl.

 

          My village lies in a deep valley between tall mountains.

          Some say it is in the West Fjords, others say it’s in the East Fjords, yet others maintain it lies somewhere in the highlands; but if truth be told, the people who live here have no knowledge of where they are and therefore their speculations are of little consequence. We are here, and have been so for a long time, and there is no road that leads away from here; these are the facts we live by and in fact, we’ve managed surprisingly well.

          It is actually ever so long since people first came here and those who consider themselves learned say that since the time I was born, just over twelve years ago, nobody has left this place; but even though visitors are not to be expected any day soon and the same people are always around year after year we, the villagers, do not wander about all idle and sluggish because within the wall unexpected tidings often occur and then our bells will sound.

          On Sundays, for example, there is absolute freedom on the square.

Then people let go and enjoy life to the fullest.

          Then I read my namesake’s poems.

          Then people feel the ecstacy of emotion.

          – We enjoy ourselves to death on Sundays, Nína Björk, my father will sometimes say, but it’s not until much later that I come to understand what he actually means; here in our little village in the valley, people don’t necessarily make a habit of talking very lucidly.

          Most of those who live here have stopped walking along the wall that surrounds the village, let alone taking the trouble to go up to the gate to check for passersby; such errands are fruitless anyway and besides, the guards dislike our pointless rambling.

          It also happens less often now that people look up at the shiny glass dome in order to see the moon pass by or stars streaking the cupola and then disappearing into the pitch black darkness of the world outside. It’s not because the people in here don’t appreciate beauty anymore or that they don’t find it desirable, but rather that once bereft of its purpose, beauty has no significance for us anymore, they say.

          On this I disagree with the villagers; beauty always has a purpose and a significance, whenever and however it appears and wherever it is to be found, and I relish taking out my binoculars and sitting on the veranda in front of our house gazing at the sunbeams as they break on the cupola and dash into the air, at the birds gliding over the dome, at swans that come to a halt for one moment, beating their white wings on their way out into the air.

          I have seen burning swans in the light of the sun.

          I have seen a bright red owl rest on its claws and skid on the cupola.

          I have seen a ptarmigan in its winter plumage drop a white feather onto the glass.

          I have seen the dusky grey fog turn into golden puffs of clouds.

          I have seen snow melt as soon as it falls on the dome.

          I will always seize my opportunity to catch a glimpse of the world outside.

 

***

 

          Not that people in here don’t have things to busy themselves with other than spending their time cupola gazing, wall walking or deliberating over the beauty they call meaningless.

          – It’s natural for you to stare, though, Nína, you have to whet your poetic sense, you mustn’t stop doing that, they tell me; maybe some Sunday on the square as I’ve just finished reading them my namesake’s poetry, asking them to gaze at the cupola while I read.

          They talk like that because everything they do is aimed at perfecting the play they say will have its premiere here on the square in a few years’ time. We all have a part to play and according to the words of those who rule, all the parts are equally important; each and every one is a vital link in the well-polished chain ultimately intended to demonstrate the strength of the life we have lived here in the village and what lessons there are to be learned.

          So in here every single spot has its meaning, every single house, every single building and every single Nissen hut; but the three white, expansive huts with red roofs are called chorus houses because that’s where those who make up the three choruses of the play live together; everything has its precise meaning and the name chorus house captures the meaning much better than Nissen hut which has such a grim association with hard times and doesn’t bring music to mind at all; that is obvious.

          In here, times aren’t hard.

          In here there is no struggle.

          In here everyone has everything they need, and more than anything, our lives revolve around equilibrium. We seek it every single day, each of us in our own way, and even though we seek it out differently we all want to achieve, within us, the same equilibrium that defines the organization of the village.

We don’t want to have to fight the ghosts of the past who don’t do anything except delay rehearsals and challenge the play. We also want our dreams to enrich and deepen our understanding of the world and enable us to enjoy the opening day and all other glory days that will follow it.

          When that happens we will be merry.

          Then we’ll reap what we’ve sowed.

          The key is to never lose your patience or get all puffed up with pessimistic bosh, to respect the rules of those who bear the responsibility, to have faith that those who know the art of equilibrium better than others do have our best interests at heart each and every day, as they themselves say when they encourage us to enjoy what we have.

          – Just walk around the village and enjoy yourselves, that is really important for the play, they say, but they don’t seem to understand that most people here have grown sick and tired of the routes and are therefore unlikely to be sauntering about unless sheer necessity arises.

