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Bergsveinn Birgisson: Svar við bréfi Helgu (Reply to a Letter from Helga)

Bjarni Gíslason is a farmer in rural Iceland. He is a committed, hard-working man. Within his cooperative, he is responsible for hay provisions. He is married to Unnur. Unnur is also hard-working but she is not particularly passionate or romantic or, indeed, physically attractive. She will eventually get pains which, on examination, are shown to be caused by a tumour. She has an operation to remove the tumour, which is generally successful. However, it means that the couple cannot have children and, because of the way they sow her up, she cannot even have sexual intercourse. The neighbouring farm is owned by Hallgrímur and Helga. Helga is an attractive, buxom woman and Unnur suspects that Bjarni is having an affair with Helga which, at the time, is not the case. Indeed, many of the neighbours share this suspicion and there is a lot of gossip about it, not least because Hallgrímur is known to spend much of his time with the fillies, both horses and human. The couple do have two children and they and her other responsibilities tend to keep her at home. Bjarni, because of his co-operative responsibilities, has to visit the farm – to disinfect the sheep, to provide his ram for servicing their sheep – so he has a legitimate reason to be there.

On one occasion, when he is visiting to disinfect the sheep, one thing leads to another and Bjarni and Helga do have sex. For both, it seems to be the passion of their life. They continue the affair. Eventually, however, Helga becomes pregnant. She admits that she and Hallgrímur have had sex but she is certain that the child is Bjarni’s. She tells Bjarni that she wants him to divorce Unnur and that she will divorce Hallgrímur and that they will go and live in Reykjavik, where both can find work, for example on the US bases that are springing up. One of the key features about Bjarni that we have been shown during the course of the book is his great love for the countryside and nature of Iceland. He knows his area back to front and loves it deeply. He loves being a farmer and being involved with the cooperative. It is Birgisson’s great skill to convey this love to us and show us what the Icelandic countryside means to Bjarni. He cannot possibly imagine leaving it and living in Reykjavik, working for someone else. Helga gives him an ultimatum – follow her to Reykjavik or the affair is over and the child will be brought up as Hallgrímur’s. Bjarni is devastated but has no choice. Helga has a daughter, Hulda, and she is brought up as Hallgrímur’s. Bjarni makes sure that he avoids her when he goes to the farm but his interest in ornithology is primarily to spy on Helga and Hulda.

Apart from the longing to have a closer relationship with his daughter, Bjarni carries on his life as before and Birgisson continues to extol the joys of the Icelandic countryside through Bjarni. One day, however, he learns that Hallgrímur and Helga have divorced and Helga and the children have moved to Reykjavik. He goes to visit her there but is surprised to find that she is not alone. He hits the man and walks off. Some time later, she sends him a letter, saying that she is no longer with the man and she would like him to join her. This book is his reply to her letter, but written years later, when Helga, Hallgrímur and Unnur are all dead. Indeed, he writes it soon after Unnur’s death.

This is a sad book about what Birgisson calls an impossible love but a superb book, showing a man torn between his desire for the woman he loves and his desire for the land he loves, with the land winning. Bjarni’s unmitigated joy in his country, despite the problems that all Icelandic farmers face, because of the hard conditions is, for me, even more important in this book than the love story of Bjarni and Helga and we must be grateful that it is now available in English, having been published in French and German earlier. But Birgisson shows very clearly the difficulties of the farmers and, by the end of the book, many of the farms have gone, being too hard to farm and with the new generation unwilling to put in the effort that Bjarni and his generation did. For Bjarni seeing the fruit of his work is key to his existence as a man and it is why he cannot imagine doing a better-paid but menial job for someone else, possibly foreigners, even if it means having the woman he loves.

Publishing history

First published 2010 by Bjartur
First published in English 2013 by Amazon Crossing