Gerður Kristný Drápa, The Slaying, trans. Rory McTurk, Arc Publications: £10.99
Gerður Kristný’s first Arc Publication Bloodhoof was a contemporary, avowedly feminist, recasting of an incident from one of the Sagas. It featured a betrothal at its centre which was clearly not a happy thing from the woman’s point of view. Bloodhoof was also written in a unique style; it was a ‘pocket epic’ written in beautifully turned, tanka-brief poems; a narrative told in short lyrics. In the text, Kristný succeeded in the singular feat of conveying a set of very threatening and bloody situations in language which was both delicate and meditative. That language and form is repeated in Kristný’s new Arc book, Drápa. Both books have been translated by Rory McTurk who succeeds in rendering Kristný’s powerful delicacy into an equally measured and mesmerizing English.
The title, Drápa, is translated on the title page as ‘A Slaying’, and the front cover subtitles the book, ‘A Reykjavík Murder Mystery’. Whether this appellation is strictly necessary might seem a moot point and might well be there simply to appeal to browsers of the shop shelf. But certainly, the tale seems bloody enough. The back cover blurb describes it thus: ‘In the frozen January of 1988, Gréta Birgisdóttir, 26-year-old resident of Reykjavík, Iceland, was murdered by her husband, the box Bragi Ólafsson. Bragi claimed the murder was an accident. The couple had been drinking for four days when a physical argument broke out. In the end, Bragi strangled Gréta with ropes before going back to sleep.’ This bald summary doesn’t include the facts that Bragi was almost twice as old as Gréta, and regarded himself as her ‘knight in shining armour.’ Nor does it tell us that Kristný, a famous crusading journalist and feminist writer, interviewed Bragi in the apartment where the murder was committed, some ten years after that murder. Bragi was, apparently, recovering from knife wounds inflicted by his grandson in the apartment, on Boxing Day, 1997. Bragi would, himself, be stabbed to death, four years later, by a mentally ill drug user in that same apartment.
These latter details are presented in a long introduction the book written by Guðni Elísson and Alda Björk Valdimarsdóttir from the University of Iceland. In the introduction, Elísson and Valdimarsdóttir comment on the punning nature of both the title of the book and the English rendering of that title. Drápa, it seems, is a long, Old Norse poetic form with refrains, although the noun dráp also means a killing or a slaughter. They draw out comparisons with the incorporation of ‘lay’ in the English title The Slaying. Such linguistic ingenuity appears to lie (pun intended) at the hands of the translator, Rory McTurk. And, as Elísson and Valdimarsdóttir further comment, McTurk does not avoid language which would not be out of place in an Icelandic ‘scandi-noir’ of Arnaldur Indriðason, or Yrsa Sigurðardóttir.
Such an extensive background and critical exegesis may or may not be relevant to the presentation of Kristný’s text. As noted above, this series of events is presented in the short tanka-like poems which characterized Bloodhoof. And, as with that book, Kristný’s verses are placed next to the page spine at the top of the page, and McTurk’s translations are placed on the bottom of the page on the outside, next to the page edge. If nothing else, it would be difficult to see how these poems and translations could be better presented on the page.
Kristný’s text contains other Gothic elements: the devil laconically narrates the action; a ‘darcus’, a dark circus, appears, which throws ‘down over you / a close-meshed tent’; and then there’s the weather, ‘Rabid winds / besieged the down / send downpours down / to its very core // The winter war / had begun //City dwellers / ran for shelter’. This latter section gives some idea of Kristný’s lyric approach. The phrases and sentences are clipped and impacted. The imagery is sparse but draws the reader in with an immediacy and drive. Of the two adjectives here, ‘rabid’ and ‘winter’, both might feel unexceptional but feel boosted by their rarity in the sentence. This impacted writing must be even more effective in the original Icelandic, which seems to lack articles to offer evenness to the rhythms of phrases. In the English translation, Kristný’s ‘refusal’ to punctuate is mimicked in the verse divisions, which act as kinds of full stop, followed by capitals to indicate new sentence. In the English, such lack of punctuation offers both rhythmic pause, and continuity and flow.
Gréta, herself, appears in the poem in the second person, ‘you’, and is characterized by sweetly banal actions, ‘You tilted / your head back / caught the snowflakes / with your tongue // By the Star cinema /they were / salty and crunchy // By the needlework shop / they were piercingly sharp’. By the cinema, the snowflakes taste liked salted popcorn; by the needlework shop, the snowflake taste is again appropriate. Such moments pin the language down even further and create a direct but quite calm feel to things.
The Devil’s narration is as measured as the rest of the writing. After Greta’s death in the darcus, the Devil takes possession of the body, ‘This had to have / an evil / end // Just had to’. Later, ‘Night is left / high and dry // I take you / in my arms / let the sails unfurl / raise myself aloft’. This kind of writing has a balletic, mimetic pose. And it is the Devil who finishes the poem off, commenting on the death of Bragi Ólafsson, ‘His name is nowhere inscribed // Such is the fate / of black-hearted men’. And finally, the Devil excuses himself, ‘I spend / no more days here / than I need // raise myself in flight // vanish into drifting snow’
I’ve quoted at length here to suggest the quiet power of Kristný’s vision and McTurk’s wonderful translation. Krisný has some fame in Iceland and both this book and the previous one Bloodhoof attest to the ability which has brought about that fame. Kristný’s technique embodies a unique and compelling version of what Cixous called écriture feminine. In this case, that means creating a meditative style which shows how violence against women resonates out from a particular situation into a mythic, atavistic presence which is liable to pervade all our experience.
by Ian Pople