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Review: Drapa, by Gerður Kristný

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Bloodhoof was translated by Rory McTurk and I remember being struck by his version's precision and lyricism (qualities that all too rarely coincide). McTurk is again the translator in this latest book by the prolific Kristný (whether one should use the first or last name was never quite resolved, even at Hawthornden), which turns to be a more modern story, a true one this time, as dark as anything in the Edda. Drápa is about the murder of Gréta Birgisdóttir by her husband Bragi Ólafsson in 1988, a case on which Gerður Kristný reported when she was a journalist, interviewing Bragi after his release from prison (talking to him at the actual scene of the crime). Her interest in such cases, and the success of her study of sexual abuse, Portrait of Daddy, would make an article in itself, but much of the detail is summarised in this new book's introduction. Indeed, Gerður Kristný's actual poem (a kind of murder ballad, subtitled 'The Slaying') is only part of the pleasure here: Drápa is a handsome volume, anything but academic in appearance, with spidery line drawings that scuttle unexpectedly across the page and a dramatic title in bold red. Yet it is authoritatively prepared and provides plenty of context. The introduction by the University of Iceland's Guðni Elísson and Alda Björk Valdimarsdóttir is exemplary, a helpful examination of the poet's 'dark vision', relating it to Goethe and Nietzsche, but also keeping in mind the needs of the general reader who may not know much about Icelandic culture. There is even a guide to pronunciation, and it's well worth trying to read some of the original verses aloud.

Those verses are set out attractively, with few words to the page - the wastes of white space feel somehow appropriate - so that one can flit from English to Icelandic and back, Gerður Kristný's stylistic 'minimalism' making it is easy to track how the translation operates.

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Gerður Kristný has a real gift for the (often cinematic) macabre, and part of the pleasure in Drápa is that of reading a horror story. The introduction of the 'darcus' contributes to this Gothic atmosphere: film directors have long known how sinister clowns can be, and here they are described as evil emissaries enacting the satanic narrator's crime, stuffing the victim into a coffin where 'Lyktin / af viði og voða / lamaði' - 'the smell / of wood and peril / was paralysing', Rory McTurk managing here to reproduce something of the Icelandic word-music in 'peril / paral'.

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If one didn't know that this poem was product of a country where the sun barely rises for some months of the year, then one might have guessed it. Yet there is such an energy in Gerður Kristný's writing, in the word play and the lively scoring, the fugal interplay of techniques, that one emerges - as from a hot spring - shaken, somewhat overwhelmed by the sulphurous fumes, but invigorated.