Iceland has one of the richest literary traditions in the world, and it is a tradition that is alive and well today, as evidenced by several oft-quoted statistics about literacy rate, books read per capita per year, and the highly debated “1 in 10 authorship” claim. Reykjavík is a UNESCO City of Literature – the first non-English speaking city to receive the title. And therein lies the rub. Almost all of that literary activity is occurring in a language that, aside from a few medievalists, no one outside of a small, sparsely populated island in the North Atlantic can understand. In such a tiny, saturated market, even record sales are not enough to guarantee a novel’s translation into English, and so most of the world remains unaware of Iceland’s tremendous literary output. Hallgrimur Helgason decided to fix that.
He wrote The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning in English, from the point of view of a foreigner arriving in Iceland for the first time and with no preparation. Although I suspect Hallgrimur speaks English better than I do, his narrator Tomas is also not a native English speaker. This excuses any irregularities in the narration and provides the opportunity for some playfulness with word usage. But it is Tomas’ Icelandic that gives the most laughs. Hallgrimur uses Tomas’ misinterpretation of what he hears to both help the reader learn pronunciation, and reveal Tomas’ character. Thus the Croatian hitman hears the name of conservative minister as Torture (Þorður I think, the correct spelling is only given once), his love interest is Gunholder (Gunnhildur), and the suburb where he hides out is Cop War (Kopavogur).
Tomas is completely unfamiliar with Iceland; at one point he wonders if his colleagues back in the U.S. even know that it is a country. So of course, he spends a lot of time in conversation with locals having things explained to him. This includes the necessary Iceland cheerleading (a barfly gives him a thorough and properly spelled list of Icelandic crime novelists), but because he’s a hit man on the run instead of a wide-eyed tourist, Tomas quickly discovers Iceland’s tiny underbelly as well – illegal strip clubs and exploited immigrants whose work lines the pockets of a corrupt official.
Of course, if the Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning was nothing more than a travel guide with a fake ID, it would never serve its purpose of drawing attention to Iceland’s writers. So Hallgrimur had to write a bang-up story. The voice most reminds me of Banana Yoshimoto, whose stories deal with dark topics like murder and incest in the lightest possible way. Hallgrimur’s humor is the sort that makes you laugh out loud and comment, “That is SO wrong,” as you eagerly turn the page. And yet it’s a sort of gallows humor that seems believable in a character who has been steeped in violence since the war in Yugoslavia.
And that’s where Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning is brilliant. If it was only crude jokes and situational mobster humor, the book would just be tasteless. But Hallgrimur lets Tomas be a real character who doesn’t just have to clean up the flat he hides in, but also has some very real mental housekeeping to do. The “therapy” devised by his naïve spiritual mentors is absolutely cuckoo, but a man seeking redemption is bound to find it, even in a loony church.
Of course, the story of a likeable hitman trying to win the girl and go clean in a too-perfect community is bound to share similarities with Gross Pointe Blank. But I didn’t realize until I started writing how much Hitman’s Guide has in common with Children of Reindeer Woods. It is almost like the live-action version of Kristín Olafsdottir’s stylized animation.
A thousand years ago Iceland was a sort of cultural experiment trying to climb out of the bloody empire building of the Middle Ages and build a society based on individual freedom protected by laws instead. There were some pretty big hiccups, but they’ve had the peace thing down for a pretty long time. Hallgrimur even mentions that Iceland may not have any murders in a given year. (There were 3 homicides in the nation of Iceland in 2011. In Seattle, which is considered a fairly safe city, there were 21.)
It’s strange that so much of Iceland’s current literature is focused on learning how to value human life when they seem to have achieved it themselves. It’s almost like they are trying to tell the rest of us something.