Thursday, 30 July 2009


In many ways, The Draining Lake is my favorite of Arnaldur Indridason's Erlendur novels, and the most ambitious. The discovery of a corpse found buried in the eponymous lake, with an outdated Soviet radio transmitter weighing it down, starts an investigation whose roots go back to the heyday of the cold war, when Iceland was (before the Fischer-Spassky chess match put it firmly on the map) a backward island important to both sides only because of the American airbase at Keflavik.

There are distinct echoes in this novel of Halldor Laxness' The Atom Station, with the echoes of geopolitics rebounding on the narrow world-view of Icelanders, and Indridason, while not revealing who the corpse is, tells its back story convincingly, the tale of committed Icelandic communists studying in East Germany in the mid-fifties, of naiveté in both politics and love, and ultimate disillusionment. That story is portrayed convincingly, with young Tomas' idealism tinting the narrative, and we, the audience, knowing better.

Meanwhile, the investigation of the corpse shows Erlendur and his team at their most persistent, especially as they deal with the diplomats from the US and the 'new' Germany. There is a wonderful scene where the German ambassador explains that Iceland is seen as 'the back end of the world' in terms of diplomatic service, and when he proves less than forthcoming, an irritated Erlendur finally asks her 'what did you do wrong?' and when she doesn't understand, asks 'why were you sent to the arsehole of the world'. When his colleagues later chastise him, Erlendur lights up a smoke as says 'this arsehole-of-the-world stuff gets on my nerves'.

Of course that isn't all that gets on his nerves. The troubles with his drug-addicted daughter, and the distance of his relationship with his son, provide a counterpoint to the story told in flashback; meanwhile his platonic relationship with Valdegur, which began in Voices, is causing her husband to telephone him with threats. Erlendur is haunted by his lost brother, and there is in this novel a palpable sense of the isolation of Icelanders in the almost hermetically closed society of the small, cold island. This was part of the theme of Jar City, but here it is developed with the contrast of the enforced repression of the GDR, not that they are parallels, but each comments on the other: particularly when Oli, the young cop, reveals a strong conservative bent. If Hanning Mankell thought of Wallander as being about the anxiety of modern Swedish society, you could very much make the case that Indriason is following in his footsteps. But the wallander novels set outside Sweden are, to my mind, Mankell's least successful; Indridason's venture to East Germany works better, and makes Erlendur more compelling as a result.

The Draining Lake
Arnaldur Indridason, translated by Bernard Scudder
Vintage, 2008, £6.99 ISBN 9780099494140


Ali Karim said...

I love his work, all of his books, but I have a soft spot for JAR CITY [aka TAINTED BLOOD] the first I read - and the film's pretty good too

Great Post


Michael Carlson said...

Agreed! the film is very good indeed and it is a fine book