About The Author
Audur Ava Olafsdottir
Audur Ava Olafsdottir is an Icelandic prize-winning novelist, playwright, lyricist and poet. Her new novel Hotel Silence, won the Icelandic Literary Prize 2016 and was voted Best Icelandic Novel in 2016 by booksellers in Iceland. Read an exclusive interview with Audur Ava here.
Audur Ava Olafsdottir is the author of five novels, a collection of poetry and four plays that have been performed at the National Theatre in Iceland and at the Reykjavik City Theatre. She also writes the lyrics for the Icelandic performance pop band Milkywhale. Audur Ava's novels have been translated into over 25 languages and among them are The Greenhouse and Butterflies in November. She lives in Reykjavik.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler chatted to Audur Ava about why she has never understood the notion of 'finding yourself', her interest in the inefficiency of words and how social justice is a luxury that exists only in a few Western democratic countries.
Questions & Answers
Jonas keeps the diaries he wrote some 30 years previously in which he is virtually a stranger to himself. Is the power of the diary that it catapults us back in time, revealing how utterly different we really were, without the buffer of time allowing us to absorb the changes incrementally?
It reveals both; how different we are but also takes us back in time to the aims and desires we once had. The idea was to create a dialogue in time between the two 'me-s' of the story, between the former self and the current self. It helps to create a span of time inside the story. The diaries bring my hero’s attention back to the time when he was occupied by his body, and he discovers he is still flesh! Being alive means to be in a constant state of fluidity and change. Which is wonderful since it gives us the opportunity to uncover something that challenges everything we believe and think. Which brings me to the notion of 'finding yourself', which I have never understood. What are we going to do with this supposedly fixed and eternal self if and when we find it? Make a plaster mould casting out of it? Including our bad character traits? It’s like being stuck in time.
Much of the power in Jonas’ new relationships comes from what is not said and indeed the hotel he stays in is the Hotel Silence which gives your book its name. Do we place too much emphasis today on ‘talking cures’ and simply saying too much to too many?
In the context of the book, the silence is a remedy that heals pain and scars. My characters are often quiet; male or female, even if they speak a large number of languages like the heroine in my novel Butterflies in November who speaks 14 languages, but doesn’t find it easy to express herself verbally.
Language is a powerful tool, used for gaining power and for justifying that power. People who master words well are in a privileged position, even when defending a bad cause. I look at it as my role as a writer to doubt words and to question the ability of language to convey meaning. What made me a writer was my longing to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice – those who cannot shout loud enough to attract the attention of the world. Reality is also what happens beyond words. I often substitute language with physicality. The body, touch, skin, flesh and scars all play significant roles in Hotel Silence. This interest in the inefficiency of words may also be related to the fact that I write in a minority language that few people understand.
The actress is concerned that if the survivors of war don’t speak out then ‘a generation will grow up without any memory of it. Then there’ll be the danger of a new war.’ After the Holocaust no one wanted to hear the stories of survivors; do you think now there is a real danger that survivors might not want to bear witness to what they have been through rather than that no one wants to listen?
Absolutely. That is what will most likely be happening when the war in Syria ends. There is no 'justice', no neutral record of what happens at the end of a civil war. There are no winners except the arms dealers. One day a country is suddenly full of weapons and a war starts. Social justice is a luxury in a few western democratic countries. The paradox is that some of those same countries are among the biggest weapon sellers in the world. There are no good guys in a war. At the end everyone has committed terrible crimes. Every civil survivor is a loser. In Hotel Silence you don’t know who was the sniper in the village, people only know he sang in the choir, but not if he was a tenor or a baritone… And you don’t ask 'a man if he’s killed someone or a woman if she has been raped or by how many. (…) The only way to continue is to pretend we lead a normal life.' (p.166). However, it is the winner who writes history. That’s why it isn’t included in our history books that after the Germans had been defeated in World War 2, an estimated two million German women survivors were raped by the allies, mostly by Soviet soldiers. It’s estimated that 200,000 of those women died from repeated group rapes.
