BEF 2011/24 – Holes in People [Iceland]


Notes on a Montage

For the cinephile a montage is more than a quick-jab sequence of boxing and triumphant stair climbing, more than the sugared sobbing shots that come when the love interest is revealed to be (gasp) already married.  The occasional movie watcher might be forgiven for thinking this was their only purpose: condensing long periods of time into a score of seconds; few are the popular films that employ the technique for other reasons.  But this wasn’t always the case.  In cinema’s infancy in the first half of the twentieth century some of the larger studios (and this may still be the case today) such as MGM and Warner Bros employed montage specialists whose job it was to compose montage sequences from strips of film supplied them by the film makers.  Hollywood’s use of the technique was largely literal – the images followed one from another and were intended simply to show that time had passed.  Soviet Russia, however, had a more sophisticated and refined method: contrasting images unrelated to the film were often juxtaposed to create cinematic metaphors, images could be linked with each other through association.  Sergei Eisenstein even argued that montage is inherently dialectic, and invoked the imprimatur of Marx and Hegel.

Icelandic author Kristín Eiríksdóttir’s ‘Holes in People’ is a literary montage.  It is the story, told in fragments over several years, of a young girl whose father disappears one day.  Over the following months she, along with her brother find what they consider to be clues explaining his disappearance, clues that he himself left.  They try to make sense of them, but they fail, and his motives for walking out remain a mystery.  The narrator blames herself and, we are led to believe, develops an addiction to alcohol and an inferiority complex as a consequence.

Years pass and she cleans herself up, takes up photography and rebuilds her broken relationship with her brother.  One day, while walking down to the docks to take some photos, she discovers (improbably) her father’s body in a shipping container, “the features had sloughed off and maggots covered every inch.”  They bury him with little feeling and look through his belongings found in the shipping container, still looking for something to explain his sudden disappearance so many years ago.  They find relics and fetishes from around the world (shrunken heads and small stone idols and the like), and the manuscript of a novel he was writing, the narrative of which “dealt with a man who cut himself loose from a gray, monotonous existence and traveled the world.”

The narrator and her brother gather their clues and keep them in a shoebox.  This image is paralleled when she finds her father living in a shipping container.  Furthermore, as the children try to construct an idea of what happened to their father, so too he is trying to write his own fiction, undoubtedly based on his travels.  As a child she discovered photographs that led her to believe she was the cause for her father leaving; as an adult photography helped to heal her pain.

This fragmented, lacuna-filled narrative reads like the polished bones extracted from a novel.  Somewhere there is the meat and the organs of the story.  This accords with Eiríksdóttir’s intentions for her fiction.  In an interview with Sagenhaftes Island (a non-profit organization representing Icelandic literature and culture in and around Germany), Eiríksdóttir states, “I’ve been playing around with that idea: trying to give an impression of something happening without actually giving anything definite away.”  That is, she is practising montage.

‘Holes in People’ is a story that asks questions but gives no answers.  The reader shares the narrators confusion over her father’s disappearance and we, the reader, search the text for meaning and motive as she searches for more clues.  In the interview above, Eiríksdóttir states that the task of the reader is to “fill in the gaps”; that task is given to her narrator, also, both metaphorically and literally:

Watch me dig, he wheezed and I waited as Dad vanished deeper into the hole, the shovel swinging and dirt raining down.

I was confused, I didn’t know what Dad planned to do with the hole, what we would be putting into it and why.

When the hole was deep as Dad, as long as a grave, and the dirt pile as tall as me, he climbed out.  He was sweaty across the chest and red in the face, between gasps he told me that I now had to fill in the hole myself.

This is further realised by the discovery of the several “clues” left behind by her father: photographs, notes, figurines; from these items she tries to piece together a narrative of her father’s disappearance, but her attempts are as futile as the reader’s own and speculative uncertainty remains as the only possibility.


‘Holes in People’ is translated from Icelandic by Christopher Burawa.

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.


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