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oblivion

19 december 2015

I'd been reading Arnaldur Indriðason's Erlendur novels mostly in German in recent years, as the German translations have tended to beat the English into print, and certainly have beaten the American versions onto the market. With Kamp Knox, which appeared in Icelandic in 2014, it seems that the English translations (now by Victoria Cribb) have regained the lead, though still in London well before they see New York. Obsessive as I am, I had to order Cribb's Oblivion from the UK and read it as soon as it arrived.

Oblivion is set in 1979 or 1980, against the backdrop of the Cold War and the Iran hostage crisis. Erlendur, whom we'd last seen as a traffic cop in Nacht über Reykjavík, is now with Criminal Investigations. His mentor Marion Briem, genderless as ever, is faced with the sudden appearance of a crushed body in the mud of a lavafield lagoon. Meanwhile Erlendur, of his own accord, has opened up a 25-year-old cold case, the disappearance of a young woman on her way to school.

Marion's lover Katrín is now dead; Erlendur has married and divorced Halldóra since the last installment in the series. Their personal lives don't enter Oblivion to any great extent. Both seem to be busy building shells around themselves. Marion does not even know Erlendur's great secret, the disappearance of his brother in a snowstorm when the boys were young.

That disappearance, of course, makes Erlendur determined to clear up every last unexplained missing person in Icelandic history. The young woman in question here, Dagbjört, was innocent and carefree. But she might have had a boyfriend in Camp Knox, the American military installation that had become a postwar Icelandic slum.

While Erlendur is trying to reconstruct the social networks of this long-ago marginal community, he and Marion are very much in their present, trying to deal with the roadblocks to murder investigation posed by American hegemony in Iceland c1980. The crushed body is of an Icelander, who seems to have met his gruesome fate while poking around an aircraft hangar that may or may not conceal US nuclear-arms transfers to Greenland.

Our two Icelandic detectives get an American sidekick in the person of Caroline, a tough African-American MP who isn't any more deferential to the superpower than they are. No real personal connections are forged, but across several cultural barriers, Caroline, Marion, and Erlendur recognize kinships, and the universal ethos of what Sicilians call the sbirro, the born cop.

It isn't always easy for the translator to capture Caroline's idioms, though. Or rather, to make them up, because I assume all the dialogue in the original is rendered Icelandic even when the characters, even the Icelanders, would obviously be speaking English. Cribb puts everything into idiomatic English English, which is fine, though one really does notice in almost every paragraph phrases that do not sound American. Often there's no reason for them to sound American; just sayin'. However, when Caroline says things like

"I don't think he or anyone else round here'll take the blindest bit of notice of the Icelandic police." (266)
you realize you're dealing with dialect that needs an additional pass through an idiom interpreter.

Arnaldur Indriðason. Oblivion. [Kamp Knox, 2014.] Translated by Victoria Cribb. London: Harvill Secker, 2015.

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