Þráinn Bertelsson was born in Reykjavík on November 30, 1944. After graduating from high school in Reykjavik, he studied philosophy and psychology at The University College in Dublin from 1968 – 1970, and the same subjects at Université d’Aix-Marsaille from 1970 – 1972. He gradated with a degree in film theory and directing from Dramatiska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden in 1977. After that Þráinn worked as a film maker for the most part until 1995, but he has also been a journalist, done television and radio programs, worked in a wine store, been a teacher, a worker at a fish factory and an office manager for an airline in Saudi Arabia, to name but a few. Þráinn was the editor of Þjóðviljinn newspaper in 1987 – 1988 and of the magazine Hesturinn okkar in 1990. Þráinn was elected to Parliament in 2009 and sat first for the Citizen’s Movement and later the Left-Green Movement, 2009-13.
Þráinn was chairman of The Writer’s Union of Iceland from 1992 – 1994 and was also chairman of The Association of Icelandic Film Directors for one year. He was one of the founders of the film company Norðan 8 and founded the film company Nýtt líf in 1982.
Þráinn has made numerous movies, among them the film about the twin brothers Jón Oddur and Jón Bjarni, based on Guðrún Helgadóttir’s very popular children’s books; the comedy Nýtt líf (A New Life) and others that followed in a series about the friends Þór and Danni. His movie Magnús was nominated for the Felix Awards (The European Film Awards), as the best film and for the best script in 1989. It also received the DV Cultural Prize in Iceland in 1990. Þráinn has also made films for television as well as numerous radio programs and a radio play. He sent forward his first book in 1970, the novel Sunnudagur (Sunday). Since then he has published several others, more novels, a children’s book, a biography about the popular comedian Laddi, a collection of his radio programs and the autobiographies Einhvers konar ég, also published in English as Myself & I in 2004 and Ég, ef mig skyldi kalla (A Sort of I) in 2008. He has also written the crime novels in the past few years, Dauðans óvissi tími (Uncertain Death) in 2004, Valkyrjur (Valyries) in 2005 and Englar dauðans (Angels of Death) in 2007.
Þráinn was awarded a special Honorary Award for his contribution to the Icelandic film industry in 2022.
Author photo: The Reykjavík Museum of Photography.
About the Author
The Writer has nine lives: Þráinn Bertelsson
A couple of years ago I went to the Faeroe-Islands. This was quite a historic journey, although that story must wait a better opportunity. My trip to these Islands however, always reminds me of Þráinn Bertelsson’s films; I was travelling with some young men, a twenty-something, who were particularly interested in the womenfolk of the Faeroe-Islands and kept referring to the film Dalalíf (Country-Life) (1984). I found this rather remarkable, since the boys were over a decade younger than I, but still seemed to know these films quite thoroughly, films that were, after all, the films of my generation. All this made it clear to me that Þráinn’s highly popular trilogy has not stopped its progress in the eighties, undaunted it has continued to entertain new generations.
Another noticeable thing about all this is that Þráinn should be best known for films that are called life-something, Nýtt líf (New-Life), Dalalíf and Löggulíf (Police-Life), for he himself seems, as an author, to have many lives. Looking at his oeuvre it is easy to discern at least three main periods of production, and at least four, if not five or even six, threads in his works. Þráinn starts his career as a novelist and writes, then very young, four novels during a short period. These are Sunnudagur (Sunday) (1970), Stefnumót í Dublin (A Meeting in Dublin) (1971), Kópamaros (1972) and Paradísarvíti (Paradise-hell) (1974). After this there is a break. In 1981 his film-directors-career starts, with Jón Oddur og Jón Bjarni, an all-around successful film based on the eponymous children’s book by Guðrún Helgadóttir. This was followed by the Life-films, the aforementioned popular comedies Nýtt líf (1983), Dalalíf (1984) og Löggulíf (1985). In 1985 another film by Þráinn premiered, quite different from the Life-films, this was Skammdegi (Twilight), a horror film. Magnús, a mixture of comedy and drama appears in 1989 and Einkalíf (Private Lives), a film about teenagers, in 1996. In addition to this Þráinn also wrote and directed the television-series Sigla himinfley (Heaven’s Ships are Sailing), which was also published as a novel (1992). The third period then starts with the autobiography Einhverskonar ég (Me, Myself and I) (2003), a bestseller garnering considerable attention, followed by two crime-novels, Dauðans óvissi tími (The Uncertain Time of Death) (2004) and Valkyrjur (Valkyries) (2005). The two latter are slightly related to Tungumál fuglanna (The Language of Birds), published under the alias Tómas Davíðsson in 1987. The two new crime-novels have every sign of becoming the first two in a series, such as has recently become highly popular here in Iceland with the crime fiction by Arnaldur Indriðason, Stella Blómkvist, Árni Þórarinsson and Ævar Örn Jósepsson.
