Ragnar Jónasson: my grandparents inspired the Dark Iceland series

Although I write crime fiction, my novels evoke the extremes of Icelandic weather, the stunning geography and, as my grandfather did, highlight the beauty of Siglufjördur

 

It is safe to say that I owe a debt of gratitude to my late grandparents, Þ Ragnar Jónasson and Guðrún Reykdal, for the creation of the Dark Iceland series, although neither of them lived to see the books being written or published. They lived in Siglufjördur for most of their lives and I spent countless summers with them in this beautiful place, the northernmost town in Iceland. Although it may be difficult to imagine such a thing from reading Snowblind or Nightblind, Siglufjördur is a very warm and sunny place in summertime, as readers will discover in the third in the series, Blackout.

One of the books in the series, Broken, is dedicated to their memory, and in my author’s note at the end of Nightblind I make a specific mention of my grandfather, as his own writing about Siglufjördur definitely inspired me. Þ Ragnar Jónasson was born in 1913, studied in Iceland and Denmark, and came home to Iceland with a degree in dairy sciences. He returned at the beginning of the second World War, on a famous sea voyage on passenger ship Esja. This journey was known as the Petsamo Trip, when 258 Icelandic citizens returned home to escape the war. It is, in fact, the same trip my imaginary author Hrolfur Kristjansson took in Snowblind, although the parallel between Hrolfur and my grandfather ends there!

My grandfather met my grandmother in Siglufjördur, in 1941, when he started working for a milk-processing plant. He subsequently became town treasurer, and was on many occasions (and for many years in total) the acting mayor of Siglufjördur. He was the managing director of the local hospital, and a local reporter for the national television station and a national newspaper. On a more personal level, he was an avid collector of books and served as the chairman of the Siglufjördur library for years.

When he retired from his post as town treasurer he spent his time writing and researching – along with my grandmother, who herself collected folklore and old stories for publication. The research and writing had actually been a lifelong hobby, but upon retirement he could dedicate much more time to his new work, and in his eighties, he published no fewer than five books on the history of Siglufjördur, still the definitive books on the history of this small town. At the age of 84 he was awarded the Siglufjördur Cultural Award.

In writing the Dark Iceland series, I hope I have in a way contributed something to Siglufjördur’s literary history, in the same way my grandfather did, although the focus is quite different. My grandfather died in 2003 and my grandmother in 2005, so neither of them was around to read my first novel, published in 2009. They had, however, quite a few of my Agatha Christie translations in earlier years, so I don’t think they would have been very surprised to find out that I had started writing crime novels set in their peaceful town…

At my grandfather’s memorial service, the Vicar of Siglufjördur said that he had preserved a priceless cultural heritage through his writings. “The coming generations will thank him for the silver, gold and diamonds that he picked up here and there during his long life and turned into priceless books, leaving behind at his passing, for us to enjoy, be enlightened and proud. He knew how valuable and necessary it is for every thinking person to know their roots.”

In Nightblind, readers witness the period from mid-November until late January, when the sun disappears behind the high Siglufjördur mountains. No one has written more beautifully about this than my grandfather, in a chapter from one of his books, Siglfirskir söguþættir (Stories from Siglufjördur), which was written in 1980 and published in 1997. This chapter is included at the end of the book, and this is the first time my grandfather’s writing has been published in English. I will include here a short passage from this chapter, written by my grandfather and translated by Quentin Bates:

“The joys of summer and the delights that nature brings will again be with us in this town so far north. The rays of the sun gild the mountain slopes in the calm weather of the bright season, making the whole fjord a box of sunshine.

“The nightless summer months adorn the mountains and the valleys with myriad colours and the sea rests as calm as a pool of golden oil morning and evening. What can equal the placid stillness and loveliness of an early summer morning when the stately mountains with their slopes so green are reflected in the fjord, so sensitive to beauty?

“Then all the ills of winter are swept away.”

Although I write crime fiction, my novels are full of descriptions that evoke the extremes of Icelandic weather, the stunning geography, the culture and the people and, as my grandfather did, all those years ago, highlight the beauty of the little, isolated town of Siglufjördur. It was my grandparents who inspired me to write, and taught me to see and appreciate the world around me; it is the town itself that continues to do so.

Nightblind by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates) was published by Orenda Books last month

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