Children in Reindeer Woods
Lytton Smith, Translator
(Open Letter)It seems like quite an idyllic life there on the farm for Rafael and Billie. He's a retired soldier, she has just turned eleven --- although a very astute eleven (she can discourse on the fifth article of the declaration of human rights).
There is a cow to milk, a cat to cuddle with, chickens to feed, eggs to gather, crops to grow. The ground is fertile, the farm is isolated, there in Reindeer Woods.
In the time we are with them, there are only four visitors, including a nun who promptly falls in love with Rafael, spends the night with him, and just as promptly goes away.
Only there's something a little fishy here. Well, maybe a lot. Because Raphael first appeared on the farm with two other soldiers. Of the people living there, "Four children, an older woman, and a young man head out from the house with their hands clasped behind their backs." Another woman appears with a tray with coffee, bread, butter, boiled eggs for them to eat.
The soldiers immediately shoot and kill them all --- except one of the children (Billie). The three soldiers go into the house, and one of them shoots and kills the other two. Billie hides in the bushes, "wets herself."
When Rafael digs a trench outside to bury all the bodies --- including his two former comrades --- she comes out of the bushes and stands behind him. He turns.
"Good evening, I am Rafael," said the man in the blue turtle-neck sweater, holding out his hand.
"Good evening, I am Billie," said the girl; she curtsied and shook his hand. The chicken tripped over to them. It didn't want to let itself get separated from its new friend ...
If you think that Rafael let the eleven-year-old Billie survive the mass killing because he has some devious plans for her then you don't know Kristín Ómarsdóttir. I didn't either.
Now I do, and am not so sure I want to. For this is one of the whackiest books I have come across in many years of whacky books. A soldier more or less immune to murder (although he does shoot off a few of his toes to try to break himself of the habit of murdering people.) A girl who seems unimpressed by his murderous history; in fact, seems to find him a quite pleasant companion (he will often play Barbie dolls with her).
He only turns a little menacing when she starts ragging on him about the nun who appeared one day, then disappeared:
Did she ask you about me?...
She asked whether I was your brother.
And what did you say?
Yes, that I was your brother. Then she asked me countless questions which I couldn't answer without giving myself away.
Why didn't you tell her the truth?
Then I would have had to kill her. You don't kill nuns. I could never justify that before a court of law, let alone myself.
Why don't you try to tell the truth to those around you and then not kill people?
If you meet her again?
Then I'll tell her the truth.
Why didn't you rape her?
Don't behave like that, child.
As you may have gathered, Children in Reindeer Woods is as zany as they come. We learn nothing about Rafael's past: he certainly isn't volunteering any information to Billie (nor the reader). We learn a little about the people who have been knocked off but Billie is obviously not impressed by their bloody end (which she witnessed) nor their mass burial.
What we learn about her parents --- off someplace else --- isn't much help. She is convinced that her father is a puppet (strings and all) and her memories of him and her talky mother --- a doctor by trade --- are scattered. And weird.
She keeps asking Rafael if she is retarded, but what with her lists, her brainy ideas and insights, and her strange interests lead us to believe that she not so much retarded as autistic.
A monologue that she gives to the chickens while she is cleaning their hut is right out of Alice in Wonderland:
Good day, little chickens. I am the spring-man. I suppose I should vacuum, in here. Today's Saturday, and that's when people clean their residences and also the hen houses, though less frequently since animal-kind has fewer requirements. Perhaps because nature is expected to see to cleaning itself. But how are you going to get swept? God's natural brush, storms, never reach in here, do they? Poor you. In your shitty beds. But I still envy you. A little. Not much. A little.
§ § §
The tension here is two-fold. Is Rafael going to take it into his head to wake up and shoot Billie dead? Or is he going to show that he spared her life so he can ravish her? Let me just hint at the answers to these questions so you will get this one and find out for yourself. Because, despite all its alarums and diversions, Children in Reindeer Woods is quite wonderful.
The main tension set in place by this author is: how weird can a story get before finally getting overloaded and top-heavy and skittering off the road and crashing into a gully and setting the world on fire?
Ómarsdóttir is a poet and painter, lives in Iceland. Maybe it's all those dark winters amid the Arctic massifs that turn one's ideas on plotting and character into oatmeal mush. Or Þorrablót with hangikjöt, the favored eats there in Iceland.
The closest I can come to paralleling this mayhem would be the play Der Besuch der alten Dame, from the Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt. It was produced to much horror and alarm fifty years ago in staid Zurich. The first scene is rich Claire coming to town to reclaim her old lover Alfred Ill. Claire expounds on her ex-husbands Moby, Hoby, and Zoby, then talks the villagers into helping her extinguish poor Alfred. One of her first acts as she gets off the train is to reach down and unscrew her hand. (In perhaps unconscious tribute, Ómarsdóttir offers a scene set in a nearby gas station with a collection of disjointed right and left arms, where one of the locals sticks his disjointed head in a waste basket).
Children in Reindeer Woods has that same dada feel to it. It's a place where Tristan Tzara meets Kafka meets Catch-22 meets Edgar Allen Poe meets a bewildered audience (me). But despite all these screwy side-trips, I think Ómarsdóttir's latest won't leave you alone. The translation is perfect (although in reading the original, I found my Icelandic to be a little rusty, so I may have missed some of the subtleties).
For there are times, despite all the by-play, where you get swept up by these two children on their classically perfect pastoral retreat ... talking to the chickens and making jam and donning their winter garb and murdering stray visitors and playing dolls together and you think, with all the madness, well, this is just another side of our regular old contemporary 21st Century life, no?--- Anna Tørless Përt