          – Some people don’t understand how repulsive repetition can be and some people obviously haven’t heard the story of Little Black Sambo and the tigers who turned into butter because they kept running in a circle around the same tree, maybe some people ought to wander around their own village a bit more often and find out a little more about the place they claim to know as well as the back of their hand, my father says; he has a tendency, perhaps more often than is good for him, to doubt the good advice of those who wish us nothing but the best; but he restrains himself.

          – Lower your voice, Haukur, my mother says; she’s usually very cautious and doesn’t want it to get out that my father mocks good advice on walking.

 

***

 

          There is actually nobody who wanders around the village as often as I do.

          Those who are sometimes called Some People and give good advice on walking mustn’t think I don’t heed their advice and enjoy the walk; and even though I sometimes feel as if I’ve taken every step before and chosen every possible path more than a thousand times I try to envision something new every time.

          – Always out and about, young Nína, the guards by the gate will say, smiling at me affectionately as they might be filling the dogs’ yellow dishes, early in the morning before people wake up.

          – I can’t be bothered to be bored, I reply, adding a few words about the imagination which is forever adding new colours and tidings to my walks.

          For example, I imagine that one day I will stand in the middle of the square, describing my village to a large group of blind people who have never set foot in here before but want to find out in a flash as much as possible about what goes on within the walls:

          – Dear friends, I say, loading my voice with tension, because of course I have to believe in the game as well, our village is surrounded by the wall, and on it I‘ve painted countless firy red cats in every possible disguise, which I wish you could see because then you‘d actually see everyone who lives here and also those who used to live here. And if you walked fully-sighted along the entire wall you would see all the major events of our play here in this little village from beginning to end; this is a historical backdrop wall, you see.

          But now to the walking routes, because from the wall there lies an abundance of beautiful and varied walks; one of those, and the one I‘m now going to tell you about, leads out to the yellow field, where in the evening-time you can catch a glimpse of three twilit chorus houses up by the eastern part of the wall – and if you prick your ears you can clearly hear the distant sound of the chorus house dwellers‘ singing as it is carried across the village and in between the graves on the field which are decorated with beautiful plants and a mild light which lends a golden hue to our village. The yellow field in the east is also where our whores live, the eight Rósas, in a tall white house with a green veranda, and they know how to enjoy the singing of the chorus when they have a quiet moment to themselves, they know how to roll around in the grass, calm their minds and relish beautiful music, but what‘s more, they also know how to calm their bodies and teach others to relish.

          But my good friends, there are more things that glow than just the beautiful graves in front of the chorus houses on the yellow field; so does Main Street, where our small white houses cower in green gardens enveloped by white fences. Main Street runs straight down to the circular square in the middle of the village, where the town hall, library, church, diner, laundrette and tower form a consecutive half-circle around the stage and the ornamental gardens, where fragrant roses grow all year round, where the water flows in arches and the warmth envelopes us at all times.

          Oh, we neither lack beauty nor warmth here in our little village in the valley, and if we walk out onto the square on a summer night and sit on a bench and gaze up into the glass dome we might see ravens‘ claws and whimbrels‘ feet tip-toeing across the cupola, and that is a unique sight and I would almost go so far as to say it‘s heavenly as well.

          I‘ve played at describing my village in the valley so many times and had fun trying out any which point of view; this was only one of many.

          And there‘s really no need to pity me, because often I‘ve felt fine in here. Nonetheless, the truth is that much more often I have longed to leave. I‘ve even dreamed of finding the way out. That is also the story of those who long for that which they do not possess.

          This story of my childhood is one of those, and in hindsight I couldn‘t have told it differently; some things, you see, are just precisely what they are and there‘s no describing them except exactly so.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

          Growing up in a world of poetry with a storytelling mother, never doubting the words; that was probably my most precious freedom, if you can talk about freedom like that, if you can speak of the past in that way.

          Truth be told, I don‘t know what would have become of me here in our little village in the valley if I hadn‘t had Nína Björk‘s poems to live and breathe, to feed on and find harmony with, to fall asleep and wake up to. For me all paths lead to her poems and sometimes I genuinely feel as if I‘m one of them, as if I‘m one of her books, as if all that was hers is mine, even the memory; that I have lived her life.

          Of course I know the very idea is ridiculous; most of what I know about my namesake was told to me by my mother and Nína‘s poems certainly haven‘t found their way to me through some strange and incomprehensible channels.

          I practically absorbed them along with my mother‘s milk.

          In here, everything is predetermined, also what the wee suckling ought to drink.

