Reading challenges are a good way to expose yourself to books you might not otherwise find. This is my fifth time through the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s annual challenge and she tends to favor books in translation. That’s fine by me, because we could all use a bit more cross-cultural understanding. My latest book in this challenge was my third novel by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Hotel Silence. Ólafsdóttir, although a professor of art history, is quite a gifted novelist and her stories probe what it is to be human, and also reflect life on a somewhat small island. Icelanders are known for their love of reading as well as for their geothermal power. This novel deals with darker subjects that some of Ólafsdóttir’s previous work, but one thing becomes clear—the Bible is an influence.
With a writing style that is poetic and descriptive, she acknowledges that the Good Book plays a role in forming her story here. I don’t want to give too much away, but it swirls around the difficult topics of suicide and war, and, ultimately, a kind of redemption. As I’ve come to expect from her writing, the characters are quirky and have foibles. There’s a matter-of-factness to them. They go about following singular ideas and all of her work that I’ve read is based on the concept of a journey. Maybe that’s something of a given for those who live on an island. Taking her characters to far lands is a way of reaching understanding, not xenophobia. That’s one of the reasons for reading the literature of other people.
In academia I was taught that exoticizing other cultures was a kind of evil. I can see the point in that, although, like most academic things it takes the fun out of imagining far-away places. Human beings need sources of wonder, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford a trip to Iceland, so reading stories written by a native feels, well, exotic. Academics have a point, though. For people of an exotic locale, their life is pretty much a daily struggle just like our lives are. The backdrop is different and the specific circumstances are unfamiliar, but at the end, people are people. That’s why I like Ólafsdóttir’s novels. At the end we find them facing the same kinds of problems the rest of us face. And we come to realize that our world is an isolated place in space. And if there are aliens out there watching us, they must think we’re fairly exotic. Let’s hope they’ll read us in translation. We can all use a good challenge.