Woman at 1000 Degrees
(Konan við 1000°, 2011)
In a rented garage apartment in a suburban hamlet in Reykjavík, an octogenarian woman prepares her cancer-ridden body for a final cremation at 1000 degrees Celcius. Alone and approaching the end of her life, she has few to speak to but the home care assistants who pay her occasional visits and the men in faraway countries that she chats with online to amuse herself – leading them on with fake profiles that fuel their fantasies of a blonde, Icelandic beauty queen.
With only her cigarettes and memories for company – as well as the WWII-era hand grenade that never leaves her side – she whittles away the time by recounting her strange and winding life story to the reader; the many incarnations of Herbjörg “Herra” María Björnsson. With casual sarcasm and scurrilous honesty, Herra traces her story from her childhood in the islands of Breiðafjörður, through Nazi occupied Copenhagen and the forests of Poland to her time in post-war Argentina—all the while remaining obstinately unapologetic for the choices that led her to her current, bedridden solitude.
As usual, Hallgrímur Helgason’s text is dense yet delightful, full of humour and wordplay that is expertly reproduced by Brian FitzGibbon’s translation. Throughout, the reader gets the sensation that Hallgrímur cares deeply for his garrulous and vitriolic protagonist, who was in fact inspired by real person with whom the author became acquainted.