Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A writer from Iceland



I met him at the YWCA guesthouse on Poonamallee High Road. Armann Reynisson, who calls himself entrepreneur-writer, can be credited with pioneering a new genre of writing in Iceland. Seven volumes of what he styles as vignettes or ‘contemporary sagas’ have been published in Iceland the past seven years. Each book comprises 43 vignettes in original Icelandic and translations into English (by Prof. Martin S. Regal, University of Iceland).

Reynisson’s vignettes are simple, short tales that resemble photographic portraits or character sketches. The stories reflect timeless Icelandic folklore traditions as well as today’s global interests. They are wonderfully evocative of a time or place. Most pieces focus on moments of real life or a set of emotions and capture the common threads that bind people together. Some are humourous, others sad, many of them lyrical. The vignettes touch the reader, intrigue and amuse; they are sensitive, candid and bold.

Reynisson, whose life in some ways is almost like a fairytale, was born in Reykjavik in 1951 and studied at the London School of Economics. Regarded as unorthodox and controversial by Icelanders, he once ran a number of companies and followed business practices that were common in other parts of the developed world but not in Iceland, which in the early 1980s was decades behind other European nations. Things came to such a pass that Reynisson’s life lay in ruins and he was all but deprived of his human rights. He was dragged from one court hearing to another for five years and finally sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Much later, those who hauled him over the coals realised that Reynisson had indeed been conducting his business affairs in a manner that was in line with ethical financial practices followed all over the world; such practices are considered lawful in Iceland today.

Reynisson was always a staunch supporter of art and culture and financially helped young and aspiring musicians. Those five years of horror brought about significant changes in his life and led to his changing many of his views and opinions. Instead of throwing in the towel when things looked bleak, he meditated, exercised and explored nature. He found new insights into people and existence and felt a deeper reality that people do not often see. In August 2000, the urge to express himself in writing finally led him to sit down and write the first vignette, about Iceland birds. One vignette led to another, one story a week. When he completed the 43rd vignette, he found he couldn’t go on. Ever since, he chose to end each book with 43 vignettes.

Each of Reynisson’s books has sold about 3,000 copies in Iceland, a number equal to about one per cent of the country’s population. There has been a lot of response to his books from Germany, perhaps due to the traditional cultural links between both countries. Many readers are keen to know what Reynisson has to say each year. His books are available at the Esperanto Society in Iceland, Scandinavian House, New York, the London School of Economics, and the National Museums in Paris and Kolkata.

“I am the first to write vignettes in Iceland’s 1000-year history (the Vikings moved in then) of literature. I write from my heart, concentrate on my feelings, not on style. People either accept it or not; they say I am very different from other authors. I write about everything in life, a few from my life experiences. My grandparents and parents used to tell me stories. Storytelling is a tradition in Iceland and that is one thing we have in common – Icelanders and Indians. I find some of our stories so similar to your Jataka tales. You don’t find much of it in Europe or the United States,” says Reynisson who is now on a tour of Indian cities, towns and villages to gain a first-hand experience. All he knew about India before setting foot here was that it was the land of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. He had no idea of the number of states or the number of languages people spoke.

“It’s almost a miracle how you can run this country (as one). Each state is like a different country. I have enjoyed your hospitality. People here are warmer than those in Europe. Although Icelanders look at the world critically, I have come here to see India in a positive light, am collecting the positive aspects, seeing how life can be beautiful in spite of difficulties,” he says.

Reynisson plans to visit different countries, to break walls wherever they exist, and to promote links between the West and the East. None other than Mahesh K. Sachdev, Indian Ambassador to Norway and Iceland, fueled his interest in India. Manjit Travels, London, organised his visit and advised him to go through the home-stay route. Indeed, Reynisson’s experience has been remarkably different from that of 25 years ago in West Asia and Egypt when he stayed in 5-star hotels and was cut away from reality. His Indian impressions, he says, will form part of his ninth book likely to be published in 2009.

(Armann poses at the Indian National Museum in Kolkata, and with officials at the Museum. After Kolkata, he left for Delhi and Agra, and Varanasi.)

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