Woman at 1,000 Degrees

Hallgrímur Helgason, trans. by Brian FitzGibbon

January 8, 2018 
The following is from Hallgrímur Helgason’s novel, Woman at 1,000 Degrees. The story begins in 2009, as 80-year-old Herra Björnsson lies dying in a Reykjavík garage, still in possession of a live hand grenade from World War II. Hallgrímur Helgason's novel 101 Reykjavík was translated into fourteen languages, and he has thrice been nominated for the Nordic Council Literature Prize.

1929 Model

Article continues below


I live here alone in a garage, together with a laptop computer and an old hand grenade. It’s pretty cozy. My bed is a hospital bed and I don’t need any other furniture except for the toilet, which is a real drag to use. It’s such a long way to travel, all along the bed and then the same distance again over to the corner. I call it my Via Dolorosa and I have to totter across it three times a day, like any other rheumatic ghost. My dream is to be hooked up to a catheter and a bedpan, but my application got stuck in the system. There’s constipation everywhere.

There aren’t many windows here, but the world appears to me through my computer screen. E-mails come and go, and good old Facebook just keeps on going, like life itself. Glaciers melt, presidents darken, and people lament the loss of cars and houses. But the future awaits at the end of the baggage claim carousel, slant eyed and smirking. Oh yes, I follow it all from my old white bed, where I languish like a useless corpse, waiting to die or to be given a life-prolonging injection. They look in on me twice a day, the girls from the Reykjavík Home Care Services. The morning shift is a real darling, but the afternoon hag has cold hands and bad breath and empties the ashtray with a vacant air.

But if I shut my eye to the world, switch off the lamp above me, and allow the autumn darkness to fill the garage, I can make out the famous Imagine Peace Tower through a narrow window high up on the wall. Because the late John Lennon has now been turned into a pillar of light up here in Iceland, lighting up the black strait on long nights. His widow was kind enough to place him vertically in my line of vision. Yes, it’s good to doze off to an old flame. 

Article continues below

Of course, you could say I’m just vegetating in this garage like any other old vintage clunker that has run its course. I mentioned this to Gudjón one day. He and Dóra are the couple who rent me the garage at 65,000 kronur a month. Good Gudjón laughed and declared I was an Oldsmobile. I surfed the net and found a photo of an Oldsmobile Viking, 1929 model. To be honest, I hadn’t realized I’d grown so darn old. It looked like a slightly revamped horse carriage.

I’ve been lying alone in this garage for eight years now, bedridden because of the emphysema that’s plagued me for three times that long. The slightest movement cuts my breath away until I’m on the pointof choking— not a pleasant feeling, the discomfort of the unburied, they used to call it in the old days. The result of decades of smoking. I’ve been sucking on cigarettes since the spring of 1945, when a warty Swede first introduced me to these wonders. And their glow still makes me glow. They offered me a mask with nasal tubes that was supposed to make it easier for me to breathe, but to get the oxygen cylinder they told me I’d have to give up smoking “because of the fire hazard.” So I was forced to choose between two gentlemen: Nicotine, the Russian Count, and Oxygen, the British Lord. It was an easy choice. Consequently, I draw my breath like a steam engine, and my voyages to the toilet remain my daily penance. But little Lóa likes going in there and I enjoy the tinkling music of her maiden’s piddle. She’s my help.

Oh, I’m rambling. When you’ve lived through a whole Internet of events, a whole shipload of days, it’s hard to distinguish one thing from another. It all flows into one big muddle of time. Either I suddenly remember everything at once or I remember nothing at all.

Oh yeah, and then our nation collapsed, been a year now. But it’s all relative, of course. Dóra and the nurses assure me that the city is still standing. There are no visible signs of the crash in Reykjavík, unlike in Berlin when I roamed through it as a silly young lass, after its fall at the end of the war. And I don’t know which is better—an overt crash or a covert one. Personally, I reveled in the crash. Throughout the boom years I’d lain bedridden while the greed around me was devouring all my savings, so it didn’t upset me to see them disappear into the bonfire, since by then I’d developed a slight indifference to money. We spend our entire lives trying to put something away for old age, but then old age arrives with no dreams of luxury beyond the ambition of being able to pee lying down. I won’t deny that it would have been nice to shop around for some German boy toy and have him stand here, half-naked in the candlelight, declaiming Schiller to his old pillow hag, but apparently they’ve banned the flesh trade in our country now, so there’s no point in bemoaning that. I’ve nothing left except a few weeks of life, two cartons of Pall Malls, a laptop, and a hand grenade, and I’ve never felt better.

Feu de Cologne

Article continues below


The hand grenade is an old Hitler’s egg that I acquired in the last war. It’s accompanied me over the rivers and fjords of my life, through all my marriages, thick and thin. And now, at last, would be the time to use it, had not the seal broken off many years ago, on a bad day in my life. But it’s an uncomfortable way to die, of course, to embrace a firestorm like that and allow it to blow your head off. And to tell the truth, I’ve grown quite fond of my blessed little bomb after all these years. It would be sad if my grandchildren weren’t able to enjoy it, in a silver bowl inside an heirloom cabinet.

