The Friends of Freeland
a novel by Brad Leithauser dedicated to his two daughters Emily and Hilary
Published by Vintage Books
, a division of Random House
Forget Lonely Planet, The Friends of Freeland is the authorative (cultural) tourist guide to Iceland.
note: Icelandic words in italics
The Land of The Free
Discovered by Erik The Other in 980 A.D., Freeland consists of four islands somewhere to the "left" of Iceland, Braudeyjar (Bread Island), Blaeyjar (Blue Island), Demantseyjar (Diamond Island) and Risaeyjar (Giant Island). The capital is Thorskrist (humourusly put together Thor the Nordic god of thunder and Christ who we all know of) this is Iceland's capital Reykjavik. How do I know? Because not far from it is Storblafell or Great Blue Montain which can't be anything other than mount Esja1. The story begins with the body of underage Simon Olsson being found behind a shed down by the harbour having drowned after a drunken night out. A hung over Hannibal, a friend of Freeland, uses this opportunity to say a few words of consolation:
"My fellow countrymen," he begins. His voice is scratchy and thin. He clears his throut thoroughly, with ample patience, and from his full-lipped mouth he squirts a loosely bound eggy mass onto the pavement. He follows this with a belch and then, having bunched on of his big hands into a fist, with three hard, calming thumps on the chest. "We have suffered a loss," he begins again. "One of our bright lights, one of our investments in the future, one of our tender shoots--one of our children-- has been taken from us and who among us by means of mere words can lighten even by the weight of a single snowflake the burden of our woe? Let us ponder that."
This setting, I am going to argue, is rather descriptive of Icelandic history as a whole, a scene of loss and hardship. Wherein people are devoid of etiquette because nature has prepared for them such a setting that survival is hard and drinking hard is the primary choice of escapism. Not that Iceland isn't a modern well-to-do country with "literacy, longevity, income, and social cohesion first-rate by world standards"2 according to the CIA - The World Factbook
The story has two main protagonists, Hannibal Hannibalsson, a rather archetypal viking, broadshouldered, not too bright and very capable. He's the president of Freeland and already served four consecutive terms and at the outset of the story he is preparing to run for the fifth. This goes against a verbal agreement between him and his wife Rut, a "barkeep" and Freeland's first wife.
Eggert Oddason is a pimply bookworm, a lousy bedder of women and novelist who has two children and is mostly concerned with writing novels and chairing the Freelandic Institute of Language. Where he is in charge of adopting new foreign concepts to the unique freelandic.
The story rushes back and forth in time and space and even includes odd, philosophical prose chapters who bear no discernable importance to the novel. It's one of those books that have a threshold of 5-10 chapters before you really get into it. At just over 500 pages there are countless references to Icelandic culture and history enough to impress me (a born and bred Icelander). I don't know for sure for how long Leithauser stayed here but during his stay, suffice to say, he must have had pretty long conversations about topics covering everything from the everyday eccentricies to the history of the settlement and Sturlungaöld.
This book is a parody of Iceland in general. The author, Brad Leithauser is an American poet and novelist who is currently a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts were he teaches in the MFA Program for Poets & Writers. Leithauser lived in Iceland and is an active proponent of Icelandic literature, he wrote the introduction for Halldor Laxness' Independent People and a review for the New York Times Book Review noting that
"there are good books and there are great books and there may be a book that is something still more: it is the book of your life. If you're quite lucky, you may at some point chance upon a novel which inspires so close a kinship that questions of evaluation (Is this book better than merely good? Is it some sort of classic?) become a niggling irrelevance. Luck has everything to do with it. For the sensation I'm describing has its roots in a poignant, tantalizing feeling that this marvelous new addition to your existence, this indelible Presence, has arrived by serendipity. Anyone who cares seriously about fiction eventually will get around to The Brothers Karamazov or Madame Bovary or Pride and Prejudice or Moby-Dick or Don Quixote, and if you're somebody whose closest literary attachment is to a book of this staple sort, the satisfaction you take from it will not be graced by the particular haunted feeling of good fortune I'm talking about; you will have, instead, the assurance of knowing that your keenest literary pleasures were preordained. One looks differently on the book of genius that, even in a long bookworm's life, one might never have stumbled upon."
Indeed, in an interview he reminisces that had he not one afternoon, sitting alone in a coffeehouse in Rome, finished reading Independent People he might never have visited Iceland in 1984 and taken a two week hike in the countryside. He did though prolong his stay and in 2005 he was awarded the Icelandic Order of the Falcon by the president of Iceland (presumably for promoting Icelandic literature).
1 - http://impact.ii.uib.no/arnt/pics/esja_08reykjavikH.jpg
2 - https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/ic.html