Recent Books (Icelandic Edition)

So this is going to be short: it’s just three books. The first is Powers of Darkness, which, yes, is that “Icelandic Dracula” translation that was in the media last year—and yeah, it’s very different from our Dracula—and the others are old Penguin editions of a Icelandic texts titled Eyrbyggja Saga, and an Icelandic murder-mystery titled Snowblind: A Thriller by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates). The Icelandic Dracula and the murder mystery are from the library, while the two sagas are books I’ve had on the shelf for literally decades and never read, but finally decided to check out. 

Powers of Darkness: The Lost Version of Dracula by Bram Stoker and Valdimar Ásmundsson, translated from Icelandic to English by Hans De Roos 

Last year, the internet was abuzz with news that someone had gone and compared Makt Myrkranna (the classic Icelandic translation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and discovered that—lo and behold—it’s essentially a totally different book from the Dracula we know and love. I only heard about it a little while ago, and imagine my astonishment when a day or two later, I stumbled upon a copy in the (not-particularly-huge) collection of English-language novels available at the Sejong National Library, out in the middle of nowhere here in Korea. 

The provenance of the book is a little hard to nail down, as Bram Stoker’s grandson notes in his foreword: was Valdimar Ásmundsson working from an earlier draft of Dracula? (It seems quite possible, and the footnotes throughout the text indicate the bits and pieces that seem to be artifacts of the original draft, at least based on Stoker’s preliminary notes.) Did Ásmundsson take liberties that he didn’t tell Stoker about? (This, too, seems very likely.) The result is… well, uncertainty, and one must essentially consider the novel a collaborative work created by Stoker and Ásmundsson, with it being quite uncertain to what degree each collaborator contributed to the final product. 

But how does it rate as a novel? I can say I had fun reading it, and it was Dracula-esque enough for me to have the (Francis Ford Coppola) Dracula soundtrack from 1992 looping in my head… well, this track specifically:

It’s been a long time since I’ve actually read Dracula, but even so, I can attest to it being very different from the novel—which, come to think of it, I read the same year I saw Dracula, which was in 1993. (It, along with Frankenstein, was one of the assigned readings for my freshman English course: my prof was a big vampire buff, as it happened, but Dracula was a popular freshman English class reading anyway. I think I decided to see the movie after reading and enjoying the book.)

The biggest difference in Powers of Darkness is the focus: The translated text of the novel spans pages 67–289, but from pages 67–233, the focus is Jonathan Harker’s trip to, and imprisonment within, Castle Dracula. Despite my vague memories, I am pretty sure, first of all, Harker’s stay there wasn’t this long in Dracula, certainly not in terms of its proportionality in the text. Second, this stay in the castle is characteristically different: instead of three vampire women, there’s only one, and Harker’s descriptions of her are way more sexually charged. Even his description of the dead village girl outside is sexually charged. 

Third, the overall effect is one of slow-building horror Harker is framed for the murder of a country lass and left a prisoner in the castle; while Dracula abandons him in the English version of the novel, here it’s less clear that he’s being abandoned to the female vampire in the castle: it’s strongly implied, but at the same time, there’s an elaborate setup framing him for a local murder that doubtless Dracula himself has committed. Like in Dracula, death at the castle is a fate he escapes by climbing down its outer wall and fleeing into the wilderness. However, in Powers of Darkness Mina Harker’s trip to Transylvania comes at this point, after Harker’s disappearance, rather than at the end of the book: she sets out with British detectives, hoping to find him in the knowledge that he couldn’t have committed the awful crimes for which he’s been framed. In the end, Dracula is caught and slain on English soil, in Carfax.  

There’s a fourth, and final, difference of some relevance, and that is in the level of detail. Jonathan Harker’s explorations of Castle Dracula are very detailed, so much so that it’s possible to draw a map based on them (and such a map is included in the book). By Part II, when the Count is in England, one feels like Valdimar Ásmundsson began to lose patience, or despair of completing the project, for he slips into summary, essentially providing a sort of Cliff Notes version of the rest of the tale. The Count’s arrival in in England, the vampirization and hunting of Lucia (Lucy), the appearance of Van Helsing, the final destruction of the vampire, and all the rest of the stuff that makes up the majority of Dracula, is crammed into less than 60 pages of very shorthand summary. It’s odd, and one feels as if there must have been some external reason why the translator chose to do so.

