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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Under the Glacier

Halldór Laxness

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To purchase Under the Glacier

Title: Under the Glacier
Author: Halldór Laxness
Genre: Novel
Written: 1968 (Eng. 1972)
Length: 240 pages
Original in: Icelandic
Availability: Under the Glacier - US
Under the Glacier - UK
Under the Glacier - Canada
Under the Glacier - India
Úa - France
Am Gletscher - Deutschland
  • Icelandic title: Kristnihald undir Jökli
  • Originally (1972) published in English as Christianity at Glacier
  • Translated by Magnus Magnusson
  • The 2005 edition comes with an Introduction by Susan Sontag

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Our Assessment:

A- : clever and unusual religious and philosophical fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 27/2/2005 Susan Salter Reynolds
Salon A+ 30/3/2005 Andrew O'Hehir

  From the Reviews:
  • "This would all be much less serious, more pure science fiction, if (1) the characters weren't Icelanders and (2) if it didn't concern the failures of Christianity and the reintroduction of paganism. It is difficult to tell when Icelanders are joking, and Laxness is no exception to this rule. His characters live by the Sagas, the weather, and some otherworldly natural force that passed into remission with the coming of electricity but waits in the glacier to return. And we believe him." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "If there were any justice in the literary world -- and of course there isn't -- this amazing little volume would inspire a cult following. (...) Under the Glacier is both a modern novel and a luminous tale of timeless mythic profundity." - Andrew O'Hehir, Salon

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Under the Glacier -- previously published (more appropriately, if less catchily) as Christianity at Glacier -- is a most unusual story, and rather unusually told. It is narrated by "the undersigned", who then also refers to himself as the 'Emissary of the Bishop' -- 'EmBi for short' ("hereinafter written Embi") -- who, for the most part, writes this account in the third person (as recommended by the bishop who gives him his assignment). A twenty-five year old who, upon his arrival at his destination, admits: "I cannot imagine how I've blundered into this" (and he doesn't know the half of what he's in for at that point yet), is sent by the bishop investigate 'Christianity at Glacier', as the local pastor doesn't seem to doing what he should any longer. The children aren't getting baptized, the dead aren't getting buried -- and the bishop can't get any answers. His letters and threats have done good, so now he's sending this emissary to see what, exactly, has gone wrong and figure out what can be done about it.
       Arriving at Glacier, Embi has great difficulty making his mission or himself understood. With a seeming calm indifference, everyone and everything at Glacier seems to function rather differently --at its own pace, and with its own priorities. It begins with the table "loaded with an abundance of all dainties as in the Saga of the Virgin Mary -- with the exception of the one dainty: proper food", as Embi despairs of even ever just getting a proper meal (or even just some bread) to eat. Then there's the difficulty of getting anyone to tell him anything: "Nothing ever happens to anyone. No one has ever seen anything", goes the local claim.
       Conversations with Pastor Jón -- a jack of all trades who seems to have little time to spare for any pastoring-duties -- are also not entirely enlightening, though it's clear that the local practice of Christianity has fallen into ... disrepair. As has the church itself, now boarded up and with the steps leading to the entrance gone (making for a four foot drop from door to ground). Bit by bit Embi does learn some of what's going on here -- which includes efforts at reanimation, and involves a millionaire from abroad as well as the mysterious woman named Úa (both of whom eventually also make personal appearances, of sorts). Embi finds himself drawn into more than he expected, though he's not very enthusiastic about much of this -- especially the reanimating efforts: "Christianity has had its resurrection once and for all", after all, he notes.
       With much of the novel presented in largely unembellished dialogue, Under the Glacier is half screwball comedy, with a cast of very odd types, and half religious (Christian as well as eastern-mystical) and philosophical dialogue. It is also, as Halldór Laxness would have it, a fable: as Pastor Jón explains:

History is always entirely different to what has happened. The facts are all fled from you before you start the story. History is simply a fact on its own. And the closer you try to approach the facts through history, the deeper you sink into fiction. The greater the care with which you explain a fact, the more nonsensical a fable you fish out of chaos. The same applies to the history of the world. 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.
     Embi: I set down, then, that all history, including the history of the world, is a fable.
     Pastor Jón: Everything that is subject to the laws of fable is a fable.
       The bishop explained to his emissary before sending him on his way:
The first thing is to have the will; the rest is technique.
       Embi isn't very sure of himself going into it, and he certainly doesn't gain much confidence on the way -- though at least he stands his ground at Glacier and doesn't let himself get drawn too far into the local lunacy (though a bit can't be avoided). He experiments with technique, as is also reflected in the make-up of his account -- which he tries to present as a neutral, third-person account, but where he can't help but add the occasional personal and first-person commentary --, and much of the success of this charmingly, bizarrely free-wheeling text is in the author's willingness to play with techniques and presentation. Though much of the subject-matter is serious, Halldór Laxness shows a very deft light touch in presenting it; it makes for a constantly surprising, very entertaining -- and surprisingly thought-provoking -- narrative.
       Under the Glacier is certainly unusual, but for the most part in quite good ways. Good, strange fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 December 2010

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Under the Glacier: Reviews: Halldór Laxness: Other books by Halldór Laxness under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Icelandic author Halldór Laxness (actually: Halldór Guðjónsson) lived 1902 to 1998. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955.

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