Steinar Bragi – The Sky Over Thingvellir
Icelandic author Steinar Bragi's short story, The Sky Over Thingvellir (trans. Christopher Burawa), opens near a waterfall. A young couple are settling down by the waterfall, pulling out bottles of wine and food from a wicker basket and laying out a blanket. The narrator tells us that their moves are moving but we aren't quite close enough to hear – so let's swoop in. From the start, the narrator is intrusive, deliberately participatory in the text, present but not onerous, providing a commentary but without judgement. The narrator mentions that,
In order to get even closer to them – I see no reason for us to announce ourselves – we'll continue on to our destination, set down at the base of the cliff, land on a branch on one of the little scrub trees by the riverbank, and discover the scents of the waking shrubs, grasses, and a single flower.
The narrator goes on to note that we will, for the upcoming conversation, flit between the minds of the girl and the boy “as it suits our needs”. What at first seems an idyllic day by a waterfall is soon revealed as the last time the couple will spend together. The girl is convinced they must break up, but it's not quite as simple as that:
The girl couldn't decide how she felt – she was simultaneously sad, angry, and frightened. The sadness came on when she'd decided to break up with Baldur, which was the boy's name, although now it was changing to hate. She thought he was very intelligent and often funny, handsome too, but there was something about him that she just couldn't stand – probably it was all his brightness, which bordered on what some women might see as smugness. With him, everything was always good. He was a man who marched ahead, who didn't seem to harbor so much as a speck of self loathing, self destructiveness, not even a hint of any unbridled, conflicted angst that might need to find some means of expression. They couldn't have been more different.
In short, the boy is a full realised personality, equipped to deal with the task he has set himself and confident in his abilities to handle the future. He is a musician, well educated, and rather cultured, able to discuss politics, economics, history, philosophy and science – all while during an argument. But he lacks passion, or at least, what passion he has is instead directed toward his intellectual and creative endeavours. He is a man of the world who does not allow himself to completely participate in it, staying away from the rancid lows and dizzying highs of human interaction.
It's hard for Baldur to understand but some ladies just don't want the artistic dreamer, they don't want the practical engineer or the impractically-minded scientist. Ella doesn't want any of these. She wants:
....someone who was capable of ordering her around like a parent one minute and fucking her on the floor the next. Someone she could handle – someone she could keep right at the brink of violence without ever pushing him over.
And Baldur is not that man. But he won't listen to what she is saying, instead locking upon the tiny slip-ups in her words at the expense of her overall argument. It's a classic case of missing the forest for the trees, such as when he completely misunderstands her suggestion that he only sees the world in his way, and refuses to examine it from hers:
”It's always the same with literalists...people who claim to be 'grounded,' who consider themselves to be practical and, in general, use science as an excuse for everything, are always the same people who turn out to be the loudest objectors and archconservatives, who still believe in an antiquated nineteenth-century philosophy and wander around in a dense fog, denying everything that's been discovered by real scientists in the first half of the twentieth century, and that musicians and artists have always known. There is no reality. Everything is beauty. Impressions are made on our neural receptors – across clouds.
It's nice, but it's not really a response to what Ella is saying. Bragi's choice at the beginning of the story to flit between both characters as he saw fit serves to make both of them sympathetic characters; unlike many break-up stories, which are inevitably written from the perspective of a single participant and skewed accordingly, both are rational and not, right and not, happy and not, satisfied and not. Baldur is an appealing character, and temperamentally he reminds me of myself. There is a hilarious part when Ella argues that all his philosophy, all his thoughts, all his ideas and concepts, are not as universal as he would like, that there are a thousand million people in Asia who don't care for his cultural heritage or outlook.
”Don't even try to talk to me about Asia,” he said, suddenly irritated. “I know everything about Asia.”
The arrogance and hubris of the intellectual (and yes, I've said something equally stupid during an argument).
Ella is equally appealing, though for different reasons. She is more attuned to the nuances of interaction, and is able to see that Baldur, though smart, interesting and creative, is not the type of person to unbend and live in the world in the manner in which she intends. Ella is tumultuous and impulsive, but she's just as intelligent as Baldur, and holds her own as they discuss history and economics while really discussing their relationship. She's no pushover. The most fascinating aspect of The Sky Over Thingvellir is how well-realised both characters are and how fair Bragi is to their arguments. I felt most for Baldur because I recognised some of myself in him, but also because, by the end of the story he was left crying on the blanket, abandoned and alone on the very day he had decided to admit to loving Ella – but I remained sympathetic toward Ella and realised that she was better off without him. Neither character is presented as an antagonist.
Ella's near to last remark as the relationship sours and any hope of a retrieval of affection is lost is quite telling and cuts to the heart of her problem with people like Baldur:
...you're just another example of the kind of man who always makes his way into my life. Men invented romanticism, you know – they like to make women into symbols, into unearthly beings! Nothing so ethereal and absurd has ever been written by a woman. Austen, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and Doris Lessing are each about the coldest and most elemental stylists that you can find. No man could ever approach the deliberate, cold-hammered styles of those women. Whining idiots like Schopenhauer or Michel Houellebecq are just pubescent boys, by comparison. Men simply can't escape their own emotions.
This is a woman who knows, who has found the right man for some but not for her, and is able to clearly articulate why this is the case and what, exactly, is wrong with him. The paragraph continues on, and provides an exhilarating climax to an excellent story. Bragi extends things a few pages more, but the turning point has been reached and there's nothing to do now but tidy it up. Indeed, the narrator notes this, returning in full force in the last paragraph to “fly away” from the characters, to leave them and the world in order to contemplate what has gone on just now and whether is may be extrapolated into other relationships and other people.
The Sky Over Thingvellir by Steinar Bragi is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2010
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2010, include:
---Belgium: Toussaint, Jean-Phillipe - Zidane's Melancholy
---Bosnian: Štiks, Igor - At the Sarajevo Market
---Bulgarian: Gospodinov, Georgi - And All Turned Moon
---Croatian: Ušumović, Neven – Vereš
---Danish: Aidt, Naja Marie - Bulbjerg
---Estonian: Viiding, Elo - Foreign Women
---French: Montalbetti, Christine - Hotel Komaba Eminence (With Haruki Murakami)
---Hungarian: Konrád, György - Jeremiah's Terrible Tale
---Italian: Mozzi, Guilio - Carlo Doesn't Know How to Read
Index of titles by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Index of short stories under review