This is the story of a wanted killer who flees. This is the story of a soldier in a land of peace. This is the story of a fish out of water. This is the story of Tomislav Boksic, a killer who flees to Iceland. And ultimately, this is the story of a man who has to come to terms with his past. This is The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning by Icelandic author Hallgrimur Helgason.
When Tomislav Boksic flees to the airport after having killed an FBI-agent, he wants to go home. He wants to go to Croatia, back to his mother, back to the country where he fought a war, where he met his first love, where he is safe. But the FBI knows who Boksic – feared as the killer of 67 men under the name of Toxic – is and they’re waiting. So in a last-ditch effort to escape, he kills a priest on the airport toilet, assumes the man’s identity and boards another plane. He lands in Reykjavik. Once there, he tries to be the priest he’s posing as, falls in love and has to make a living somehow once his being a priest fails. All this while the ghosts of his past start to haunt him. Memories of war, memories of his 67 hits, memories of his girlfriend who sleeps around, memories of his father and his brother.
Suddenly, the Croat who managed to make New York City his home finds himself in a country that is absurd in every aspect. You see, Iceland probably was never meant to be inhabited by people. It’s a bit of volcanic rock in the middle of the Northern Seas. These volcanos are still active and could erupt at any moment. There are 300 000 people living on it. About a third of them live in Reykjavik – the name of the capital translates to “bay of smoke”, named after the steam generated by the hot springs in the area. There are no natural resources. No seeds grow, no trees sprout. The water tastes like sulphur. There is a lot of cold. There are Northern Lights and glaciers and all sorts of amazing things that you should see in your lifetime.
Still, Iceland thrives. It takes a special kind of stubbornness to make this work, seeing as the entire country once starved to death and had to be repopulated. Despite all this hardship and a cuisine that includes such specialties as sheep’s head (“Don’t worry”, they say, “we’ve removed the brains”) and the infamous fermented shark that they bury in the volcanic Earth for ten months before eating it, Iceland has a very active social scene. There are countless bands, Sigur Rós and Björk being the most persistently successful, there’s an active movie-making scene, impressing audiences with movies like Málmhaus (aka. Metalhead) and 101 Reykjavik.
It’s the author of 101 Reykjavik who has written The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning. Hallgrimur Helgason is an accomplished author, artist and has travelled the world. It shows. Much of the book’s humour derives from the outside perception of Iceland and its quirks while possessing insider-knowledge (which is why it is important that you got the paragraphs about the absurdity that is Iceland). The clashing of cultures is one of the main parts of the book. On one hand, you have the battle-hardened Toxic whose life was filled with war, death and violence. On the other hand, you have the weird Icelanders who have “Maybe one, maybe zero” homicides a year, no army and a smoking ban.
Some people are smoking. I haven’t been to a smoky bar in years. I understand the smoking ban is on is way up here, in a sunny sailboat named Al Gore. On the other hand, Croatia is more likely to see another war than quit smoking. Only when you’ve had some fifty warless years do you start worrying about air quality in bars.
It is also this dry humour that seems to be inherent in Icelanders that makes this book tick. The story changes between horribly tragic and hysterically funny within two sentences at times. And neither side of the fun/serious-coin loses its importance. Were you laughing out loud at one sentence, you almost feel bad for doing so after having read two more sentences. It’s also remarkable how Hallgrimur Helgason manages to make fun of everything, ranging from Icelandic names (“It takes me about two minutes to read each name”) to war to religion, without belittling any of these things.
So is this book a comedy? No. Not at all. It’s actually a very serious and tragic book about a man who has a very grim past and has no idea how to deal with it. But he’s at a point of his life where he can’t escape that past any longer, because – after all – Iceland is small and there’s nowhere to go. Not even death will have Toxic, so he has to make do with life. And he just might have been given another shot at it by religious zealots with a mission.
All in all, the book is a short but good read. It’s the only book that Helgason has written in English originally and he cleverly manages to step around the issue that he’s not a native speaker by having his main character not be very proficient at it either. The writing is simple, to the point and down-to-earth. It’s definitely worth checking out.