There are also a few characters who don’t exist in Dracula (such as a fairly forgettable detective named Barrington), and a few who exist in Dracula but are not here (the most unforgettable of which is, of course, Renfield—though there is a Frenchman whose letter to the Count in Part I smacks of Renfield-like flattery). A few other characters are renamed: Mina Harker, for example, is Wilma in this text. Van Helsing appears, but in such thinly sketched detail that one imagines he’d never have become a pop culture staple if this had been the English-speaking world’s Dracula

And finally, the text is heavily footnoted. I feel like skipping the footnotes is less easy to do with this book, due to the layout—the footnotes are in the outer margins of the pages, so you see them as you turn the page—but that’s fine, and they’re mostly interesting, noting Icelandic phrases that seem to be engaging in wordplay or riffing on passages in Icelandic Sagas, as well as point of intersection or departure with the published text of Dracula and Stoker’s preparatory notes.

All in all, I don’t think I’d call it essential book, but it’s a fun, brisk read, if you can get your hands on it. It’s also begging for a treatment like The Dracula Dossier—especially the latter part of the book, which one could pass off as having been heavily redacted.

But, really, I also feel like the first part of the book would make for a fascinating traditional RPG adventure: Harker’s exploration of Castle Dracula is essentially a dungeon crawl, except he’s forced to be on good terms with his host and to do the crawling during the daytime, because night is… well, when the scarier monsters emerge. Characters being held captive (unwittingly, at least, until they discover the fact) and having to make polite conversation with a creepy host who they’re increasingly sure is a monster, but also are increasingly sure they won’t be able to kill? That sounds like an evening or two of good fun. 

Eyrbyggja Saga, Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards

There’s a few books I have with me here in Korea that I’ve owned for decades—at this point, for most of my life—but never read. The oldest of these is probably my Unicorn Books edition of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, a book my parents bought for me when I was in middle school, and which—despite having tried several times—I’ve never gotten very far into. Few of the unread books I have here are quite that old. Most date to a bit later—specifically, my undergraduate days. 

Picking up a book from those days is odd: though I can’t always envision the store where I bought it, I usually retain the ghostly memory of where the store stood in Saskatoon. They’re almost all gone now, of course—replaced by a couple of big, fancy bookstores—but they were great while they lasted. One of the things I liked best about them was that they cycled through stock semi-regularly, so you could pick up interesting books on the cheap from time to time. One example is my copy of Eyrbyggja Saga, which cost me $1.99 as an undergrad. (I picked it up, alongside a copy of Egil’s Saga that I can’t find now, and a copy of the Nibelungenlied, all at about the same price, and then set them on a shelf.

And then another shelf, and another, and another, never looking at any of them for very long at all. The farthest I got of any of them was Chapter 2 of the Nibelungenlied, in fact: a little improvised bookmark made of ruled notebook paper attests to that being my stopping point. Why I never picked them up, I can’t say, though, in my defense, probably half the time I’ve owned these books, they sat in boxes at my parents’ place, because I was in Korea and didn’t know how long I’d be here. I don’t remember when I finally brought them over after some trip, though I must have believed I was going to read them, since bringing them involved packing them into luggage and hauling them with me. Still, I didn’t… not until now. 

Well, specifically, until Monday night, when I woke after sleeping most of the afternoon. I was still pretty sick, but found myself unable to sleep any more for a while, and since I was sleeping on a floor-mattress (a Korean 요, I mean) I looked at the lower books on my shelf and found this staring back at me, so I dived in.  

Unlike with some books I’ve left on a shelf for decades, I’m not necessarily kicking myself over the fact that it took me so long to get around to it. It’s not that the saga isn’t “good”—the book has plenty of sections that are exactly what I came looking for—but the translation feels a bit flat, and while this feels like it’s probably in line with the original to some degree, I wonder how much oddness was lost in the name of making the text accessible to the lay reader. Also, especially in the beginning, a text with a deep concern for genealogy, so you find yourself skimming through who married who and whose kid married whose kid for a little bit. 

