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duell

21 september 2014

Duell is a slow-moving detective novel. I should add that when I'm reading in German, even translator Coletta Bürling's beautifully lucid German, I appreciate a slow pace and plenty of repetition. One of the reasons I like German translations of Arnaldur Indriðason so much is that if I miss a nuance in one sentence, I'll get six or seven more passes over the same material.

In addition to the pedagogical virtues of Duell, the novel has some actual narrative strengths. It begins with a horrific murder. (True to form, the murder is re-shown at the very end of the book.) A young man named Ragnar, whose utterly innocent hobby is tape-recording the soundtracks of movies, is stabbed to death, mercilessly and efficiently, in a Reykjavík cinema. The year is 1972 (when capturing the audio of movies on cassette tape was still a plausibly awesome way to spend your afternoons).

And since this is Arnaldur's fictional universe, if it's 1972 in Reykjavík, the chief homicide inspector must be Marian Briem. Marian is a central presence in several of the early Erlendur novels. Eventually Marian dies in Arctic Chill. And I keep repeating "Marian" because nobody's sure what gender to assign Marian.

At one point in Duell, a character remarks on Marian's androgyny, but that's a sort of throwaway in-joke, not really developed thematically. The name might seem feminine, but early in the novel Marian mentions John Wayne (by way of the cinema crime scene), and allusively we remember that the most macho of movie stars was himself named Marion. Throughout all the English and German translations of Arnaldur's work that I've encountered, the narrator steadfastly resists using any gendered pronoun for Marian Briem, let alone tipping Marian's identity in any descriptive way. (Oddly enough, I'm told that Danish translations of Arnaldur simply use the equivalents of "she" and "her" to talk about Marian. But one has to think that the original Icelandic is ambiguous, or else why would English and German translators go to the lengths they do?)

In Duell, we even see Marian in bed – with a woman – not that there's anything wrong with that. Marian and Katrín discuss moving in together, and wonder briefly if people will talk … but that doesn't point either way either, given that it's 1972 and tongues might wag about any unmarried couple. I don't quite know the significance of Marian's indeterminate sex. It's more a tour de force as any kind of ideological argument. I guess the very fact that one can pull it off at all says something about gender and society and language.

Meanwhile, gendered or not, Marian has a brutal murder to solve, and Marian and Marian's colleague Albert get nowhere fast. The sheer conventions of the Scandinavian Krimi direct their investigation. A kid, killed like that, silently in the dark? Has to be a foreigner, right? Marian says

Ich weiß nicht, das klingt überhaupt nicht nach Island. Kannst du darin irgendetwas Isländisches sehen?
[I don't know – that doesn't seem Icelandic at all. Does that seem anything like Iceland to you?] (74)
On the basis of that hazy deduction, Marian and Albert proceed to investigate any clue that points to a foreigner, and it being 1972, there are tons of suspects available among the entourages of Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. They catch a break when they find a crumpled packet of Soviet cigarettes outside the movie theater … and I'm not going to spoil the rest of the plot for you, even if I'm unsure when Duell will see English translation or American shores.

Suffice to say that this being Iceland, Fischer's people are as suspect as Spassky's. One can totally imagine an American wielding the knife that killed Ragnar. "Amerikaner lösen ja alle Probleme mit Waffengewalt," explains one Icelandic character: "Americans solve all their problems with weapons" (406). Even if the bad guy can't be Icelandic, Duell serves up enough suspects to keep you guessing.

We also see much of Marian Briem's backstory, including an upbringing as the natural child of somebody, a youth racked by tuberculosis, and the lifelong relationship with fellow sufferer Katrín. This long-arc material is at least as interesting as the murder mystery, and points to several decades of detection for Arnaldur to fill in, in the course of sequels to come.

Arnaldur Indriðason. Duell. [Einvígið, 2011.] Translated by Coletta Bürling. Köln: Lübbe, 2014.

French title: Le Duel
Italian title: Sfida cruciale

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