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Guðbergur Bergsson: Svanurinn (The Swan)

A nine-year girl has been caught shoplifting – twice. (She is never named in the book; nor are any of the other characters.) She stole some sandwiches and then foolishly proceeded to eat them in the shop. Her punishment is to be sent off to work on a remote farm. The novel starts with her journey to the farm. She does not seem too perturbed about going, only that she will very much miss the sea. No one can own the sea any more than human love, just like no can own you even if he marries you and takes you for his own and you take him for his own, says her father, and this statement sets the tone for the book, that of a sense of independence, even in close relationships. The farmer is direct and abrupt but kindly. His wife is a bit like him but more caring, as you would expect. They break her in gently but soon she is sent off to bridle the blue dun. What is a blue dun? She has no idea but, when she finds the horses, there is only one who seem to be prepared to be bridled. She bridles it and leads it back. The farmer persuades her to ride it and she is immediately thrown. This is the first of many lessons he will give her.

There is a large mountain overlooking the farm and it has two roles Firstly, it blocks her sight-line to home. She cannot properly calculate where home is with the mountain, often covered in clouds, in the way. But, for the locals it has a more magical role. There is a big lake on top of the mountain and there is monster living in its depths. Every so often, it comes out and swims around the lake in the guise of swan. Every summer in early August, people used to ride up there, in the hope of seeing the swan come out of the depths for it will foretell the fate of those that see it. Nowadays, however, people do not believe in such myths and no longer go up to the lake. But while we might have expected a getting-in-touch with nature and learning-your-responsibilities novel, this is not what we get or, at least, only partially. Indeed, if I have to sum up in a sound-bite, it is more of learning what the real world is about and that the real world is not always pretty. She watches TV with the farmer and his wife and it seems to show war scenes, with cities in ruins and children running through them (she envies them that pleasure). She is sexually assaulted by both the farmer and the farmhand, not in particularly vicious or violent way, and she seems to enjoy it, at least from the farmhand. She is taught bad habits by the farmer and the farmhand, e.g how to disguise the smell of alcohol on her breath. In other words, she is essentially treated as an adult.

Though it is not a key theme of the book, adaptation to nature’s way is certainly part of it. Nature never asks permission to settle down anywhere, says the farmer, and this is part of what she learns – taking life as it comes, whatever that may involve. However, things change when the daughter arrives. She is away at university but has come back for the summer holidays and it soon becomes apparent that she is pregnant. She is also somewhat out of tune with her parents. Away with tradition, she cries and is all in favour of modern technology, particularly as regards reproduction. She advocated the need for women to have children out of wedlock, they shouldn’t regard men as anything except in the form of frozen sperm for fertilisation and Love does not exist in the countryside any more. The cows are just given an injection…Nothing exists unless it’s for production. That’s what people are for, too.

The girl does read, after some persuasion from the farmer’s wife but, when she recounts the story, it seems to be completely different from the one that is actually written down. But, eventually, she rejects reading. She could not be bothered to make the effort to read speckled books which have brown spines and whose pages give off a peculiar smell, almost glued together because no one ever opened or browsed through them. They were full of rot, damp and doom which still did not destroy them completely. In short, the past is slowly being rejected (a key theme in Icelandic literature). She starts getting strange dreams and these seem to intertwine with those of the daughter. Things get even stranger when she goes to the country fair, where she sees a couple having sex (she does not understand what they are doing) and she gets lost among the odd farmers and itinerants at the fair. Eventually, however, she does go up the mountain and finds the lake.

This is a strange book, mixing poetical descriptions of nature with some mildly disturbing scenes, such as the flirting with death by both the girl and the daughter, the description of the slaughter of a calf, gleefully watched by all the children and, of course, the sexual abuse. Life, particularly out in the rural areas, is a mixture of nature, both its beauties but also its threats and unpleasantness as well as its myths and magic.

Publishing history

First published 1991 by Forlagið
First published in English 1997 by Mare’s Nest
Translated by Bernard Scudder