Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bruegel in Words

As Above, So Below (2002), a novel by Rudy Rucker, gives us a lively if somewhat melodramatic fictional account of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The known details of Bruegel's life are few so Rucker layers his novel with fairly prosaic relationships, almost soap opera-esque, and colors the narrative with known historical detail of the Low Countries under the reign of Charles the V and Phillip the II of Spain. What the novel lacks in prose elegance and style it makes up for by conjuring the sights, sounds, smells, and day-to-day goings-on of life in places like Antwerp, Brussels, Mechelen in the 1500s.

During Bruegel's short life (1525-1569) he no doubt witnessed the atrocities and persecutions perpetrated by the Spanish monarchy against the occupied peoples of the Low Countries. His Massacre of the Innocents, a Biblical theme, has been adapted to portray a village scene in his native country and depicts the depredations unleashed on the citizens by the soldiers and mercenaries of the Spanish Crown. Rucker includes various details and scenes that aptly illustrate life under occupation and weaves these into the imagined narrative of Bruegel's life.

Massacre of the Innocents, 1567

The novel begins with Bruegel as a young man traveling to Rome and encountering real mountains (the Alps) for the first time (a salient detail as Bruegel would become known as one of the greatest landscape artists of all time), and ends with his untimely death of an unspecified stomach condition in 1569. In between, Rucker uses Bruegel's masterpieces as jumping off points for creating the fictional details of his novel. It's a useful method and lends meaning, real or not, to the works themselves while allowing the author to sketch key periods of the artist's life.

For those interested in his research and process, Rucker has posted his notes on the writing of So Above, So Below.

Two other novels in which Bruegel plays a staring role are Bruegel, or A Workshop of Dreams by Claude-Henri Rocquet (1991), and Headlong (1999) by Michael Frayn, both worth reading.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Close to the Fireworks

The balcony on the 4th floor of the Hotel Odinsve provided a bird's eye view of the local neighborhood fireworks on New Years Eve in Reykjavik.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Iceland, No Irony in New Years Celebration

Arriving at the Hotel Odinsve, Reykjavik, 12/31/13

The New Years celebrations that go on in Iceland, particularly in Reykjavik, could never happen in the United States. They could never take place in a country that routinely bombs other countries, that has an aggressive military industrial complex, a country in which police violence is endemic. Not with the gusto on display in Iceland and on such a massive scale, essentially 24 hours of thunder and lightening. Oh wait, there are the 4th of July celebrations across the US, true. They are certainly ironic given our penchant for launching missiles from drones. But I digress.

Iceland celebrates with explosions. With rockets and flares and showers of colored sparks. And without irony. Iceland has no military and the first police killing of a civilian in the country's 50+ year history occurred last year. And the police apologized. So no, there's no irony in the great Nordic fiesta. Instead, there's fun, glee, impish delight in loud noises, civic rapport.

View from the 4th Floor Balcony

Fireworks are sold legally throughout the holiday period and sales are especially brisk on the day of New Years Eve. All the proceeds from fireworks sales go to the country's emergency response and search & rescue teams so buying, and setting off, fireworks is not only encouraged but something of a citizen's duty. Throughout Reykjavik and its suburban environs, explosions and flashes of light and sparkles of flame begin early in the day and continue on into the night, increasing in intensity as midnight approaches.

Just to be clear - you can buy powerful, commercial strength fireworks on the street in the city and set them off right there on the sidewalk, between the buildings, firing them aloft right above the neighborhood. This goes on all over town. You literally have to be careful where you walk for fear of rounding a corner and coming upon a box of bottle rockets about to launch.

Everyone is good-natured about the whole thing, whole families stroll the streets, groups of friends gather in bunches talking and drinking. Toward midnight everyone streams up Skólavörðustígur St heading to the Hallgrímskirkja, the towering church that sits atop a hill in central Reykjavik.
Normally I'm unnerved by thronging masses, particularly in America where decorum and civility can often go missing, but this crowd was, in as much as a crowd can be one thing, polite. Or maybe considerate. Certainly not threatening. Plenty of civility. And enough decorum to make the genuinely enthusiastic reveling charming rather than boorish.

I witnessed one scene that sort of epitomizes the consideration of the citizens. From our hotel room's top floor balcony I watched a father & son, later joined by the mother, emerge from their apartment building across the street. They carried a duffel bag-sized cache of fireworks which they set down on the sidewalk. A few feet farther on was the entrance to an iced-over parking lot and there the family began setting of their fireworks. First little fizzy ground sparklers, then hissing ground spinner things, then firecrackers in whole packs and long strings. Finally they got to the big stuff, the rockets. The fuses crackled with white sparks and then the rockets whizzed upward and exploded not 30 feet above where we stood on the balcony. A wild burst of volcanic energy of the kind that almost never manifests in the demeanor of an Icelander.

Scene of the Fireworks, December 31, 2013

When the explosions finished I cheered and whooped the way an American sports fan would but the family below kept silent, almost as if they'd committed a solemn task that shouldn't be profaned with raucous behavior. Without saying much to each other, they very carefully picked up all the debris from their little explosive fun and took it with them, back into their building. A few minutes later, the father re-emerged to pick up a final scrap of something he'd dropped. I was particularly impressed because it was very clear that these people were just ordinary conscientious Reykjavikians who cared about their city and who simply did the right thing. They didn't do what they did because they thought someone was watching, because they thought they would look good or would receive an offer to do a reality TV show about their lives. They were just being stewards of their neighborhood and, by extension, their country.

But I saw them. They moved me.

What I didn't see was a single policeman during the entire celebration. Granted, I didn't stay out until the wee hours but I was out for the hubbub of the night, the main event. In America, the police presence would have been massive. And no one would have dared light off a firecracker. In America, the police shoot people everyday. But here, in Iceland's capital, with public drinking in the streets and amateur pyrotechnics setting the sky ablaze, not one uniformed official appeared in the midst.

That, I realized, was real freedom.