Friday, June 8, 2012

The Greenlanders--Review

My sister and brother-in-law met on the American Air Force in Thule, Greenland where, though my sister was one of the very few women working at the base at the time,  her not-yet husband, when asking her for a date, sat her down and gave her a long list of conditions, the most important of which was that he was never, ever going to get married. My sister lived less than two years at the base, but she had plenty of stories to relate, most of them dealing with how crazy people living in too-close quarters and without enough sunlight can become:

So when "The Greenlanders" was published, I sent a copy along to my sister and her husband as a Christmas present. I didn't really look much at the book since I was in a hurry, and it wasn't until a year later that I asked my brother-in-law what he thought of the book.

"Well, it was interesting," was all that he said.

Interesting. Oh, dear. Could anything be more negatively non-committal? No doubt their copy was shipped off to a library as a donation, or banished to a box in the basement, but in the interest of tact I said nothing more about the book. I kept the title in my mind, however, and when I plotted my around-the-world challenge I decided I had the perfect opportunity to sample the novel I'd foisted onto my innocent relatives.

I popped open the book, and a solemn passage of faux Icelandic saga-speak intoned:

....It happened that when he {Asgir Gunnarson} returned to Gunnars Stead two years later, he brought with him an Icelandic wife, whose name was Helga Ingvadottir. She carried with her two wallhangings and six white ewes with black faces, as well as other valuable goods, and for pride folk said that Aesgir was well matched in her...

Gulp. How could I get through this? I turned the page and came across my first conversation:

"Old man, you are a fool. Folk tell me you had considerable trouble for this bearhide, and yet all you want for it is a length of red silk, no wheel hubs nor pitch nor iron goods..." 

Interesting, indeed. How could I read over five hundred pages of this? Maybe I should quit, or at least skim the book. I decided to persevere. After all, it had been a book I'd given to someone else.

I am glad I did, for I fell in love with the book. The solemn and formal language, which sounds as if a narrator is relating the action from far away, really makes the reader feel as if he is entering an utterly different world--a world, which, at times, people think and act in a way that is alien to modern sensibilities, and at other times seems very familiar. For example, as the Little Ice Age worsens, and settlement after settlement disappears from the colony, and the harvests fail more and more frequently, the people, not knowing that their way of life is sliding into an irreversible decline, still know that something terrible is going on, but each reacts according to his or her own nature:

"It seemed to some that they had learned the importance of the appearances of things, that, for instance, a few articles of clothing nicely made and painstakingly decorated gave more pleasure than many plain seemed to others that they had learned how appearances were unimportant, for death came to all men...some learned the nature of God, that he was merciful, having spared a husband or some cattle, tat HE was strict, having meted out hard punishment for small sins..."

I ended up caring for the characters in the book, particularly Asgeir's daughter, Margaret, who makes an error of judgement with a Norwegian sailor, and ends up paying for it. And paying for it, And paying for it...
In retrospective, I don't know why I had been so concerned, as I had loved Sigrid Undett's Kristen Lavransdatter; this book was clearly influenced by that trilogy set in medieval Norway, and might have even been written in homage to that great classic. I had also read many reviews that warned that the book was too complex, that the names were too strange, and that the action was too slow. All I can say is, after "The Book of Genji", Jane Smiley's book was a model of clarity and speed--it was good training to read Murasaki Shikibu's work; everything else seems so easy in comparison. I really enjoyed "The Greenlanders", but unlike some books you love that you can't understand why everyone else doesn't share your enthusiasm, this book is definitely for a narrow audience. I could understand why many would find it boring, or be put off by the artificial quality of the prose.

                                                                Five Stars


There was much toing and froing, at least in the early years of "The Greenlanders" between Markland (Labrador), Iceland and Norway. It was amusing to hear Markland described as a rich paradise of timber and wildlife--quite different from the harsh wilderness depicted in "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams." And so I decided to tack on a modern novel set in Iceland, as I thought it was time to add a present-day selection to my reading.

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