Ljósgildran (“The Light Trap”, not published in English) by Guðni Elísson is a multi-layered novel with multiple strands. It is a carefully thought out and masterfully executed social narrative that takes the biggest political battles of our time as its theme: the fight for gender equality, increased market thinking in society and the climate. The book pushes creatively at the limits of the novel form by using different types of text and playing with the multiplicity of relationships that can be found in a text. It makes frequent reference to world literature, through direct quotations and by allusion to various events, persons and situations. The author not only nods at Icelandic sagas such as Njál’s and Grette’s sagas but purposefully writes himself into the European literary tradition through allusion to Joyce, Chernyshevsky, Tolstoy, Euripides, Dante, Shakespeare, and Austen, not to mention Ovid, as the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is at the heart of the story. But as Nobel laureate Louise Glück reminds us, everyone wants to be Orpheus, and no one wants to be Eurydice.
Reference to the epic form frames the novel in a certain way, while the percentages in the footer serve the same purpose as the numbered lines in an epic with a strong and unified narrative structure. At the same time, the author makes use of a number of other genres, such as horror, fantasy, and satire, paving the way for different interpretations. What appear to be deviations in the story are never actually deviations but a targeted means of highlighting certain themes, threads in a finely meshed network of meaning that weave the work into a whole. The author has likened the imagery in the story to a metastasis, with is how he refers to the book’s main theme, that is, how metaphors drive life to exhaustion, from the most personal to the big narrative that governs entire societies. There are harmful archetypes traversing the entire narrative body that, despite varying influences, serve to activate a stubborn way of thinking that eventually takes over and controls the decisions made by individuals and society as a whole.
This multi-stemmed work weaves together two worlds. It depicts the tragic love relationship between the married couple Jakob and Lára while also providing an ironic and revealing description of Icelandic political and cultural events during the coronavirus pandemic, as mysterious powers take over Reykjavik and create trouble for the president and prime minister, among others, exposing the country’s contemporary power structures. The novel is an ambitious attempt to capture a tumultuous period in the history of the Icelandic people, where the past is quickly forgotten and people are full of blind hope for the future. In his depiction of light and how electric light transformed the world, the author examines mankind’s belief in progress. It is also worth noting that the sections of the book where the light is the strongest all deal with our longing to stop time and rise above mortality. The novel raises interesting questions about how we will look after future generations, not only our immediate family but also within a social and political context, and not least in a period of catastrophic warming. The gender war depicted in the book is also a generational war, and it is particularly interesting to consider how language is often used as a tool to silence others.
The question of the relationship between fiction and reality is an important theme in the novel. Ljósgildran deals with how stories are used to exercise control and refers both to the stories its characters tell themselves and others and to the dangerous grand narratives that govern the future for us all. Ljósgildran is an extraordinarily well-crafted literary work that is brimming with the joy of writing. The author exhibits an extremely skilful mastery of the text in this original contemporary story where literally everything is at stake.
Guðni Elísson (born 1964) is a professor of literature at the University of Iceland (Háskóli Íslands) and founder of the climate project Earth101. He has written books and many articles on literature, film, cultural studies and environmental issues. Ljósgildran, which was nominated for the 2021 Icelandic Literature Prize, is his first novel. His second novel, Brimhólar, was published the following year.