So here we have the three ‘lives’, and it should be clear that the threads are more than three, and possibly rather entangled. The main-threads are four, the novels, the films, the autobiography (together with two books of radio-essays, Það var og... (And so it was...) (1985) and Vinir og kunningjar (Friends and Acquaintances) (1996)) and the crime fiction. But there is more to come, for Þráinn has also written a children’s book and a biography (of popular comic actor/singer Laddi, Þórhallur Sigurðsson). All this material could then be sorted into genres, comedy, drama, horror... And then we could continue with such literary categorizations – but let´s talk a little about the books.
Þráinn’s first two novels are clearly written under the influence of existentialism. Sunnudagur describes how a blind man is visited by his acquaintance, who turns out to have killed his wife during the night. The point of view shifts between the two, on the one hand the blind man visualises the other one’s prison term, and on the other we learn about the murderer’s view of his life and the murder itself. In between there also appear fragments of the murderer’s fiction. The novel is a rather classic beginner’s work, highly dramatic and very much in the spirit of the existential (nihilistic) philosophy still lingering in what was called modernist Icelandic fiction. Stefnumót í Dublin is in many ways not unsimilar, describing the pointless life of a young man who goes to Dublin hoping for something to happen. Nothing happens, for a long time, and then he meets a girl and happiness seems assured. The story draws heavily on the atmosphere of this old literary city, complete with references to Joyce. Dublin has changed rapidly in the past years and so the novel remains as a kind of monument to the atmosphere of this period.
Þráinn is still looking for purpose in his third novel. Kópamaros is in two parts, the first one is the story of a young boy growing up in the city, moving to the country-side and staying with his grandparents for a short period when the parents separate, finally moving back to the city when the parents decide to try again. Many of the description of the relationship between the child and the grownups are very beautiful and indicate what was to come in the autobiography Einhverskonar ég, where the narration shifts between warmth and fear due to the child’s inability to understand the insecure world of the grownups. In the second part we meet the child again as a rebellious youth, who longs to form an anarchist-cell and shake up the stale bourgeois society with an explosion. Thus nihilism makes it appearance again.
The fourth novel is yet different, Paradísarvíti is a kind of pulp fiction, a story about a young adventurer who travels the world in the years between the two world wars and meets with all kinds of strange people, a smuggler, the king of Albania, the wandering Jew and Hitler himself, and finally winds up a spy for the British in Germany.
The film Jón Oddur and Jón Bjarni needs no introduction for Icelanders. This much loved children’s story by Guðrún Helgadóttir (see her page on this website) describes the eponymous prankster twins and their family, and became one of those Icelandic novels that actually became its own language, even today it is easy to refer to aunt Soffía, Grandma dragon, the bottle covered in candlewax, and then of course the two Jóns, the twins themselves, in the same way that we refer to characters from the sagas and the novels of Jón Thoroddsen. The film recreated successfully the distinctive characterization of the story and is in every way a well made adaptation.
And as I found out in my trip to the Faeroe-Islands the Life-films seem to have managed to create for themselves a similar status within language as Guðrún’s story. The Life-films are about the various adventures of two friends, Þór and Daníel. In the first film they escape their ungrateful bosses, and even more ungrateful former wives and landladies, all the way to the Westman-Islands and hope to become rich working in the fish factory during the height of the fishing season. It soon transpires that the two are not really interested in working while excelling at telling stories and so the friends continually get themselves into trouble due to their rather unbelievable stories about themselves. This first film has today actually become something of a documentary, due to the fact that this particular culture around the fishing season has more or less disappeared today, much like the travelling-worker-class in its entirety, as described in a completely different work, Ísrael by Stefán Máni. In the same way Þráinn’s next film, Dalalíf, has become a kind of a realistic tale. There the two friends take over a farm when the owners go on a holiday and pretend to be well educated agriculturalists. Their total ignorance of how to handle livestock is certainly hilarious, but also thought-provoking, since it can easily be assumed that today, more then twenty years later, such an ignorance is a given for most people. In addition to this the two actually show a kind of foresight when they let the chicken out (they must enjoy the fresh air as much as the cows, they surmise), as today it is considered highly chic to eat eggs laid by free-roaming hens.