Your book suggests that it is actions – specifically those performed with others in mind – that have the most power to heal and take one out of oneself. Have we overlooked the power of compassion for others in favour of ‘because you’re worth it’ self-love?
The focus of the self -help industry that represents billion of dollars each year is on self-love, often related to 'finding yourself'. However, psychological research shows that the road to happiness is not through that type of self-centredness but by showing compassion and doing something for others. So this has been a waste of paper. Our navel is our original scar and to many the centre of the world but in Hotel Silence I wanted to pit this Western navel-gazing against an exploration of other scars. My protagonists are often well-intentioned persons who find themselves in impossible situations and try to work things out. They justify themselves through their deeds. The hero of Hotel Silence, Jonas, starts helping women to rebuild society after the war and by doing that measuring his own scars against those of the others. Almost every character in the novel has scars of some sort, both physical and emotional ones. Jonas has seven scars which I believed was close to the average. But 'all suffering is unique and different and therefore it can’t be compared. Happiness, on the other hand, is similar.' (p. 157)
The book is preoccupied with scars and tattoos, the latter often used to cover up the former. Do you feel that in general our pursuit of physical perfection is more than anything else a failure to acknowledge our own history?
I have always been interested in what are considered physical failures or weakness. In my first novel The Rhubarb Girl (not translated into English) the heroine is a teenage girl that has 'jelly' legs and uses crutches; in Butterflies in November a prominent character is a deaf boy who also has impaired vision. In my novel The Exception (not translated) one of the two main characters is a female poet who is a dwarf. In my book of poetry there is a long poem, a sort of love story between a one-legged woman and a blind man. I guess I find beauty in what is extraordinary or abnormal. The condition of being normal, usual or typical doesn’t interest me. Or maybe I should rather say that I have never met a normal person.
You highlight the awful situation in which survivors of war and its casual atrocities are left to pick up the pieces without support or resources as well as often being injured or having lost relatives, adding a new layer of trauma onto the old. Do you feel the situation of those in your fictional town is actually, sadly, the reality in many parts of the world?
Yes, sadly, I feel it is the reality. And there is an awful lot of burden and strain on women survivors after a war to put together not only the pieces of a family and to rebuild a home but a whole society. In addition to post- traumatic stress disorder, it’s a great amount of pressure.
However, a novel is never a total history, it is always an extract of reality. I try to organise the chaos and to give it a meaning. I do that by telling a story. It’s the world concentrated in a soup cube, as a fellow writer put it. My stories are in that sense like a child’s drawing. One tree stands for a wood. One suffering soul is any suffering soul. Writing is also a means of manipulating time. There's usually a certain absence of time and place in my books. The war torn country is an ‘anyplace’ that we've seen on countless news reports. If something is nowhere that also means that it's everywhere and even anytime.
You quote a lot from literary sources, songs and especially the poems of Jonas Thorbjarnarson – who will be unfamiliar to most English readers. Can you tell us something about him and why you wanted him to have such a presence in the book?
Jonas Thorbjarnarson (1960-2012) was an Icelandic poet and a friend of mine who sadly passed away a few years ago. Apart from a few poems his work hasn’t been translated into English. I loved his poems and wanted to pay him a tribute by naming the main character after him. Also, Jonas means dove and I needed a sort of a peace dove to send into a broken world – with a drill - in order to put pieces back together.
Among the devastation there is humour and there is hope. Do you feel hopeful, if not about world events, then about people’s resilience and their ability to heal and be healed?
Yes I’m hopeful. I try to be. Despite everything I refuse to give in to the dark forces! There is a lot of pessimism around me. Among young, intelligent, compassionate people concerned by environmental issues and hardliners’ show of force. Like my daughters! Killing your characters is the easy way out. We all die. It’s not original. As an author I find the question of how to survive and how to heal and be healed much more interesting and challenging. As for the humour it is my survival tactic to tackle the paradoxes of our human nature. Besides, normal Icelandic conversations often sound like an absurd theatre play.