Monday, March 24, 2014

Lawrence Millman

Lawrence Millman [Geophysical Institute]

from Lawrence Millman's Last Places: A Journey in the North:

Eyvindur Jónsson was born in 1714 and enjoyed a quite normal childhood except for his constant desire to steal. He started out with small things, like household utensils, and then worked his way up to livestock. Finally, after a large quantity of stolen sheep were found in his possession, the Althing proclaimed him an outlaw. Now he took to the mountains and pursued his trade in earnest, stealing sheep morning, noon, and night from rich and poor alike. No account of his career ever mentions personal gain or a violent craving for mutton. Eyvindur simply stole sheep as some other talented lad might have written verse. Indeed, one of the few descriptions of him warns his potential victims that "he is frequently heard humming strophes of rimur or old songs." He would arrive at a farm — incognito, of course — and first win the farmer's trust. Then he'd make off with the man's sheep, as if it were wrong just to descend on the farm and steal the sheep. When it came time for him to marry, he made certain the woman of his heart, a young widow named Halla Jónsdottir, shared his interest in sheep thievery. If a farmer or sheriff got too hot on their trail, Eyvindur and Halla would disappear into the uncharted interior. Eyvindur himself was no faster on his feet than the next man, but he had a strategy that enabled him to escape even his swiftest pursuers — he turned cartwheels. An entrancing vision this is: a lone outlaw cartwheeling wildly over lava and sand, as the forces of law and order lag ever farther behind him.

"Eyvindur hid here," Gisli said, "during the winter of 1774-5. He had a dead horse for a roof. He ate the meat from this horse and by spring the sun was shining through its bones. A year later he was pardoned. Twenty years he'd been an outlaw. The government won't let you be an outlaw longer than that."

I looked at this heap of stones and tried to imagine someone living there. In its prime it would not have measured more than five feet by three feet, hardly enough room to turn a single enervated cartwheel in. But Iceland seems to prepare a person for the stoniest of conditions and fosters in him the most creative of survival tactics: if a dead horse is your roof, at least it keeps out the weather.

Whereas Eyvindur stole sheep, Bensi retrieved them. He was a scruffy, snuff-taking farm laborer whose job it was to find missing sheep. Once he struggled for days to bring back a single sheep to Grimstad farm, but then he lost it. This legendary effort — only a slightly dotty person like Bensi would have been so worried about a lone sheep — provided Gunnar Gunnarson with the idea for his 1944 novella The Good Shepherd, which is about a snuff-taking shepherd's failure to retrieve a sheep during a Christmas Eve blizzard. According to Gisli, Ernest Hemingway cribbed The Good Shepherd for his novella The Old Man and the Sea ("Every Icelander knows how Hemingway stole from Gunnar Gunnarson"), turning Bensi into the old Cuban fisherman, the sheep into the tenacious marlin, and the Christmas Eve blizzard — this I found a little improbable — into the Caribbean Sea.

"I've often wondered why he committed suicide," Gisli said.

"Who? Bensi?"

"Nej, Hemingway. Do you suppose he felt guilty about stealing from Gunnar Gunnarson?"

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