The Null Device

101 Reykjavík vs. 101 Reykjavík

I have just read Hallgrímur Helgason's 101 Reykjavík, of which I found a copy (in English) recently. This novel is probably best known for having been adapted into a film (one of the best-known Icelandic films of recent years in the English-speaking world, partly undoubtedly due to Damon Albarn having done part of the score).

101 Reykjavík is the story of Hlynur, a thirtysomething slacker who lives with his exceedingly indulgent mother in the central postal district the title is taken from. However, beyond that, the book and the film are quite different; the film is much lighter, fluffier, more stylised and cooler, almost like a tourist ad for hip young people, whereas the book goes into darker territory; where the movie is Human Traffic, the book is Trainspotting.

The movie Hlynur is a lovable hipster doofus, a comical flightless bird, an adorably bumbling geek-chic Everyman plucked out of a Jarvis Cocker impersonation contest at Kaffibarinn. The book's Hlynur, however, is a much darker figure; a pathetic, sociopathic nihilist, destructive and self-destructive. In both, he ends up possibly fathering his mother's lesbian lover Lolla's child, and angsting considerably about it and his relationship to the lover and the child. In the book, he does a number of un-cuddly things like sexually molesting the mother of a girl he picked up, stealing one of his sister's birth control pills (and causing her to fall pregnant), and deliberately attempting to contract AIDS in a fit of self-pity, in between the numerous somewhat unflattering observations in his narration. The narrative voice of the book goes into long, poetic monologues (perhaps this is typical of Icelandic literature?) expounding jaded views of the human condition and contemporary Icelandic society, and (with one exception) betraying no empathy with any person other than the narrator. The Hlynur in the book is not a likeable or sympathetic character.

The book also doesn't have the redemptory ending of the movie; the tragic narrator of the novel does not magically find his feet, experience personal growth and come out a better person like the once cynical hero of an American romantic comedy, but continues much as he has ever done. A number of other elements (Hlynur's Hungarian penpal, a trip to Amsterdam and Paris, and the whacked-out barfly mystic who follows the teachings of white limousine-riding guru "Waldorf") were inevitably cut along the way from book to movie. And, in case you were wondering, making Lolla Spanish (so that she could be played by Victoria Abril) was the filmmaker's invention.

The book is interesting, though those who have been to Reykjavík, or are familiar with Icelandic society, would probably get the most out of it. (If a trip to Iceland is out of the question, at least read The Xenophobe's Guide to the Icelanders).

There are 1 comments on "101 Reykjavík vs. 101 Reykjavík":

Posted by: aleks Tue Apr 10 00:07:08 2007

The Xenophobe's Guide to the Icelanders raises a dry chuckle here and there with that condescending, pat-on-the-head style of humour Brits love to use when talking about other cultures. Unfortunately, it's filled with inaccuracies. Having lived in Iceland for nearly a decade now, I find passages from the book incredibly outdated if not downright bewildering. I will concede, though, that the author's observation on the "Icelandic sniffle" (no mere sniff, but a deep, gutteral sucking in of snot from the rear of the sinuses) was spot on.

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