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7 september 2010

In the climactic scene of Arnaldur Indriðason's Todesrosen, our heroes beard the criminal mastermind Kalmann in his den. They force him to concede that he's cornered the market on fishing quotas in the Westfjorden of Iceland. And, detective Erlendur announces ominously, he's just heard that Kalmann is starting to buy up fishing quotas on the Ostfjorden as well. Cue sinister music!

Arnaldur's series of Icelandic mysteries featuring Erlendur has become popular in English translation. Five titles have appeared, with a sixth (Hypothermia) due out later this month. But Arnaldur has published ten Erlendur novels in Iceland. The two most recent have simply not made it into English yet (the death of Arnaldur's long-time translator Bernard Scudder was a factor in this delay). But the first two Erlendur novels, from the 1990s, have deliberately not been rendered into English yet. The series therefore bursts onto English-language shelves in media res, fully-featured.

Nine of the Erlendur novels have been translated into German, though, and it was with joy last spring in a Munich bookstore that I realized there was more Erlendur in wait if I could jump-start my rattletrap German. I picked up Todesrosen (1998) mainly because I was quite sure, after deciphering the back cover, that I hadn't read it before. But navigating the bibliographical nuances of a partially-translated series of Krimis is giving my Germanic-language skills a workout. Arnaldur favors cryptic single-word titles, which are rendered into various other cryptic portmanteau words in German or Danish translation, and usually elaborated into something longer and quite different in English, where they're sometimes changed for the paperback, too. This is a field of scholarship where I sometimes can't tell the players even with a scorecard.

Having finished Todesrosen, I can understand why it has not appeared in English (and in fact was late to arrive in German, coming out only in 2008). The mystery involves the murder of a young prostitute whose corpse has been dumped onto the great 19th-century advocate of Icelandic independence from Denmark, Jón Sigurðsson. Jón was from the Westfjorden, and so was the murdered girl Birta. Erlendur is convinced that regional political economies play a big role in the killing, so he drags his sidekick Sigurður Óli on a tour of the Westfjorden to gather background information.

Nearly every page of Todesrosen includes some sort of technical discussion of the ramifications of a deregulated market in fishing quotas. A major subplot centers on development strategies for the expanding city of Reykjavík. You can see Arnaldur's literary agents making a tactical decision to launch their author with something a little more lurid for the international market.

But it's a strong, colorful story all the same. There's perhaps a little too much omniscient exposition here for my taste; Arnaldur would improve his technique significantly in later Erlendur novels. (Todesrosen is the second; I haven't yet read Synir Duftsins in its German version Menschensöhne.) We get a lot of the underworld of Reykjavík, and we get some fairly hideous action scenes involving fish trawlers, smokehouses, and baseball bats.

And the fishing-quota stuff, though it's kind of easy to poke fun at it from an armchair in Texas, is serious business to Scandinavians who must watch as a globalized economy extirpates traditional ways of life. The real crime in Todesrosen is not, on the books, illegal. It's the depopulation of fishing villages in the service of building a homogenized modern urban center. The recent booms and busts in Icelandic finance – which had worldwide repercussions – have everything to do with a government's active and passive measures designed to promote a world-is-flat information economy at the expense of sustainable aquaculture.

Developer Kalmann, the devil of the story, speaks as his own advocate:

Wir benötigen all diese kleinen Fischerdörfer rings ums Land nicht mehr. Die Leute mögen ja selber auch nicht mehr da leben. (280)

[We don't need all these little fishing villages all around the country any more. People don't even want to live there anymore, either.]
Erlendur counters:
Die Leute wollen da leben wo sie und ihre Vorfahren geboren und aufgewachsen sind, wo sie sich auskennen. . . . Es geht um viel mehr als nur um Geld. (280)

[People want to live where they and their ancestors were born and grew up, where they know their way around. . . . That means a lot more than just money.]

In Todesrosen we see globalization presented as a criminal conspiracy to destroy local cultural adaptations. The result is an emblematic tableau: a young, ruined, extinguished life discarded on the grave of an icon of nationalist independence. Todesrosen may be too esoteric for the British and American audiences so far, but its ideas speak far beyond its island's local concerns.

Arnaldur Indriðason. Todesrosen. [Dauðarósir, 1998.] Trans. Coletta Bürling. 2008. Bergisch Gladbach: Bastei Lübbe, 2009.