Children in Reindeer Woods by Kristín Ómarsdóttir. Open Letter Books, 198pp., $14.95.
The deadpan narration of the opening scene of Children in Reindeer Woods, Icelandic playwright-poet Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s first work to be translated into English, sets the tone for the unsettlingly still surface of this absurd and violent tale. Three soldiers arrive at a farm in the noonday sun. Apart from their foreboding presence, the scene seems cut straight out of a children’s picture book, all in primary colors, with animals and utensils numbered under five. An old lady brings the newcomers food and drink on a red tray. There is no apparent trigger for the massacre that follows. The soldiers simply shoot the old woman and all her companions, adults and children alike—except for eleven-year-old Billie, who is spared “seemingly without a thought.” One of the soldiers then kills his companions, apparently to be freed of his military obligations, and sets about becoming a farmer.
An uneasy partnership is born between Billie and the deserter, Rafael, who by their occupation effectively perpetuate the farm’s previous function as a temporary home in the countryside for city children. The young girl becomes at once prisoner-of-war, kid sister, and farming instructor to her captor, who at turns holds her at gunpoint, devotedly picks out clothes and mixes bathwater for her, and makes her drive an explosive-rigged vehicle on a car-bombing expedition. Billie may be the biological child among the two of them, but the volatile Rafael too seems one of the “children in Reindeer Woods,” living out a childhood fantasy in unsupervised territory. But for all his best intentions, he proves no more able to let go of his soldiering instincts than the old lady can release her hold on the red serving tray, which she clutches so firmly that it must be buried with her. Similarly, Rafael continues to deal out violent death to nearly everyone who crosses his path, even his favorite hen, whom he strings up to set an example to the other chickens. (They had taken to shitting inside the farmhouse.)
However, most of Rafael’s killings are carried out in order to secure the borders of the sanctuary he has claimed for himself. The novel’s title in Icelandic, Hér, means simply here, a name indicative of how rooted the narrative is in this limited space. But while Rafael may patrol the perimeter, Billie keeps the heart of their habitat beating, as her memories are the last remaining meaningful links between the physical space they share and the world beyond. The intensely self-aware Billie is conscious of the materiality of memory and the power of narration and omission. Early on, she observes that
Some people want to use their memories sparingly and have everything in its right place—you might run out of memory if trinkets and toys moved about too often; they should serve us, not we them. If someone constantly has to hunt for things, then they might miss the benefits of memory, which allows you to cherish wonderful moments the way a princess cherishes her earrings. Someone had told the girl this, her mother, her father, a character in a movie. She remembered who, but it wasn’t worth the risk of remembering.
In keeping with this philosophy, Billie reveals herself most openly through the performances she stages with her toys. The physically and emotionally violent melodrama she scripts for her love triangle of Barbie dolls becomes a less risky alternative to expressing her own traumatic experiences of violence and abandonment. More gradually revealed is another performance that reinvents her fraught family relationships with an emotionally distant mother and a kind but weak-willed father. The latter claims to be a puppet from another planet, controlled by three puppeteers who can never agree on what they want. A more prosaic explanation lurks beneath the staging, as at least one of these extraterrestrial string-pullers has an excessive fondness for alcohol. But the resonance of this puppet theater lies in the layers of selective retelling and erasure surrounding an otherwise commonplace family history, which enacts the novel’s greater preoccupation with performance and memory in the face of trauma.
As fragments of Billie’s past slip through the seams of what is “worth the risk of remembering” and Rafael shoots, buries, and scrubs away the blood of anyone who might interfere, the limits of Reindeer Woods are slowly drawn. And yet it is the very porosity of its borders in both time and space that gives the novel its fable-like quality. At first encounter, the novel might strike an Icelandic reader such as myself as being full of echoes of home—mainly tropes of an Icelandic childhood, like summers spent on a farm in a treeless landscape, Prince Valiant haircuts, dolls with names like Guggalugga, and a certain sense of protective distance from (and touristic fascination with) the world beyond. Yet most of these are ultimately not the exclusive territory of Icelandic childhoods, and any such identification is deliberately undermined as if to emphasize its irrelevance. Temporally, too, the novel does not seem firmly anchored to any particular part of the modern era, with grammophones and dishwashers an equally comfortable part of their technological universe. The Here of the original title at once emphasizes the localization of Billie and Rafael’s particular experience and underscores the essential ambiguity and universality of the violence that has brought them together.
There seems to be a deliberate effort on Ómarsdóttir’s part to emphasize this universality, not least through the lens of language. Linguistic and cultural references give the novel a very deliberately European character, yet only up to the point where it remains coyly generic within that larger frame. At several points in the text, a single word will be repeated in several European languages: “‘I’m both a morning rooster and a night raven,’ Billie said proudly, hreykin, stolz, orgullosa.” This is perhaps in an attempt to signal the translatability of Here across borders, as well as to situate a text written in Icelandic (a language long isolated from European mainland culture and military conflict) in a broader context. Yet this Esperantic effort ultimately highlights the degree to which the text is shaped by its vernacular, as the translation reveals more strongly than the original. In English, “morning rooster”and “night raven” sound like quaint products of Billie’s own imagination; in Icelandic, morgunhani and nátthrafn are common idiomatic terms for morning or evening persons, respectively.
Ómarsdóttir’s credentials as a playwright are prominently on display in Children in Reindeer Woods. The somewhat blunt style of the novel often resembles a script laid out in continuous prose, and indeed sometimes slips into a scriptlike form. Emotions are evoked minimalistically, and the impact of events is, in effect, left up to the performers. But these performers are written into the narrative itself, becoming at once its protagonists and its enactors on the stage of our collective imagination. The effect of this emotional sparseness can be distancing, even alienating at times. Yet there is an eerie familiarity to Billie and Rafael’s world, a resonance that lingers beyond the final pages—perhaps the ghost of our own reimaginings of realities too dangerous to remember.
María Helga Guðmundsdóttir translates into English and Icelandic and divides her time between Reykjavík, Palo Alto, and New Delhi. Her published works include Ólöf the Eskimo Lady: Biography of an Icelandic Dwarf in America, by anthropologist Inga Dóra Björnsdóttir, and Twice in a Lifetime, a collection of short stories by Ágúst Borgþór Sverrisson.
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