Saturday 20th October 2012, International Anthony Burgess Foundation
‘Hallgrímur Helgason – A Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning’ reads my ticket to this Manchester Literature Festival event. It’s hard not to speculate as to what exactly this will entail. Am I going to be listening to a professional killer for an hour? Will he be giving me tips on limescale removal? And how do I pronounce his name? A quick bit of googling is definitely in order and soon reveals that Helgason is, in fact, ‘an Icelandic painter, novelist, translator, and columnist’. A busy man then, but certainly not a known killer anyway.
I know of his home country in quite simplistic terms as being the birthplace of musician, Björk, and of writer and Nobel Prize winner, Halldór Laxness. I also know Iceland for its notorious financial crash of 2008 and, being one of the many people who attempted to travel in April 2011, as the source of the much-maligned ash cloud. But I decide to lay all my preconceptions to one side and head to the International Anthony Burgess Foundation for what I’m sure will be an interesting evening, even if I still don’t quite know how to say his name.
Luckily, the compère has no such pronunciation troubles (“Holl-gree-moor” is her attempt) as she introduces the author and his novel, A Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning, to the audience. She does, strangely, have a bit of difficulty in accurately introducing the basic plotline to us and so Helgason has to jump in to clarify things. The plot is certainly memorable. The novel follows the exploits of Tomislav Bokšić, or, for short, Toxic, a contract killer for the Croatian mafia in New York. In a classic case of mistaken identity, Toxic ends up killing the wrong man and so, in order to escape the consequences, he ends up stealing the identity of an Evangelical Christian preacher bound for Reykjavík, the Icelandic capital. Once there, this comic thriller sees Toxic, whose trade is violence, having to deal with his new life in what is an inherently non-violent Icelandic society.
So, where did the inspiration for such a tale come from? A flight to Oslo, it seems. Helgason tells us that he was sitting next to someone who was on their way to an Evangelical conference, and as they left their belongings and documents on their seat to go to the toilet, he began to speculate what might happen if he were to take those things and then assume their identity. And so, A Hitman’s Guide… was born. But, why make Toxic a part of the Croatian mafia? Is there even such a thing? Too much has been done already on the Italian mafia, says Helgason, and even the Russians have now become a bit clichéd. For true originality he went with a Croatian man, without even having been to the country before. Luckily that problem was solved the following week, when, by chance, Helgason was invited to Croatia by DBC Pierre, who was going to carry out research there as well. We are told that this recce to the Adriatic ended up with both Helgason and Pierre performing together in a strip-club one night, an idea that is greeted with a delayed laughter and plenty of grimacing from the audience.
Moving on, it is interesting to me that Helgason chose to originally write this novel in English, rather than in his native Icelandic. Previous works of his such as Reykjavík 101 (which was made into a hit indie film of the same name) were originally written in Icelandic and then painstakingly translated, whereasA Hitman’s Guide… has obviously been translated with less issues. Indeed, the process of translation is major topic of conversation tonight, as it becomes all too clear that for a writer in a minority language it will undoubtedly impact on the writing process itself, as it seems to have done with Helgason. His decision to write this book in English came from David McDuff, the preeminent translator of Dostoyevsky’s novels into English, who, after Helgason’s seemingly constant interference during his translation of Reykjavík 101, told him, “Why don’t you just write in English then?” So he did just that. Not only that, he then personally translated A Hitman’s Guide… back into Icelandic again, making him realize that, in his own words, translation is a really boring job.
Helgason has a great stage presence, and so when he starts to read from the novel we get a sense of his personality and wit. Dialogue from a Croatian character who, like me, is unable to pronounce Icelandic names and words properly and Icelandic characters with strong accents, all in English, makes for an interesting listen, but it just about works. The scene read to us is about Eurovision night, which is the most important day in Iceland after Christmas apparently (another Icelandic fact). And there’s laughter throughout to lines like ‘silent but serious fart’ and ‘homesick hard-on’. The audience contains a number of fans of Helgason’s writing, with one in particular suggesting a new story for him, based around the child of Reykjavík 101, and Helgason seems like to very much like the idea. You heard it here first.
He closes off the evening by reading a poem of his called ‘Suits and Ties’. Set in a bookshop on the first anniversary of Iceland’s economic collapse, the poem is fast-paced and light-hearted but there is an underlying seriousness to it that really gives it its strength. I think the same can be said of Helgason and his writing more generally. And as he thanks the audience and we all make our way outside again, I wonder if his Saturday night in Manchester will end up in any way similar to that one in Croatia…
Tomas Doherty is a student at The University of Manchester.