Milan Kundera

In an article on Guðbergur Bergsson's The Swan, Milan Kundera writes that the work “breathes the Icelandic landscape from every line.”

Milan KunderaThe Swan, a novel by Guðbergur Bergsson, was published in Iceland in 1991, and received the Icelandic literary prize in the same year. Five years later, soon after the book was published in French, the novelist Milan Kundera wrote an article on the The Swan. The piece was printed in the weekly newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur. A revised version appeared in the essay collection Encounter (Un recontre) in 2009, translated into English by Linda Asher.

The Secret of the Ages of Life

(Gudbergur Bergsson: The Swan)

A little girl was stealing sandwiches from Reykjavík supermarkets. For punishment her parents send her to spend several months in the countryside with a farmer she does not know. In the old Icelandic sagas of the thirteenth century, dangerous criminals used to be sent like this into the interior and, given the immensity of that frozen wilderness, this was tantamount to the death penalty. Iceland: three hundred thousand inhabitants spread over a hundred thousand square kilometers. To withstand the solitude (this is an image from the book), farmers train their binoculars on the far distance to watch other farmers who are also holding binoculars. Iceland: solitudes spying on each other.

The Swan, a picaresque novel about childhood, breathes the Icelandic landscape from every line. But please: do not read it as an “Icelandic novel,” as an exotic oddity. Gudbergur Bergsson is a great European novelist. His art is primarily inspired not by some sociological or historical, still less a geographical, curiosity, but by an existential quest, a real existential insistence, which places his book at the very center of what could (in my view) be termed the modernity of the novel.

The focus of that quest is the very young heroine (“the little girl,” as the author calls her) or, more precisely, the focus is her age: she is nine years old. Increasingly I think (a truth so obvious and yet it constantly eludes us) that man exists only in his specific, concrete age, and everything changes with age. To understand another person means to understand his current age. The enigma of age—one of those themes only a novel can illuminate. Nine years old: the border between childhood and adolescence. I have never seen that borderland brought to light as it is in this book.

What does it mean to be nine years old? It means walking about in the mists of reveries. But not lyrical reveries. No idealization of childhood in this book! Dreaming, fantasizing, this is the little girl's way of taking on a world that is unknown and unknowable, a world far from friendly. The first day on the farm, facing an alien and seemingly hostile world, to defend herself she imagines that “her head spurts an invisible poison that she sprays over the whole house. That she is poisoning the rooms, the people, the animals and the air.”

The real world she can grasp only through fanciful interpretation. There's the farmer's daughter; behind her neurotic behavior we make out a love story; but the little girl—what can she possibly make of it? There is a peasant feast; couples scatter into the landscape; the little girls sees men covering women with their bodies; she thinks they must be trying to shelter the women from a downpour: the sky is black with clouds.

The adults are absorbed by practical concerns that take precedence over any metaphysical questions. But the little girl is distant from the practical world, so there is no screen between her and questions of life and death: she is at the metaphysical age. Leaning over a bog, she studies her image in the water's blue surface. “She imagines her body dissolving and disappearing in the blue. Shall I take the plunge? she asks herself. She lifts a foot and she sees the reflection of her shoe's worn sole.” Death intrigues her. A calf is about to be slaughtered. All the neighborhood children are eager to watch it die. Moments before the kill the little girl whispers into the calf's ear: “You know you don't have much time left?” The other children are amused by her line, and one by one they go whisper it to the calf as well. Then its throat is slit and a few hours later everyone is called to the table. The children delight in chewing up the body they saw put to death. Afterward they run over to the cow, the calf's mother. The little girl wonders: does she know that at this very moment we're digesting her child in our stomachs? And she goes to breathe open-mouthed at the cow's nose.

The interval between childhood and adolescence: no longer in need of constant parental care, the little girl suddenly discovers her independence; but because she is still at some distance from the world of the practical, she feels useless; she feels it all the more here alone among people who are not her kin. And yet, even useless, she is captivating to other people. One unforgettable little scene: the farmer's daughter, in her romantic crisis, leaves the house every night (the white Icelandic nights) and goes to sit by the river. The little girl, on the watch for her, leaves the house as well, and sits on the ground far behind her. Each is aware of the other's presence, but they do not speak. Then, at a certain moment, the farmer's daughter silently raises a hand and beckons the child to come closer. And every time, refusing to yield, the child goes back to the farmhouse. A modest scene, but magical. I keep seeing that raised hand, the signal between two beings held apart by their age, incomprehensible to each other, with nothing to communicate but the message: “I am far from you, I have nothing to say to you, but I am here, and I know you are here.” That raised hand is the gesture of this book that examines a faraway time, one we can neither relive nor restore, and which for each of us has become a mystery that only novelist-poet's intuition can bring near to us.