          Nína‘s first book, the one which contains the poem „Missing“, which I will eventually read three times to Finnur Jónasson, my father‘s colleague, in the heavy dusk out in the east, and of which I will tell you later, was the first of her books that I was given.

          Mother places it on my nightstand when I‘ve just turned six, if I remember correctly, telling me that from now on, nothing will be the same,

          that now my life will change and take an unexpected direction,

          that now it‘s time to learn to read,

          that my namesake‘s poems will be the readers,

          that they will lead me into brand new worlds,

          that I‘ll be able to waltz about these worlds just as I like,

          that this is what it should be like,

          that this is how I‘ll find the poetic sense that I need.

          I‘m lying in bed and just waking up and I find it incredible that one little book, worn and ancient, should be capable of changing an entire human life just like that.

          – Are these children‘s poems? I ask because I am a child.

          – Oh, all poems are children‘s poems, my mother replies and I know within this answer there is a story about a little child which I never grow tired of hearing. I know I will get a story of a book as well as a child, a story about young poems and a young child, a story about the world outside and the world within. And I‘m right, I get my story and mother glides through it like a ball rolling down a snowy hill outside, like the blue creek that runs alongside Main Street here inside the dome.

          She never loses her thread when she talks about the poems and the child and Nína Björk, and she slides back and forth across time as if it didn‘t exist, and her voice is soft and warm and beautiful. I love her so very much and I think she is the most beautiful woman in the world as far as it stretches.

          I now imagine it to be autumn.

          Mother is sitting on the veranda wearing red autumn colours, holding my hand and telling me the story and I remember, it really is remarkable how well I remember it all, that I imagined everything she told me and could see it happening as she spoke; everything became her story:

          It‘s autumn when this takes place, my little Nína, and the leaves from the trees cover the streets of the city by the blue bay, and the children are starting school and life has become as routine as it can possibly be.

          But that‘s when it happens.

          Just when nobody is expecting anything to happen, Nína Björk‘s Young Poems are published. This is in the year 1965 and in that year of the Lord it is still years and years until the idea of our little village here in the valley will become reality and construction will begin, and even longer until the first villagers are chosen and relocated here, alone or in groups.

          At this point a shimmer af innocence still exists in the world. At least it it important to me to believe so.

          When your namesake receives the first copy of her first book she is young, beautiful and in love, a twenty-four year old childless poet, and this is still years and years and years before our blessed infant – you, my love – is left howling on the steel grating in front of the gate.

          Yes, all this time will pass before some young and beautiful woman and a young and beautiful man – they both must have been young and beautiful – leave you swaddled outside the big, heavy iron gate, one cold and heavy October evening when the blessed Prime Minister has just asked God to bless this country; that is a moment none of us will ever forget.

          So these beautiful people pop the little girl with the green eyes and the fire in her hair on the thick steel plate in front of the sturdy village gate; then they ring the bell and wait out in the cold for a long time, behind a tree, there must be trees close to the gate or at least extremely dense bushes, and they watch as the guards pull the child inside.

          Once you‘re safe and sound they look at each other and walk off holding hands.

          They are no longer sad and troubled.

          Merciful hands have taken their child and given it shelter.

          And once the big, impressive iron gate has slammed shut, some calling it a humble step into our little village while others call it the bar to Hell, these young and beautiful people disappear from sight and nobody thinks of them ever again, which is no wonder since nobody knows anything about these people and maybe they never have.

          Except maybe you.

          Except maybe I.

 

***

 

          Time stands still until the guards have taken you into their arms.

          They‘ve probably never been as careful with any human being nor have they touched anything that draws the breath of life as softly.

          And they carry you into the gleaming light of the guards‘ shelter where you stay with them for a few months and are well cared for. There they nurture you with the warm milk of a woman who had just given birth to a child who could not be given life and therefore rests in the children‘s graveyard by the church; but the woman‘s breasts were swollen with milk and she enjoyed nursing you, it was so wonderful watching her feed you that it nearly moved people to tears. And you know, Nína my love, had it been up to me they would have arranged for you to stay with to her instead of your father and me, who truthfully had no right to a child; but this is how the roles are allocated in our play and there‘s no changing that.

          You got to know your wet-nurse much later on and in fact there are few things I find as beautiful as seeing you and Hulda Leifsdóttir sitting together out on the yellow field; but when you get to know her and the work she does in the chorus house of the old and infirm you will understand as well as your father and I that you never could have ended up there.

          In the chorus house of the old and infirm there is no room for a child; a baby has no reason to go there and it is best that we all understand that could only ever have turned out one way.

