Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl – Evil (2012)
Set in contemporary Iceland, and yet to be translated into English but a hit in French and German, Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl’s Illska (Icelandic for Evil). Taking on the creeping influence of the far-right in European societies, I would be very surprised if we do not see an English translation of this soon.
Norddahl says he wanted to write “an honest political novel” that brings the history of the world to Iceland. What happens when a Jewish woman obsessed with the holocaust meets her first sophisticated neo-nazi, and he meets his first Jew?
Evils charts a love triangle between a descendant of holocaust survivors Agnes, her Muslim boyfriend and a neo-Nazi with whom she has an affair. As that contemporary plot evolves, Agnes delves into the dark secret of her family’s past in Lithuania, where one grandparent was a victim, another a perpetrator, of terrible crimes. What happens in the past is a cancer eating up the present, with the book crossing between the old massacres and the roots of potential new ones.
She and Ómar Arnarson appear the typical left-wing cosmopolitan couple until her thesis research on right-wing populism leads her into a love affair with a far-right activist. The book is an experiement in challenging polarization — an affair between a Jew and a neo-Nazi, neither of whom have ever personally met one of the other before.
Norddahl challenges Iceland to confront strains of racism and anti-immigrant feeling by making a direct comparison to the Holocaust.
When she was little, there were maybe five to ten Lithuanians living in Iceland, not counting her parents…The Lithuanians grew fast in numbers after the turn of the millennium….All of a sudden Icelanders, who hadn’t shown any interest in the country once they were done patting themselves on the back for acknowledging its independence, began exhibiting an unfettered interest in the citizens of Lithuania. Lithuanians broke other people’s kneecaps, swarmed around in organized crime gangs and robbed stores. They strong-armed honest youths into becoming drug mules. They cohabited, dozens of them to each apartment, drinking and doing drugs and brawling, so that upstanding citizens were positively aghast. It got to the point that you could hardly open a newspaper without seeing some sort of rundown on the “Lithuanian Mafia.”
Even Icelandic criminals were named something, were something. They were small-time crook Lalli Johns, leg-breaker Annþór Karlsson, pedophile Steingrímur Njálsson, rapist Bjarki Már, drug dealer Franklín Steiner. The Lithuanians were just the Lithuanian. The two Lithuanians. Five Lithuanians. Nine Lithuanians. Fourteen Lithuanians.
Icelanders had never needed any help when it came to rape and violence. They had always been perfectly capable of raping their own and beating up their own. Perhaps these were the jobs that populists were so afraid the foreigners would steal?
Ultimately this is a book for anyone who has asked “Why?” — about one woman trying to come to terms with the scale of evil in the world. She has the war “not just on her hands, but in her heart, and in her head”,
Remember Iceland is one of the countries hardest hit by the financial crisis, and the way it was left to handle the collapse of its banking system is compared to the silence with which the world answered the carnage of 1940s Lithuania, and across Europe.
So Agnes visits a sad, dingy club where neo-nazis gather in a rough working-class part of town. There she sees the dregs of humanity, dirty, sick, gross skin conditions, toothless. War memorabilia on the walls, a weird hotchpotch, she thinks,
Like teenagers who cover their walls with Justin Bieber, Michael Jackson, Sex Pistols and naked models.”
They give her a beer, make sure she is not a journalist. Then they complain. They are just kindergarden staff, mechanics, they resent their lack of philosophy and gender studies degrees (“We are practical people who learned practical things”) and don’t talk to the media who treats them like idiots. Though when she probes their views they do sound like idiots.
Why you should read it: For the sly digs at modern life, the consumer zombies, , Omar burns the house down when he discovers the cockring of the neo-Nazi sleeping with his wife.
Norddahl’s book stands apart from the major canon of Icelandic literature which, in his words, deal with mountains, in a very passive way. In other words, with isolated communities and their relationship to nature. Or in Sjon’s Moonstone, with world events happening far away. This book is important because it places Iceland at the centre of world politics and history.