Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Reputation

Icelandic National Radio: Víðsjá: 20 October 2011 | 16:05
Gauti Kristmannsson on

The Reputation
by Bjarni Bjarnason

Rhetorical questions generally have a single, obvious answer. Such a question is less important in and of itself than the response it implies. It is thus a worthy undertaking for a work of fiction to put forth just such a question and then provide quite a different answer – or even more than one answer. True, the question on the cover of this book is not entirely a rhetorical one. It simply asks: What is the cost of an unsullied reputation? Al the same, one naturally takes for granted that there can be no real answer to such a query. A price tag cannot be put on a person’s reputation – even if it might seem as if the value of a reputation and how it is judged vary greatly depending on the culture and the times. Horrific honour killings are, for example, attempts on the part of the perpetrators to save their own reputations. But we Westerners certainly don’t understand them that way, even though the men of the Western World were not so very long ago in the habit of settling disputes where their own reputations were at stake with a duel – ‘affairs of honour’, as they were called.
The question Bjarni Bjarnason poses in The Reputation is not how much a person’s reputation costs but rather whether it is possible to buy a reputation in the first place. Or whether one must buy something more. If it is possible, then the answer to the second question is yes. And this is what story is all about.

Coming three years after the bank crash, it’s not surprising that this book should deal with the crisis in some way. Storytelling is and will continue to be one of our nation’s most potent medicines in coping with the misfortune that has befallen the collective Icelandic consciousness. We will be reading many poems and novels in the future that reference this whole bloody mess, which in its way has already become a tiring subject for discussion. It hardly came as a shock to me that I could recognise some of the book’s characters right off the bat, and I wasn’t sure whether or not it was too soon to start dreading that this might prove to be a roman à clef about the big bad venture Vikings. The protagonist, Starkaður Leví, is unmistakably based on some of the figures who were most prominent in the years leading up to the crash.

My worries proved to be entirely without cause: Here, the author merely uses our general knowledge of people and events to construct a narrative that deals with other and more philosophical concerns. I felt, as I drew nearer to the end of the book, that I could classify it as philosophical realistic fantasy without being guilty of excessive hair-splitting – indeed, I suspect that the author is consciously working with this virtually threefold paradox. The big questions (and some of the small ones) are undeniably philosophical, existential; the narrative and presentation of places and events are perfectly realistic; and yet, at the same time, the actions and aims of the characters effectively enter the realm of fantasy.

One of the two main characters, the author Almar Logi, says at one point that “the tale of how the Devil comes to Iceland and profits by sacrificing the soul of an old man and then plans to sacrifice his own child to win God’s affection was a description of Iceland 2007 as he perceived it. It was not fantasy – it was realism, as would later become clear” – end of quote. This is also a sizeable nutshell into which to put the book we are reading and reading about, and in light of how the story ends, the irony is cold as nails.

The author weaves multiple literary threads into his well-crafted tapestry, the most obvious of which is perhaps the doppelgänger motif. One of two lookalikes is the disgraced entrepreneur, Starkaður Leví, a character whose name alone brings to mind both Einar Ben’s ‘omnipresent soul’  and Jewish history. The other is the poet Almar Logi. The two men share a common destiny, involving a bid by the former to buy the reputation of the latter.
In effect, what Starkaður buys is Almar Logi’s life, for which life he sacrifices his own worthless existence. This is ultimately one of the greatest ironies of the book and at the same time the answer to the question of whether it is possible to buy a reputation. No, a man’s reputation will forever be tied to his person and his name. He can only keep his reputation if he has it in the first place. Once lost, it can never be regained unless it can be proved that this was a case of wrongful dismissal.

These two very different characters, who start out on opposite ends of a swinging pendulum and end up identical twins, serve the author well as mouthpieces of the attitudes that are so incredibly dominant here in Iceland. One example of this is Almar Logi’s response in an interview: “There’s no such thing as intellectual life in Iceland. That is to say, there’s nobody who can read the existential significance of a literary work and put it into a cultural context” – end of quote. Perhaps one hears the author’s own complaint spoken here through the voice of his alter ego, giving the doppelgänger motif an entirely new dimension and infusing it with a still greater irony when one keeps in mind the diabolical pact that the writer enters into.
Like all better authors, Bjarni avoids the pitfall of making the bad guy a purely evil character. He is the protagonist of the book, and while no attempt is made to hide the fact that the man is by nature the kind of person who would have formerly been called a bastard and might today be described as a sociopath, the reader is always given the leeway to see – and perhaps understand – his egoism. Maybe a little too well. If anything, it demonstrates just how fine a line there is between healthy egoism and pathological egotism. What’s more, if that line is crossed, there’s no going back.

To be sure, Starkaður Leví does wish to repent, but only because he wants his former reputation and status back. He cannot genuinely repent. Although told in a traditional manner, the author’s delvings into the inner life and emotions of his characters greatly enrich the story. The author also knows how to wield the logic of realism effectively. Even in a book that is, in and of itself, a fantasy. One might compare the book to the movie Face off, where the rationale behind the doppelgänger is a simple surgical face-switch. Here, much deeper cuts are being made. What is being exchanged is, first and foremost, a soul – an inner life. The physical surgery is only a by-product, a part of the deception.

In the end, however, this is a story about sacrifice, as comes across loud and clear. Starkaður Leví and Almar Logi both sacrifice their lives, but one of them continues to live. The most chilling thing about it is that the one who lives is the man who least deserves it. The rapacious doppelgänger, this golem of sorts, picks up where his better left off – and can do nothing else. An example, maybe, of a happy ending and a horrible end. It’s not every day that one succeeds in answering the rhetorical questions of life in such a multifaceted and astute way.