So it is no coincidence, little Nína, that you and Hulda should grow close; in our little community it would have been impossible for you not to be attracted to her and it was probably meant to happen; and it‘s good that certain things happen, especially in hindsight, especially with the passing of time.

          And it‘s Hulda who tells you, as often as she possibly can, that you are God‘s gift that saved her from the derangement that crept up on her when her child was buried.

          – If I hadn‘t been allowed to nurse little Nína I would have either killed myself or gone insane and been killed, she says, and I believe her, my Nína, I always believe Hulda and you should do that just like I do. It is also her absolute conviction that nothing could be worse than losing a child, except being a child nobody wants.

          It is probably this conviction of Hulda‘s that connects the two of you. Yes, this conviction is probably like a prayer wreath to hang on the edge of night, as your namesake probably would have put it had she known both of you as well as I do, my mother says; she never sees any reason not to speak to her child as she would to a grown-up, and here in the little village in the valley there‘s no reason for anything else here; anything else would really be both pretentious and priggish, she says, and oh, how I agree with her now that I look back, even though when I was a girl I sometimes felt she could have spared me.

 

 

Translation: Salka Gudmundsdottir

 

 

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Reviews

 

* * * * *Five stars out of five

“ … an extremely beautiful, stylish and sophisticated work … Nína lives with her stepfather and stepmother; he lives with his crime, he is an engineer who has planned their village, where they live with others who were brought there against their will and must now live and work according to fixed rules. The wall surrounds the village and the dome caps the valley. The twelve guards maintain security in between visiting the whores.

Nína goes everywhere within this world, she even manages to get into the basement below the library, where she comes across various texts.

The work thus contains a vision of a future marked by terror and tyranny; the villagers have no say over their circumstances and there is no freedom of thought, although many secretly put their thoughts down on paper. … As so often before, Grímsdóttir’s text suggests great paintings, laying down bright, clean colours to their scenes; nature is absent, and the finely tuned sensitivity hooks and often bewilders the good reader; fire and sunshine mingle with darkness and a fog which is nothing compared to The Fog that once upon a time lay over everything.”

Pall Baldvin Baldvinsson / Frettatiminn Weekly

 

* * * * * (Five stars out of five) “It happens all too rarely that books as good as this are set before you, but when it finally happens it is of course from Vigdís Grímsdóttir … Do you believe in Magic? is, simply, the best written novel of recent years … This is a true masterpiece.” Steingrimur Sævarr Olafsson / pressan.is

 

* * * * (Four stars out of five) “There has been great anticipation for this long-awaited book … Some of the sentences are so skilfully crafted that you just have to read them over and over again, to bask in the pleasure they give you … Grímsdóttir gives us a lot to think about, and this story remains in your mind and heart long after reading.”

Ingveldur Geirsdottir / Morgunbladid daily

 

“Grímsdóttir’s admirers must not miss this book. Her very best, in my view.”

Heida Thordar / spegill.is

 

“ … an ambiguous story, fascinating and thrilling, but above all wonderfully written.

This year’s gem.

Hrafn Jokulsson / Vidskiptabladid

 

“Vigdís Grímsdóttir’s hypnotic, hallucinatory and utterly phenomenal book Do you believe in Magic? will live on in my mind. A wonderful, important and unforgettable story.”

Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir, actor

 

“Grímsdóttir’s book is a pure gem, a kind of string sonata that tells of humans shackled by harshness and terror.”

Thorsteinn frá Hamri, poet

 

“Vigdís Grímsdóttir has a unique way of telling stories that lodge themselves in your heart.”

Thora Ingolfsdottir, manager, Iceland Library for the Blind

 

 

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Vigdís Grímsdóttir

“We already live with oppressive tyranny and have done so for far too long, and although we may not care to notice, it is constantly on the rise in the world,” says author Vigdís Grímsdóttir in an interview with Sagenhaftes Island.

In Vígdís’ most recent novel, Do You Believe in Magic? (orig. Trúir þú á töfra?), a totalitarian regime in the near future attempts to create a model community by placing a small village in an unspecified part of Iceland under a glass dome. The inhabitants of this hermetically sealed dome,  who have either been lured to the village by false promises or forcibly transplanted, are ordered to act out a play, with each individual carrying out a scripted role. The ultimate purpose of the performance, however, remains unclear to the participants.

“I took the descriptions of totalitarian power and coercion as far as I could, given my protagonist’s poetic and hopeful temperament,” Vigdís says, referring to the spirited girl who narrates the story, and is the namesake of influential Icelandic poet Nína Björk Árnadóttir.

