Susan Sontag calls "Under the Glacier" "one of the funniest books ever written," labeling it "perennial mythology, Nordic style" in her introduction to the North American...

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“Under the Glacier”

by Halldór Laxness

Vintage Books, 240 pp., $14

Susan Sontag calls “Under the Glacier” “one of the funniest books ever written,” labeling it “perennial mythology, Nordic style” in her introduction to the North American edition. Nordic style (Garrison Keillor style) means staying buttoned-down in the face of outrageous absurdity — present in abundance in the remote Icelandic village where the novel is played out.

In 1968, Iceland’s Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness (who died in 1998) conceived this allegory to explore the absurdities — as he saw them — of life and religion. No one exits his story unscathed.

The bishop of Iceland sends a young emissary to the community at Snæffels Glacier to determine the truth of reports that the church is boarded up and falling into decay, and the pastor no longer holds services or buries the dead. Most scandalous, the pastor has not yet divorced the wife he took 30 years ago, despite the fact he is said to have been living with another woman for years.

The emissary — never named except as Emissary of the Bishop, or EmBi — is chosen because he knows how to operate a tape recorder. The bishop gives him strict instructions not to interpret anything; merely to record it. “When people talk they reveal themselves, whether they’re lying or telling the truth,” the Bishop says, adding “any lie you are told, even deliberately, is often a more significant fact than the truth told in all sincerity.”

Many things are in short supply in the village — the church pews were given to people for firewood during a bitter winter — but truth is abundant, though it often slides in sideways, masquerading as absurdity.

No one gives EmBi a straight answer. The man said to be the pastor shoes horses and repairs stoves. He says good-naturedly of a decaying altarpiece, “No one is so busy that he hasn’t the time to dismantle a work of art.”

American readers will take special notice of Chapter 22, in which EmBi encounters a trio of American men with “teeth regular and white as when men smile from the shadow of the mango tree in the lands where famine is routine.” EmBi asks why they are killing birds and is told “Because we love them, sir.” The Americans explain they are followers of Shiva, and that to create is to destroy. When EmBi protests, “It is monstrous to amuse oneself by killing defenseless creatures,” one of the men replies, “It has always been popular to attack the weak. … Why do we Americans travel halfway across the globe with the most complex guns in the history of the world to shoot naked peasants in a country we don’t even know? It is because we love these people as ourselves.”

EmBi is treated to endless pots of coffee and cakes, day after day, but never offered a scrap of more substantial food. Laxness seems to be saying that ceremony offers little substance.

Underlining Laxness’ point that history is stranger than fiction, the pastor says, “The difference between a novelist and a historian is this: that the former tells lies deliberately and for the fun of it; the historian tells lies in his simplicity and imagines he is telling the truth.” He also points out, “As regards the Almighty, we are at liberty to locate it where we like and call it what we wish.”

“Under the Glacier” is, as Sontag says, “science fiction, fable, allegory, philosophical novel, dream novel, visionary novel, literature of fantasy, wisdom lit, spoof, and sexual turn-on.” The women of the village are something special.