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Hallgrímur Helgason: 101 Reykjavík (101 Reykjavik)

Hlynur Björn Hafsteinsson is a thirty-three year old unemployed Icelandic man, who lives with his divorced mother, Berglind. His day generally consists of getting up in the early afternoon. He then watches TV – porn, of course but also films and flipping channels with his remote (which he carries everywhere with him), though avoiding Icelandic channels (they tend to focus on fish, in his view). Apart from fish, he is very eclectic in his viewing. He also browses the Internet. For example, he has an online email friend, a Hungarian woman, whom he met in a chat room. He will often eat when his mother comes home. She works for the Import Office. Indeed, she is the Import Office. As a result, she is often able to bring home samples of goods. In the evening he goes out with his friends, Thröstur and Marri. They tend to go drinking in local bars, often seeing the same people. (Reykjavik is just a melting pot of leftovers. Everyone’s fucked everyone else. This place is worse than the waiting room up at the VD clinic. Everyone hooked to the same DNA chain.) They may go on to a party or he may pick up a girl and have sex with her. He arrives home when most people are getting up. He does not do much else. (I don’t play cards. I don’t read books. I don’t watch serials.)

At the start of the novel (just before Christmas 1995), a few things are happening to him. His mother has become friends with Lolla, a AA counsellor and a lesbian. It is clear that the two women are starting a lesbian relationship. Hlynur is well aware of this and he jokes about it with his friends. However, his mother only confesses to him that this relationship exists about half way through the book. Well before that, Lolla has temporarily moved in with them as the owners of the flat she is using want it for the Christmas period. He does not have much contact with his father but, early on in the book, his father accosts him in the bar, specifically to ask Hlynur about his mother’s lesbian relationship. He will meet his father and his father’s current girlfriend, Sara, several times over the Christmas period. Apart from a brief high school relationship, he has only ever had one girlfriend, Sigrún, but, now, he seems to be seeing Hólmfrídur (Hofy) on a regular basis. For him, the relationship is almost entirely sexual. He is not interested in a steady relationship. (He sums up his views on women. Basically, I’m into two kinds of women: mothers and whores. The latter for sex, the former for the rest. The only problem being that there are no whores in Iceland. All women, except for his closest relatives, are evaluated by how much it would be worth paying to have sex with them, so that all women in the book have a sum in brackets after their name. There is even a list at the back of the book of all the women mentioned with their scores, both real and fictitious women. The top three are Pamela Anderson, Madonna and the Virgin Mary.) Hofy has different views. For example, one night when he goes to her flat with her (she has a big flat, as her father is a well-off dentist), they have sex. Afterwards, she falls asleep so Hlynur immediately leaves. Hofy is furious and pursues him the next day to criticise him for leaving without saying goodbye. He cannot understand why she is annoyed.

When Christmas comes, Berglind flies off to the north of the country to spend time with her sister, leaving Hlynur and Lolla alone together. The inevitable happens, though, initially, it seems to have little effect on either. Much of the novel is a sly mocking of Iceland and Icelanders and we see this at its best when Lolla and Hlynur visit his sister, Elsa and her family on Christmas Day, including her husband, Magnus, a travel agent, who spends most of the day in front of the TV with the remote control. Hlynur/Helgason take great delight in mocking their suburban aspirations. However, after Christmas, things start to change, In particular, Hofy tells him that she is pregnant and that he is the only possible father. How is this possible? He always used condoms. They are not 100% secure, she informs him. Indeed, in the course of four days, he learns that he might, directly or indirectly, be responsible for the pregnancy of three different women. From there, things start to unravel, as his drinking and general unruly behaviour land him in various scrapes and problems, including a charge for sexual assault, perennial and threatening visits from Hofy’s dentist father and brother, confronting the police while wearing only a condom and, finally, a trip abroad with his gay friends, all ending with an online relationship with a woman from New Jersey.

Hlynur is totally self-centred, misogynistic and misanthropic. I can’t stand people. Why is that? I just can’t stand them. Critics have called this book an Arctic Bright Lights, Big City. It isn’t but I understand what they mean. Hlynur does not, of course, obsess over a woman the way the narrator does in BLBC and while he does cruise the bright lights of Reykjavik, they are not the bright lights of New York and Reykjavik is very much a small city as Hlynur repeatedly reminds us. More particularly, Hlynur is a slob. His literary forebears are more Oblomov or, perhaps, Ignatius J Reilly than the narrator of BLBC. Hlynur lacks any ambition. His future is raised twice in the book. The first time says he only desires to end up in an old people’s home watching porn on TV while the second time, he sees no problem living on benefits for the rest of his life – won’t most people? – with the only problem being switching from unemployment benefit to old age pension. While these remarks are, of course, his usual cynical, glib answer, they also do seem to represent the limit of his ambition. If your idea of an Icelandic novel is a tale of the woes of fishermen and farmers (and their wives) or a quirky story of a quirky but loveable misfit, then this book, with its dark (but not too dark) humour, its cynicism and its numerous references not to Icelandic but to Anglo-American pop culture, may well be something of an eye-opener. Laxness would be appalled.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Mál og menning
First published in English 2002 by Scribner