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Svava Jakobsdóttir: Leigjandinn (The Lodger)

The story starts with a woman at home in Iceland. Her husband, Peter, is out at work. We never know her name. A man walk in without knocking, carrying a suitcase. He appears to be a new lodger. He checks the place, banging on the windows and the doors and looking around. He then goes into the sitting room and starts rearranging the furniture, moving a chair out and repositioning the sofa, on which he will eventually sit down. He even looks in their bedroom and stands expectantly at the door, as though she might invite him to sleep there or even share with them. When he has finished, he lies down on the sofa, apparently doing nothing. She waits anxiously for her husband to come home, which he does but he does not seem too concerned, accepting the lodger and accepting that they prepare his food. The next day, when there is someone at the door, the lodger hurries to the door and blocks her from getting to the door.

The couple have been having a house built but, when they go and look at it, they realise that all the other houses being built on the same street are in a much more advanced state than theirs, both inside and outside. The reason for this is that they do not have much money. They are discussing this one evening in their sitting room when the lodger is present and he takes out his suitcase and proceeds to hand Peter wads of money. Peter wonders whether this is a loan. The lodger says it is a loan but he does not need a promissory note and that they can pay him back whenever they are ready. Peter is tempted but reluctantly turns the offer down. The lodger does not insist. His wife is later annoyed, thinking how much the money would have helped them finish the house and contribute to her housekeeping money, with food costs steadily rising. With the lodger becoming increasingly annoying – they feel they have to go to bed early as he is always lying on the sofa and does not seem to do anything at all during the day – they are eager to push ahead with their new house. The wife even asks the builder to install an intercom, something he considers unheard of in a single family home.

Eventually, the day arrives when they move. Neither seems particularly surprised when the lodger moves in as well. When she sees a stateless man walking along their land by the seashore, the wife asks Peter to chase him off but he pleads for tolerance. By Christmas, though things have got worse. Peter’s leg seems to be growing shorter, like the lodger’s and, gradually, the two seem to be merging. And then, on Christmas Day, the stateless man knocks at the door.

Jakobsdóttir made no pretence at her political opinions and was a member of parliament for the left-wing party, which was very much opposed to the US bases in Iceland. This novel is clearly a strong reference to the role of the US in Iceland and strong criticism of it, both of the US and the Icelanders who tolerated it or even encouraged it. Her general theme in her works had been a feminist one, that of a woman being treated as a second-class citizen and, in this book, Peter, the husband clearly defers to the lodger, even when his wife asks him to act, just as the Iceland government did with the US bases. It is a very clever attack on this issue and though perhaps too short to be called a novel, it is very readable.

Publishing history

First published 1969 by Helgafell
First published in English 2000 by the University of Iceland Press
Translated by Julian Meldon D’Arcy