This month’s Asymptote Book Club selection, History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir, asks us to reconsider our understanding of how history is constructed. The protagonist, an academic who “leads an almost unpunctuated domestic existence of solitude and paranoia,” makes a shocking discovery about the secret identity of a seventeenth-century writer—and then seems to disprove her own theory. As the protagonist becomes increasingly unstable, her erratic prose leads the reader to reflect on the tenuous boundary between stories and history.
Lytton Smith’s translation of History. A Mess. is the twentieth title selected by the Asymptote Book Club, which brings outstanding translated fiction to readers each month. You can sign up to receive next month’s book on our website or join the online discussion on our Facebook page.
Translator Lytton Smith told Splice that “the Icelandic language doesn’t have two distinct words for story and history. It uses the same word, saga, and so those two ways of writing are more closely connected for Icelanders than they are for us.” As such, they are more concerned with storytelling as a craft, fidelity to emotional truth above accuracy to facts. Yet Sigrún Pálsdóttir’s novel, History. A Mess., seemingly centers around historical fact: a text whose existence could make or break an academic career.
From Icelandic landscapes to art history, August brings with it an exciting new selection of books. Whether you’re looking for a book to pass the hot summer days, or are in the market for inspired poetry, the Asymptote team has something for you in this new edition of What’s New in Translation. And if that’s not enough, head over to the Asymptote Book Club for fresh reads, delivered to your doorstep every month!
Öræfi: The Wastelands by Ófeigur Sigurðsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith, Deep Vellum, 2018
Reviewed by Jacob Silkstone, Assistant Managing Editor
One of the many epic stories retold in Ófeigur Sigurðsson’s Öræfi: The Wastelands (“that punctuation mark… both pushes words (and worlds) away from one another and means they’re roped together,” according to translator Lytton Smith) is the story of Öræfi itself. Formerly known as Hérað, the Province, a place in which “butter drips from every blade of grass,” it was devastated by the most destructive volcanic eruption in Iceland’s recorded history:
The chronicles record that one morning in 1362 Knappafjells glacier exploded and spewed over the Lómagnúpur sands and carried everything off into the sea, thirty fathoms deep… The Province was destroyed, all its people and creatures annihilated; no sheep or cattle survived, no creatures left alive anywhere… the corpses of people and animals washed up on beaches far and wide… the bodies were cooked and tender and the flesh so loose on the bones it fell apart.