Dalalíf has a slightly more of a plot than Nýtt líf, since the friends start their farming life by going to the city for a bit of nightlife, where one meets with a wealthy man whose great desire is to work at a farm and the other is married to a woman from the Faeroe-Islands by the allsherjargoði (supreme head of the Ásatrúarfélag). (This was a rather remarkable habit in these years, when the then allsherjargoði tended to drink a little to much and happily agreed to marry equally drunk couples. The only problem is that such marriage wows are actually legal in Iceland.) Upon returning to the farm they decide to herald a Country-life-week where people can come and get to experience Icelandic farming, and this of course means that Þór and Daníel do not have to do any work. But then the woman from the Faeroe-Islands appears... Matters are further confused as the two friends are continually fighting over a blond beauty from the neighbouring farm, just as they fought over another blond in the first film. Dalalíf is considerable more adventurous than Nýtt líf but the most adventurous of them all is Löggulíf, the third movie, which really is a kind of a revue. Here Þór and Daníel manage to sign up with the police with predictably risible results. The plot thickens, on the other hand there is a story about an illegal selling of baby-falcons, which is doubly illegal due the fact that the baby-falcons are actually counterfeit, dressed up chicks, and then there is the matter of a highly strange store-robbery. In addition to this there is Kormákur the bum who serves the two as an excellent guide through their police work, and yet another dame for the friends to fight over.
Skammdegi is, as already stated, a kind of a horror film and takes place in an isolated farm where there is a natural warm water source. The widow of one of the brothers owning the farm comes there to try and convince the brother and sister to sell their part in the land, but then strange things start to happen and nothing is as it seems. Magnús is about a few days in the life of a middle-aged man named Magnús who finds out that he has cancer and a few teenagers are attempting to do a kind of reality-film in Einkalíf.
Þráinn’s career as a journalist should not be forgotten here, he is among other things well known for his essays. Many of those contain fragments from the author’s own life, but it was not until the autobiography My, Myself and I that he joined together into a whole the story of his childhood and unusual family life. The book is published during a considerable discussion about the borderline between life-writing and fiction in Icelandic literature, where writers like Guðbergur Bergsson og Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir have gone to some lengths to erase such demarcations. Þráinn’s story is rather more of a life-writing than fiction, it is characterized by a considerable introspection which makes the book effective and rememberable. My, Myself and I was well received and the author seems to have become quite encouraged by this, for the autobiography was followed with rather spicy crime fiction, which in turn, have also been well received.
While these two newest novels by Þráinn are the only ones called crime fiction, it is easy to trace a kind of a suspense theme throughout his earlier works. In the first novel, as already indicated, there is a murder, in the next we meet with a mysterious Irishman with possible connections to IRA, in the third youths steal explosives, planning to make a bomb, and in the fourth one the narrator is continually connected to criminals of various kinds. Löggulíf contains crimes, of course, as already described, and Skammdegi similarly has a criminal undertone. Crimes and police are involved in Einkamál and in Sigla himinfley there is also a small crime. The role of translations should not be forgotten either, but Þráinn translated into Icelandic a few of the highly popular crime novels of the Swedish couple Sjöwall and Wahlöö. And then there is Tungumál fuglanna, which, as I already claimed, a kind of a forerunner of the new crime fiction, describing a journalist who unexpectedly is given important information concerning a criminal behaviour of a few important political figures and by publishing those he manages to gain popularity for his about-to-become-bankrupt newspaper and to force the prime-minister and his successor to resign, as well as one woman-minister. Behind this all there is quite a conspiracy. The story refers clearly to the politics and conflicts of the time of its publication, similarly to the themes of the new crime novels, Dauðans óvissi tími and Valkyrjur.
