If anyone wonders where August Strindberg ended up after his death, the answer can be found in Gyrðir Elíasson's latest collection of short stories, Milli trjánna. Here we meet Strindberg sitting all alone in the canteen in IKEA in Iceland surrounded by shoppers stuffing themselves with Swedish meatballs and cowberry jam. The short story is called Inferno, of course! In some of the book's other short stories the reader meets the saddened musical brothers who are burying their father, the undertaker, amongst the potatoes in his kitchen garden, another musician who discovers a blank gravestone in his boxroom and last but not least, a black dog. The characters and the surroundings have become familiar to Icelandic readers with a knowledge of the author's previous works but will probably seem a little strange to foreign readers.
The short stories are woven into each other, and there are references to Gyrðir Elíasson's previous writings as well as older literature, not least Nordic. From the beginning of his career Gyrðir Elíasson has built up a unique universe, a world where individual texts are reinforced by the whole that they form a part of, almost as if all his production is a colossal borderless text that grows with each new poem or tale.
It has long since become a fact, not to say a cliché, in Icelandic literature debate that Gyrðir Elíasson is the great stylist. One is tempted to say that the label "the great stylist" has become a millstone around the writer's neck. But Gyrðir Elíasson is much more than a great stylist as can easily be seen from his latest collection of stories. The surface of the stories is calm and almost polished smooth, in many of them the action is incomplete while others end suddenly with death or a ghastly revelation about the characters. Beneath the surface, beyond imagination and the quirky humour there are depths of a psychological and existential nature.
At the beginning of his career Gyrðir Elíasson was amongst the young poets who raised the modernism label again after the political and realistic literature of the seventies. In his first poetry collections Gyrðir broke with the times he lives in, new opportunities in communication and technology meet a mixture of fascination and scepticism. In Gyrðir's poetry we meet the new media community in a nuanced and original imagery, alternating quickly between caustic criticism and irony and humour.
Since 1987 Gyrðir has written both poetry and prose. His prose has evolved from fantastic or magically realistic texts where the borders between dream and reality, life and death and heaven and earth are deliberately erased to stories that on the surface seem more traditional and often almost motionless. However, this is an illusion. Somewhere in the many layers that the reader has to go through to get to the bottom or through the text, hides a humour and a melancholy and even though that perhaps seems laboured those texts affect his era in a crucial and even political way.
Milli trjánna is the work of a mature author. Gyrðir Elíasson has, as one of the very few Icelandic poets, developed into a master of short prose and short stories. His mastery of the language is quite unique and it has not been lost in John Swedenmark's excellent translation into Swedish.
Jón Yngvi Jóhannsson