Do You Believe in Magic? was enthusiastically received upon its publication last winter, and lavished with praise: “Vigdís is especially adept at telling stories that go straight to the heart and stay there,” opined the judging panel of the DV Cultural Prize upon awarding the accolade to the book. “This crystal-clear story leads the reader into myriad adventures.”

While poetic and aesthetically pleasing, the narrative depicts an oppressive future under a despotic regime, with no clear purpose to everyday life. “It’s easy to say that this is a story of an evil world, and that it is exaggerated and extreme,” Vigdís says. “But in the larger, realistic scheme of things, it is just a simple description of injustice and the abuses perpetrated by those in power, who don’t hesitate to destroy anyone who doesn’t join in the adulation. It’s not such a far stretch to see this happening; it isn’t happening in the future in real life, it’s happening right now. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to be afraid of the fascism of today, and the fascism of tomorrow, too.”

In this regard, one might mention a recently much-discussed subject: the dwindling literacy  among youngsters. It has been said that less literacy leads to shallower debate, which in turn leads to weaker democracy and a lower quality of life. Would you go as far as that?

“Democracy stands on wobbly legs. The working man, living his life from day to day, has less and less to say about his life, and if he does speaks out, no one listens. But it is in his nature to know when enough is enough, rise up and demand his rights. That uprising will be carried out by people who are literate in the language spoken at that point in time. Whether that language will be read, word by word, from a page, book or any other media, I don’t know. Until then, however, we need to be as literate as possible in regard to our culture and environment, and in this, fiction and poetry of all kinds is a great help. Illiteracy is, as it has always been, in the interest of those who don’t want to change a thing. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the fact that a properly literate person contains great power and potential for change. This power should be used to encourage those who can’t be bothered to read.”

Was the book hard to write?

“Not hard to write as such, but its gestation period was long, interspersed with lengthy intervals and red herrings, interruptions, blockages and every conceivable disruption. It was a ten-year process, full of searching and frustration. When the poems of Nína Björk Árnadóttir made their way into the book, however, and found a channel in the girl who narrates the story, the writing became full of lightness and joy – and perhaps no wonder, since Nína believed only in poetry and imagination.”

The route from head to hand

Vigdís was one of many Icelandic authors appearing at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. On that occasion, she was promoting the German release of the book Bíbí, which chronicled the remarkable life of Bíbí Ólafsdóttir, a popular and charismatic figure in Iceland who collaborated closely with Vigdís on the work.

“I greatly enjoyed working with Bíbí, and I’m sure that a book about her will do fine in any language,” Vigdís says. “I never felt wedged into any special role while we worked together. We took it step by step, like the sisters we were, and are.”

In the story of Bíbí, Vigdís draws up the life of a working-class Icelandic woman, born in 1952 into difficult circumstances, and growing up in the notorious Múlakampur neighbourhood of Reykjavík – a residential area that spontaneously formed “off the grid” in the forties when many of the capital’s poorest families moved into barracks abandoned by the occupying Allied forces. The book presents a moving account of a woman who had to fight tooth and claw to rise above her meager circumstances.

“I think this was a unique experience to me, a stroke of luck that befalls someone like me only once a century. Bíbí’s is a voice I will always hear in my heart. It’s all a question of creative energy, the route from head to hand, and Bíbí and I felt very comfortable on that route.”

Lately, Vígdís has been living at Strandir, in northwestern Iceland, working as a primary school teacher. Strandir is also where she wrote the majority of Do You Believe in Magic? “I prefer to write where there is peace,” she says. “Where guests are seldom expected, where there are few that I need to please, where I can spend time with myself, without all those things that distract, obfuscate, destroy and irritate; then I can pour myself into the story, and give myself up to the laws governing it in each particular instance.”

Do your old characters still live with you, after all these years as an author?

“Yes, each and every one; always on the prowl, never sitting still. Some are more interesting, powerful or demanding than others, but they all share a tendency to reappear, in one form or another, in new works. Although they differ in many things, my characters are closely interrelated. After all, they all spring from the same source, myself, who can never hope to hide my inner workings. So perhaps it is truest to say that I love them all with equal passion, that if any single one were missing the chain would break, that they are the inner, mumbling voices of my soul.”

 

Interview: Davíð K. Gestsson

English translation: Steingrímur Teague

Photo: Kristinn Ingvarsson

http://www.sagenhaftes-island.is/en/autor-of-the-month/nr/3386

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