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taxi 79 ab station

22 june 2014

Taxi 79 ab station, a 1955 novel by Indriði G. Thorsteinsson (1926-2000), appeared in German bookstores briefly in 2011-12, in a new translation by Betty Wahl, and then became hard to find again. One might ascribe its surfacing to the celebrity of Indriði's son Arnaldur, and probably be correct; but Taxi 79 ab station is well-regarded in Iceland. It's a cold, hard little noirish novel of love and betrayal, seemingly without larger social themes – though in Iceland, few things are apolitical, and there are doubtless dimensions that foreign readers miss.

Our narrator is Ragnar Sigurðsson, driver of the title taxi. One night he stops to help a stranded motorist, a woman named Gógó. Her husband is away in a hospital in Denmark; he's dying; their marriage has died long since. They start keeping company – but on weeknights only, because on the weekends her aged mother keeps her up till all hours visiting distant relatives. This is such a suspicious excuse that one can barely imagine even the least reliable of narrators relaying it with a straight face; but that's her story and she's sticking to it.

Ragnar quickly comes to care about Gógó, though she's capable of acting pretty indifferent to him until she needs his support or his company. She supplies something lacking in his urban existence. A key central episode in the novel shows Ragnar out in the countryside in springtime, hunting geese with his friend Guðmundur – really his only friend, the veteran cabbie who's taken him under his wing and plays chess with him to while away the dull hours in the dispatch office while waiting for the title phrase of the novel to come over the loudspeaker (with a nasty fillip that Betty Wahl renders as "bittesehr": maybe in English just "please," but with an importunate, dismissive ring to it).

Various American servicemen, protecting Iceland from postwar Soviets who seem not much in evidence, while away their boredom by longing for home and dating Icelandic women anyway, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that Gógó must be one of those women: she's cheating on all the various men she's cheating with. Guðmundur warns Ragnar in so many words that Gógó is a whore. Ragnar waves away this accusation, until he finds out for sure that Gógó is cheating on him, at which point, with paradoxical realism, he resents it.

That's most of the plot of the novel, and I won't reveal the denouement except to acknowledge what you've probably guessed, that it's not the happiest. Taxi 79 ab station is not a Krimi or a suspense novel, though violence breaks out here and there, and some laws get broken, too. It's a domestic noir of the kind that, more loosely written, populated postwar pulp fiction in the US. But it's a literary noir, for sure. Blurbs on the 2011 translated edition compare Indriði to Hemingway, and the book is certainly written under his influence. It's spare yet lyrical, and its male characters communicate best without words when they have shotguns in their hands, aiming at game.

It's also got an untwisty plot and a dim view of women, which come to think of it is also reminiscent of Hemingway. And it's got an eye for the quirky detail that seems both hyperrealist and emotionally evocative, as when Guðmundur picks up the gameboard that he and Ragnar, at odds, haven't used in a while:

Guðmundur holte das Schachbrett hervor und versuchte, die Schachaufgaben zu lösen, die er auf einem Zeitungsfetzen auf dem Tisch entdeckt hatte. Das Schachspiel war lange nicht in Gebrauch gewesen, es war eingestaubt und die Figuren hinterließen auf dem Brett runde Abdrücke.

[Guðmundur took out the chessboard and tried to solve the puzzle he'd found in a scrap of the newspaper on the table. The set hadn't been used in a long time. It was dusty, and the chessmen left round traces on the board.] (111)
There are other little things like that: an insouciant woman blowing bubblegum, the connotations of various brands of liquor, the feel of starting a balky car with attention to clutch and throttle. It's a blend of realism and tragedy – but when was realism anything but tragic?

Indriði G. Thorsteinsson. Taxi 79 ab station. [79 af stöþinni, 1955.] Translated by Betty Wahl. Berlin: Transit, 2011.