On the surface of Dauðans óvissi tími contains two crimes; on the one hand a bank-robbery turning into a murder, and on the other hand a brutal murder-case. The department of criminal investigation, with the depressed theologian Víkingur Gunnarsson in the forefront, investigates the two cases, as well as struggling and negotiating with the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police and a couple of ministers. The bank-robbery is a rather simple crime, committed by individuals of limited fortune, and that part of the story reads more like a thriller, as the reader not only watches the hunt for the men but is also given insight into their miserable lives. The murder, on the other hand, is considerably more complicated, being a more traditional whodunit plot, complete with unexpected clues and all. The murdered man is the best friend of an employer of the newly rich bank-owner and entrepreneur, Haraldur Rúriksson, who is described as a modern Viking travelling to Russia to earn his fortune. This is how his former business partner describes this:
Our forefathers got to experience such periods here in Iceland around 1000 years ago, during the age of settlement, which, without wanting to belittle our modern times, is definitely the most fertile period of all for this nation. No executive power to limit the creativity of the individual and his freedom to act. The fittest, that is the chieftains, rose above the masses, and they accepted those who turned to them for help and protected them, gaining their support instead.
This is how it was in Russia. Young powerful men appeared, who in the old system would at best have become some kind of commissars, but could now use their talents to the full.
[Svona tímabil fengu forfeður okkar að upplifa hér á Íslandi fyrir 1000 árum á þjóðveldisöld, sem með fullri virðingu fyrir nútímanum er örugglega mesta gróskutímabil sem þessi þjóð hefur gengið í gegnum. Ekkert framkvæmdavald til að leggja hömlur á sköpunargáfu einstaklingsins og athafnafrelsi. Hæfustu einstaklingarnir risu yfir fjöldann, það voru goðarnir, og þeir tóku við þeim sem til þeirra leituðu og sáu þeim fyrir vernd, en hlutu stuðning þeirra í staðinn.
Þannig var þetta í Rússlandi. Þar komu fram á sjónarsviðið ungir menn og öflugir sem í gamla kerfinu hefðu í besta falli getað orðið einhvers konar kommissarar en gátu nú n tað hæfileika sína til fulls. (316-17) ]
This is the world, these modern viking travels of Icelanders to Russia, that is the background of the story. Þráinn makes further use of the Saga-culture in many ways, such as referring to events in the Sagas, and quoting famous words. In addition to this he also sprinkles references to literature, his own Tungumál fuglanna (here the alias, Tómas Davíðsson is the editor of a newspaper), for example, and Macbeth, as well as icons of popular culture, such as the British television-series Yes Minister.
Þráinn does not just take on the modern viking raids to Russia, he also examines the world of Icelandic business, using that field as a ground for interesting political discussions on freedom and capital, business and crime. In addition to this enquiry into the extensive changes that have taken place in Icelandic society due to rapid privatization, Þráinn also refers to conflicts surrounding biotechnology and in particular the arguments over the marketing of the stock of such companies. Thus the novel offers quite an appraisal of Icelandic politics and the political influence on business and commerce. All this is fair and well, but the reader must wonder a little what role this bank-robbery has in the story.
I think there is a good reason to allow ourselves to speculate a bit wildly, for in my opinion it is possible to discern a certain parallel between the privatization and the selling of state-property (such as banks) to chosen individuals, indicating that such a sale is really just another bank-robbery. This can also be inferred from the undertone of the novel, which projects a clear political criticism of how all this emphasis on privatization breeds greed and increases the lust for financial crimes, such as bank-robberies (on the assumption that people will think: since all these people have so much money, I want my share!), and other kinds of criminal behaviour. Thus it is my theory that in fact there are three crimes in Þráinn’s novel, and that the third crime is the business life of Iceland today, privatization and financial wheeling and dealing – and its influence on individuals. So it seems that there is a lot at stake in this story and we can see how references to the Scottish play and TV shows about politicians take on an added value in this plot about power struggles.
However, this also makes the story a little segmental; at times I felt that I was in fact reading two books, and that I had in some Calvino-ish way jumped into a new story in the middle of a sentence. The first part introduces the main-characters, Haraldur and his story, the theologian-policeman and the bank robbers, as well as offering a short intro on the definition of a psychopath, getting to know one such individual. Then there are the crimes and the style of the story changes, the cynical description of Icelandic politics and business is replaced by a more traditional realistic tone of the crime novel. Although this segmental structure is never really perfectly glued together, we can see how it all fits if we take the idea of the ‘third crime’ into the equation.
