cover image Reply to a Letter from Helga

Reply to a Letter from Helga

Bergsveinn Birgisson, trans. from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton. AmazonCrossing, $9.95 trade paper (118p) ISBN 978-1-61218-717-4

In Birgisson’s English language debut, the Icelandic farmer Bjarni, stirred by a confluence of circumstance and emotion, sits down to write the story of his life in a letter to the woman he didn’t marry but truly loved long ago. One trigger for this daunting project is the demise of his wife, Unnur, who “lay on her deathbed for five years.” Bjarni lives close to the land, and much of this episodic account covers aspects of his country life, tending to sheep and bird-watching. He writes of the agricultural school where he learned about farm machinery. Icelandic literary tradition is rich in poetry and several poetic pieces are woven into the narrative: a love poem composed to Helga, bits of folk songs, “recited verse” spouted at fondly remembered local gatherings as snuff and a flask or two are passed around. Aspects of rural life are depicted in 11 b&w illustrations by Kjarten Hallur, peppered throughout, evocative of etchings. Birgisson pays homage to Icelandic storytelling with chapters rooted in classic works and citations in the extensive glossary, which is a valuable guide for further reading. This story is made of simple elements, told with arch elegance. (Jan.)