Icelandic tales by Kuttappan

Artist, novelist and columnist from Iceland, Hallgrimur Helgasun   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

staff at the hotel where Hallgrimur Helgason stayed made valiant attempts to pronounce his name, failed and finally christened him Kuttappan. “Everything is very expensive in Iceland so I got some things done in India in the two months I was here. I visited the dentist, the optician, the tailor. When I go home, I’ll have a new smile, a new wardrobe, and spectacles. I’ll also have a new name…Kuttappan,” says Helgason breaking into a hearty laugh.

Helgason is used to people poking fun at the names of Icelandic people, especially the first names that are usually tongue-twisters. This award-winning artist and writer who has two of his novels made into films, has often been called Hal Cream, Al Green or Hulk Reemer during his early days in New York.

In Kochi, Helgason spent ‘quality’ time at the Secret Garden Hotel working on a ‘big historical’ novel. “I’m trying to write about serious issues, about Iceland’s journey into modernity, about the soul of Iceland; on how people react when they get too much money too quickly and how it affects our culture. Iceland is a rich country but in the early 21st century this prosperity got to our heads and in 2008 it collapsed. We have been looking in the mirror for seven years now, fathoming the dangers of prosperity. This is what I intend my novel to address,” says Helgason, who is best known for works like 101 Reykjavík, Höfundur Íslands (The Author of Iceland), which won the Icelandic Literary Prize in 2001, The Hitman’s Guide to House Cleaning, and The Thousand Degree Woman, a book from 2011 that will soon be published in English.

Helgason started off as an artist studying at the Art Academy of Iceland, and then the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. He worked in New York struggling to make a living out of art. He has held over 20 solo exhibitions in Iceland, the USA and France, and also participated in over 30 group exhibitions in various countries.

“My three years in Manhattan were sort of my university years. I was learning by myself and it was a tough time. That’s when I began writing articles for newspapers back home about life in New York. This interest took over and I moved from painting to writing. Today, if somebody points a gun to my head and asks me to make a choice I would choose to be a writer. But that does not mean I have put away the easel and brushes forever.”

The art scene in Iceland is thriving, healthy and full of energy. “We really suck at business, banking and politics, but we excel in art. The music scene is amazing and we must be having thousands of bands, hundreds of artists, there is the theatre, the film industry is doing well and the writing scene is booming. We have a great literary tradition dating back to the 13th century. The Italians have the Renaissance but we got this great tradition of The Sagas. But unlike in Italy, it doesn’t feel like a burden, it only gives you confidence.”

Helgason’s most famous work, 101 Reykjavik, written in Icelandic, was inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “I think the book owes its popularity to the film that did very well. I never thought that the book would be translated for it was very Reykjavik-centered. Perhaps the more local you go the more global you become. I tried to play with the Hamlet theme, the underlying reference to the mother-son relationship. In Shakespeare the son is bothered by his mother’s love life, taking on a new lover. In my novel it’s a lesbian relationship. I have always been fascinated by Shakespeare, some years back I translated Romeo and Juliet into Icelandic and this year I’m doing Othello.”

The biggest surprise of his Indian sojourn was the sudden outburst of poetry. “The place was so inspiring that I could not help writing poems, while the plan was to work on my novel only. In hilly Munnar I saw the big hotels depart from the mountains at dusk, sailing like ships out on the sea of fog, in Fort Kochi I watched hundreds of locals fill the beach at every sunset, to say goodbye to the dying day, and on the highway there was this cow standing in the middle of the road, motionless, with cars speeding past her on either side. She looked like God sitting in the middle of his Universe, quite unmoved by the relentless traffic of souls coming and going all around him. How could I not write poems about this all? Now I have enough of them to make a whole book, I’m just toying with the title, if it should be Drunk with Trees or just Kuttappan!”

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 11:00:15 PM |

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