Meine geliebte Handgranate is beautiful in its deceit, fits nicely in one’s hand, and cools a sweaty palm with its cold iron shell crammed with peace. That’s the really remarkable thing about weapons: although they can be unpleasant for those who get in their way, they provide their holders with a great deal of comfort. Once, many cities ago, I left my golden egg in a cab and couldn’t put my mind to rest until I’d recovered it again, after countless frantic calls to the cab station. The cabby hovered awkwardly on the stairs, trying to figure it out.

“That’s an old hand grenade, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s a piece of jewelry. Have you never heard of the Imperial Fabergé eggs?”

Article continues below

At any rate, for a long time I kept it in my jewelry box.

“What’s that?” my charming sea bear Bæring once asked me, as we were about to set off for a ball.

“It’s a perfume, Feu de Cologne.”

“Really?” the old sailor gasped in astonishment.

Men have their uses, but quick witted they sure ain’t.

Article continues below

And it never hurt to know that the hand grenade was there in my handbag when the night was over and some jerk wanted to take me home.

Now I keep it either in my bedside table or between my rotting legs, lying on the German steel egg like some postwar hen, in the hope of hatching some fire—something that is so sorely missed in this dreary thing that society has become, totally devoid of violence. It can do people only good to lose the roof over their head or see their loved ones shot in the back. I’ve always had problems with people who’ve never had to clamber over dead bodies.

But maybe if I throw it on the floor it’ll go off? Hand grenades love stone floors, I once heard. Yes, of course, it would be wonderful to exit with a bang and leave them to pick through the dust and debris in the hope of finding some morsels of my flesh. But before I explode, permit me to review my life.

Herra Björnsson


I was born in the autumn of 1929, in a tin can of a house in Ísafjördur. And got saddled with the peculiar name Herbjörg María, which never suited me, nor itself for that matter. A blend of pagan and Christian strands that mixed like oil and water, and those sister elements still wrestle inside me.

Mom wanted to name me Verbjörg, after her mother, but Grandma wouldn’t hear of it. It was too close to verbúd, the Icelandic word for “fisherman’s hut,” where she claimed people led wet, cold, and miserable lives, and she cursed her own mother for naming her after such a shameful thing. Grandma Vera rowed seventeen fishing seasons between the little islands of Bjarneyjar and Oddbjarnarsker, winter, spring, and autumn, “in the rat-pissing rain they’ve invented in that briny hell of theirs, and it was even worse on land.”

My father suggested Herbjörg instead, and apparently my mother didn’t hate him enough to disagree. Personally, I would have chosen the name of my maternal great-grandmother, the great Blómey Efemía Bergsveinsdóttir. She was the only woman to bear that name in the history of Iceland until the twentieth century, when, after lying in the island’s soil for fifty years, she finally acquired two namesakes. One was a textile artist who lived in a dilapidated shack, while the other Blómey, my little Blómey, who departed from us very young but still lives on in the dearest realms of my soul and appears to me now and then in that strip of grass that separates dream from reality.

We should be baptized for death, just as we’re baptized for life, and allowed to choose the name that will appear on our gravestone for all eternity. I see it before me now: Blómey Hansdóttir (1929–2009).

In those days no one had two first names. But just before I was born, my dear and gifted mother had a vision: the Virgin Mary appeared to her in a valley on the other side of the fjord and sat there on a rock, about four hundred feet tall. For this reason her name was added to mine, and of course it must have brought some blessings with it. At any rate, I have endured all the way to this peak of my now bedridden existence.

“María” softens the harshness of “Herbjörg,” but I doubt that two more different women have ever shared the same life. One sacrificed her snatch to God, while the other devoted hers to a whole army of men.

I was not permitted to be called dóttir (daughter), even though it is the right and privilege of all Icelandic women. Instead, I became a “son.” My father’s kin, sprinkled fore and aft with ministers and ambassadors, had made their careers abroad, where no one uses anything but surnames. And so the entire family was nailed to the head of one man, forced to carry the surname of Granddad Sveinn Björnsson (who became Iceland’s ambassador to Denmark and eventually our first president). No other member of the family was able to make a name for himself, and that was why we failed to produce any more ministers or presidents. Grandfather had reached the summit, and the role of his children and grandchildren was to go slithering down the slope. It’s hard to preserve any ambition when one is constantly on the way down. But naturally, at some point, we’ll reach the bottom, and then the only way forward for the Björnsson tribe will be back up again.

At home I was always called Hera, but when, at the age of seven, I visited my father’s family in Copenhagen with my parents, their maid had trouble pronouncing “Hera” and called me either Herre (the Danish word for “Mister”) or Den Lille Herre (the Little Gentleman). My cousin Puti found this highly amusing and from then on never called me anything but Herra, the Icelandic word for “Mister.” At first this teasing hurt me because I really did look a bit like a boy, but the nickname stuck, and I gradually became used to it. So that’s how a miss became a mister.

In small-town Reykjavík I received considerable attention when I arrived back in the 1950s after a long stay abroad, a radiant young lady with lipstick and worldly ways, and the sobriquet was almost akin to a stage name: “Other guests included Miss Herra Björnsson, granddaughter of Iceland’s president, who draws attention wherever she goes on account of her open and cosmopolitan demeanor—Herra has just returned home to Iceland after a long stay in New York and South America.” So the unfortunate name produced some good fortune.


From Woman at 1,000 Degrees. Used with permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2017 by Hallgrímur Helgason.

More Story
The Political Power of Translation When Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to refugees in August 2015, I happened to be spending the summer in Berlin....

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.