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Steinunn Sigurðardóttir: Tímaþjófurinn (The Thief of Time)

Alda Ivarsen celebrates her thirty-seventh birthday at the beginning of this novel. She is a German and English teacher at a local school. She has had various affairs and is currently having an affair with Steindór Inarrson, the Latin teacher, who is married with three young children. But she has had enough and wants to end the affair. Sadly, Steindór does not want to end it. He pesters her at school, and he pesters her at home. She is moderately kind to him but tries to make it clear that it is over. He comes one last time and has clearly had a lot to drink. She sends him away, late at night in the cold of winter, offering to get him a taxi. He declines and says he will walk home. He never makes it. Next day, his body is found. Alda certainly feels guilty at the time, particularly as regards the children, but the guilt wears off, even if she does think of the children now and then. Indeed, she seem more worried that one of her colleagues might have known about their affair and hold her responsible for Steindór’s death.

Meanwhile, it is a beginning of a new term and Alda has seen the new history teacher. She sees him first at school but then in the cemetery. The cemetery is a short cut to the school from where she lives but is also a place she goes to relax, occasionally even lying on the gravestones or, even once or twice, to go with a lover. She does feel concerned to see the graves of all the young children. There is even one with her name on it – her older sister, who died when she was one year old, after whom she was named. They talk and it is soon clear to us that she has him lined up as her next lover. Initially, things go well. They talk and get on well together. Gradually, they get closer and a relationship develops. During this period, Sigurðardóttir uses not only poetic language but actual verse to show Alda’s delight in her new lover.

Alda is very much compared to her sister, Alma. Alma had a one night-stand some years ago, the result of which was her now teenage daughter, Sigga. Alda mildly mocks the fact that Alma has not had a relationship since then. Alma is, of course, mildly critical of her sister’s behaviour and often urges her to settle down and marry, which Alda finds somewhat ironic. Alda also has a male friend, Eggil, with whom she goes on holiday once a year. She would like to be in love with him but she is not. But she is in love with the history teacher (we never learn his name) and she lets us know of the joy this brings her.

But the history teacher is not like Steindór and the others. He goes off to a conference on the Middle Ages in Mexico, instead of spending time with her and she is concerned, thinking about him all the time. When he returns, he seems more distant. Gradually, her lyrical effusion turn to sadness and bitterness, as the relationship seems to dwindle. There is no formal break but he has clearly lost interest. She travels a bit – to Barcelona (while he is in Oxford), to Paris, to Dublin, to New York and thinks how nice if would be if he were with her. But he is not. And if he asked her to come and live with him in a remote part of Iceland, she would abandon all her travels and come running straight away. Time passes by, as the title tells us, and still she cannot get him out of her mind. Even when a personal tragedy strikes or she starts a new relationship, he is always on her mind.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this could have been trite and dull but Sigurðardóttir is such a fine writer that it really works. The poetical interludes and the use of verse are done very well to express her changing feelings and moods, from the joyful early love to the gradual and much longer deterioration of the relationship, her resultant feelings not only about the relationship but about herself and her aspect on life as well as what seems to be a rapid ageing. When the teachers’ room recognises her forty-fourth birthday – the first time they have recognised it for seven years, when she had only just met the history teacher – someone asks her how old she is. Eight-one, she replies, and you feel that is not just a joke but a reflection of how she feels.

Publishing history

First published 1986 by Mál og menning
First published in English 2007 by Mál og menning
Translated by Rory McTurk