That said, the saga it grows more compelling as it goes, and by about the midpoint, the flow of time slows down and all manner of interesting, weird, crazy stuff comes to the fore: you’ve got people lying to one another and fighting over farmland and woodland, a spiteful haunting by the ghost of a Christian woman (and another by the draugrs1 of a pissed-off shepherd and a bitter old landholder). There’s tons of squabbling, ore than a few legal cases, arson in the dead of night, a few babies whose paternity is a mystery, and even some sorcerers who show up just long enough to be slaughtered.

Lots of snippets come up that are fascinating, like the old Norse practice of walking around a territory with fire (as in, a torch) in hand, as a way of tracing the boundary line but also, seemingly, driving out evil spirits. Theres even a pretty funny tale of a pair of berserkers who, once they’re brought to Iceland, turn out to be nothing but trouble and finally have to be slaughtered. 

(It’s one of those moments where you can imagine one Icelandic farmer grinning across a fire at another and saying, with a wink, “Berserkers, eh? Yeah, yeah… what could possibly go wrong?”)

I think there are probably more compelling starting points for someone interested in the sagas of the Icelanders, but this little book definitely has its moments, and has me eager to dig into some of the other Icelandic sagas and see what I think of them. (Likewise, I’d be interested to see what another translator did with the same text, though that seems unlikely to be possible in the near future.)

Snowblind: A Thriller by Ragnar Jónasson, translated by Quentin Blake

For some reason I don’t have much to say about this book. It was fine, an entertaining and plot-twisty mystery as well as a very quick read; I liked the characters, especially Jónasson’s choice of protagonist (a newly-arrived novice cop with a lot to learn, working his first job in a small, isolated town in northern Iceland called Siglufjörður) as well as the choice of time period (during the upheavals of the 2009 global recession). It’s the kind of place where nothing ever happens… until suddenly, in the space of a single night, a lot suddenly happens. 

I think I’d probably be happy to stumble upon a copy of any of the other books in the “Dark Iceland” series in the library—this novel apparently is the first of five—but I will say that the prose and a lot of the locals left me a little underwhelmed, and I’m not sure whether that’s because of the translation or the original. I suspect, though I don’t want to generalize about the genre, that this is probably a common tradeoff in this kind of novel. I am guessing a lot of “compulsively readable” books (including novels in this sort of Agatha Christie vein) require a lower degree of textual complexity and richness, to allow the reader to plow through each novel at a much greater speed… which, I suppose, probably explains why I’m not a big murder mystery reader. Those local characters are… well, a lot of them are flatter than they needed to be, I think, but again, I imagine for a lot of the happy mystery readers who reviewed this book very positively, that’s a feature rather than a flaw.

Oh, and I don’t mention Agatha Christie randomly: the style of mystery here is very much reminiscent of Christie’s, and that’s probably not coincidence: I’ve read that Jónasson translated a number of Christie’s works to Icelandic prior to writing it, so a bit of stylistic influence hardly ought to surprise us.  

In any case, it was alright: someone out there called it a “serviceable potboiler” which I think is a pretty accurate way of putting it.   

I’m finding the Icelandic Sagas interesting, so I’ve got a few more queued up: Egil’s Saga is one—I’ve owned it as long as the Eyrbyggja Saga—and I also managed to figure out the branch loan system where I work to the point where I could put in requests for copies of Njal’s Saga and the Prose Edda to be sent down from Seoul. 

If I like those, too, I may well go ahead and earmark the payment for some future fiction sale to invest in a copy of The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders at some point… but as of now, I’m not quite there yet. (And honestly I have plenty of other books to read, sitting just as neglected on my shelves; when I cut back on Facebook, I manage to read more, but making a Facebook cutback stick is harder than anyone likes to admit, these days.)

And, of course, Icelandic writing isn’t the only stuff I’m getting sent down: I’ve got two books of Occitan poetry (and essays about them) on my desk as well—one a collection of troubadour songs, and another collecting poems of the trobairitz, the less-common female troubadours of the Middle Ages in Occitania. 

  1. Draugr are basically the Old Norse culture’s equivalent of a very violent revenant, except with a whole suite of magical powers

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