Not that this was really all that irritating or harmful, for in general the story was a good read, just like the next one, Valkyrjur, quite a women’s story this time around, as the title indicates. Here women and women’s issue is a recurrent theme, just like the politics were in Dauðans óvissi tími. And while the approach here is perhaps not fresh it Þráinn continues to entertain with his take on hot issues, people and events. In Valkyrjur we meet with the same police team as in the first book (and the same politicians) and so it seems we have the beginning of a new series.
The body of a contested feminist is found in a car in Rauðhólar, at first it looks like a suicide, but is soon revealed as a murder. The woman, whose name of course is Freyja, had been working on a book about the low status of women during these times of freely available pornography and trafficking in women. A part of the book was to have been devoted to interviews with two divorced women whose husbands had been influential men in society. Thus there were expectations of juicy revelations, which worried some. As already stated, the familiar police-team is here again led by the depressed Víkingur, and in addition to investigating this murder they are also looking for the body of a woman, presumably killed by her husband. (This is a clear reference to a high profile case at the time.) Then there are more personal and political issues, such as the divorce of one of the police-women and power struggles among the chiefs of police; the newly appointed National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police is a woman and some say that she is a little too well connected.
On the whole Valkyrjur is more ‘whole’ than Dauðans óvissi tími and the author shows more deftness in weaving references to contemporary issues into the plot. The crimes are not as bloody nor spicy as in the earlier story, and this goes well with how this work is a much more focused and disciplined, indicated in the way how the feminist issue – the murder itself – is supported by various ways of making the role of women visible and weighty.
The plot itself is fairly solid, although well schooled readers are probably quick to figure things out. Þráinn’s style is characterized by subtle humour which suits the more serious elements of the story as well as the parts where the irony is at its sharpest. In particular I enjoyed how many of the details were carefully done, such as the description between a man and his horse when they accidentally find a body. These details enliven the story and add to its general cool-ness.
It is without doubt a little difficult for an innocent literary critic to attempt to write a cohesive feature on an author who has as diverse a career as Þráinn Bertelsson. Final summary such as these should be are for an example impossible, not only is it doubtful to attempt to collapse the dissimilar works of the author into one statement and issue a kind of an umbrella-generalisation, it is in fact impossible. The humour, this subtle irony, is certainly a strong characteristic, but there are works, such as the first three novels and the film Skammdegi, that are not particularly characterized by this. Þráinn describes himself as a ‘professional comedian’ in My, Myself and I, and that handle can certainly be useful. However, this for me bypasses too much the political and social threads so strong in many of the works, whether stated in a highly comical way as in the Life-trilogy, or in the disguise of the crime novel as in the latest two books.
Thus I find that I must leave this feature a somewhat loose ends, concluding it with a quote from the writer himself, where the narrator of Paradísarvíti describes politicians, a description that is at least quite interesting in the light of his new crime novels:
Friendless and lonely member of the public uses an actor, a sportsman or a television star instead of a friend. And rather than believing in himself, he believes in some politician as his alter ego and watches intently how such men spread illusions about or when they have a retention of urine or an alcoholic stroke.
In general I believe that politicians despise their supporters, and rightly so, for certainly nobody knows better than themselves how stupid it is to expect much from them. Amongst themselves politicians often discuss how their job is mainly about throwing pearls to swine (the general population), while knowing perfectly well that their art is more often that of offering the people stone for bread.
[Vinafár og einmana almúgamaður tekur sér leikara, íþróttamann eða sjónvarpsstjörnu í vinarstað. Og í stað þess að trúa á sjálfan sig, trúir hann á einhvern stjórnmálamann eins og sitt alter ego (annað sjálf) og fylgist af innlifun með því, þegar slíkir menn strá um sig blekkingunni, ellegar þegar þeir fá þvagteppu eða brennivínsslag.
Yfirleitt held ég að stjórnmálamenn fyrirlíti stuðningsmenn sína, og það með réttu, því auðvitað veit enginn betur en þeir sjálfir, hversu heimskulegt það er að vænta sér mikilla hluta af þeirra hálfu. Sín á milli tala stjórnmálamenn oftlega um, að starf þeirra felist aðallega í því að henda perlum fyrir svín (almenning), þótt þeir viti fullvel, að konstin er oftar sú að rétta fólkinu steina fyrir brauð. (149)]
2022 - Þráinn was awarded a special Honorary Award for his contribution to the Icelandic film industry in 2022
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