25 September 2009

History lessons

A couple weeks ago, Dan Conrad and I had lunch at the Swede Hollow Cafe in St. Paul. Swede Hollow was a shanty town/slum/dump/open sewer just east of downtown St. Paul. Beginning around 1850, Swedish immigrants scavanged building materials and built places to live in the hollow. They were followed by successive waves of Polish, Italian, and Mexican immigrants. Neither electricity, city water, or sewer service followed any of them. The place was condemned, the last 11 residents evicted, and everything burned down in 1956. After that it became an informal land fill and a hobo jungle until the 1970s, when Swede Hollow was cleaned up and declared a nature center.

That's a history lesson to go along with the book I just read.

After lunch, Dan and I visited Garrison Keillor's Common Good Books in St. Paul. So, what kind of bookstore does the old Scout run? It's an old fashioned place, crammed with books and little advertising and a few section lables on the walls. Oh, and it has a very knowledgeable staff. That's probably more history.

While there, Dan pointed out The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indriðason. On Carol Stoops' recommendation, I had read Jar City and sort of liked it. Dan thought The Draining Lake was very good. [The actual draining Lake Kleifarvatn, right]

I agree.

First of all, there are at least two stories told in this book. There are probably others, but I'm not enough of an English major to recognize them. I've even given some thought to the lake of the title that loses all its water because of some geologic phenomenon at the beginning of the book and then begins refilling at the end.

I can think of some symbolic meanings, but they seem pretty lame. Then again, there are those moments that bring the past to our attention for a short time. For Americans there are anniversaries like July 4 and September 11 and October 28 and December 7. However, not long after the anniversary (especially the older ones) we shelve the memories and get back to paying attention to what's going on in the present.

That's sort of like a lake draining, revealing a bit of the past, and then refilling to hide things beneath the surface again.

In Indriðason's novel, what is revealed is a human skeleton tied to heavy piece of Soviet spy equipment. Spy equipment in Iceland? The skeleton had been at the bottom of the lake for 30 years or more? An Icelander a spy?

Detective Erlendur and his colleagues draw the low priority assignment of identifying the dead person and finding out what happened.

The back story involves Icelandic students, idealistic young socialists all, who got grants to attend university in Leipzig, East Germany in the 1950s. The police state they found there was not the socialist utopia they expected.

The contemporary stories are told in the conversations and interviews between Erlendur, the other detectives, their families, and people who might know something about a dead person thrown in a lake, weighted down with Soviet spy machinery.

The back story is told in an account of coming of age, disillusionment, love, and loss by an old man recalling part of his youth in East Germany. The themes of the back story are reflected in the themes of the contemporary one.

The stories come closer and closer together as the detectives fit together bits and pieces of information over a summer and fall of on and off investigation and as the hand-written journal of a man haunted by his past is completed.

The writing, the characters, and the structure of the stories are well done. I liked The Draining Lake very much. I will go looking for other books by Indriðason. (His main character, Erlendur, is almost as depressing as Mankell's Swedish detective, but not quite so hopeless.)

And, it's obvious why this is not a story about Americans. Idealistic socialists are only slightly more welcome and believable in the USA than athiests. All of the disillusioned Icelanders returned from East Germany with their socialism intact. What they gave up was their willingness to tolerate the authoritarianism of the Soviet system. They became democratic socialists. To most Americans, that's an oxymoron.

Anyone else have thoughts about Indriðason's book? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

BTW, the strange (to me) letter in the middle of Indriðason's name (that I missed when writing about his previous book) is "Eth, a letter used in Old English, Icelandic, Faroese... and Elfdalian," according to Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia entry goes on to say that "In Icelandic, ð represents a voiced dental fricative like th in English "them", but it never appears as the first letter of a word. The... letter is... voiceless, unless followed by a vowel."

Thus, the authors name is pronounced in-dri-tha-son, not in-dri-da-son.

My, the things one learns.

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