An encounter with a childhood friend after a gap of many years was the spark that behind Óskar Guðmundsson’s The Commandments, his first novel to appear in English, published by niche translated fiction outfit Corylus Books.
Powerful themes run through the book, which addresses the highly sensitive issue of the abuse of boys by a number of clergymen over many years.
“In Iceland this debate about abuse within the Church has always been a painful one, and it has been carefully largely kept out of sight,” Óskar said.
“This is the most challenging subject I have taken on so far and it didn’t take me long to realise how tough this was going to be.”
Meeting up with someone who had been part of the same youth group in their early teens was a shock, as this man had led a deeply troubled life, due in large part to having been abused by a priest who arranged and accompanied groups of young people on trips out of Reykjavík.
“I was fortunate to escape one of the bad apples of the Church. I must have sensed that something wasn’t right, and the priest’s approaches rang alarm bells in my head. I stopped taking part, but in spite of my warnings, my friend stayed. We lost touch and it was many years later that I met him again. By then he was a terribly damaged individual, and told me the whole story.”
That story formed the basis of The Commandments, and although the characters and events are from my imagination and the setting has been moved to the north of Iceland, his account of what happened to him is at the centre of the story.
“I’ve asked myself again and again if I could have done more back then to protest him from all this. I felt this was a story that needed to be told, with its themes of broken trust, forgiveness and hatred, and to describe how this abuse starts from small beginnings and grows to wreck lives.”
Early in the writing of the book, Óskar took the decision to locate the events in and around the town of Akureyri in northern Iceland, a place for which he has a great fondness. It’s not a big place by European or US standards, a community of just under 20,000 people, but it forms the largest settlement in the country outside the capital region of Reykjavík. Akureyri is also surrounded by smaller communities, such as the coastal village of Grenivík where the first brutal murder in the story comes to light.
When The Commandments was published in Iceland, it didn’t escape notice, not least because the Glerá Church at the centre of Akureyri is one of the key locations in the story.
“This is very sensitive subject matter in Iceland, and I had a request from the priest at the Glerá Church to pay him a visit, and it was very obvious that he and his colleague were extremely disturbed by the book and its themes. In particular they were concerned in case I had some particular person in mind connected to the church. We had a very long conversation and I was able to assure them that while the underlying themes are very real, the events and the persons portrayed in the book are drawn purely from my imagination,” he said.
“It has been a challenge to write this story, but this is a story I felt needed to be told.”
The Commandments by Óskar Guðmundsson Published by Corylus Books
On a Sunday morning in 1995, Anton, a nineteen year old boy, meets a priest in front of a church. The young man was never seen again. Twenty years later, under the midnight sun, a pastor is found brutally murdered in his church in a small fishing village north of the city of Akureyri, close to the Arctic Circle. When detective inspector Salka starts working on the case a deacon is found crucified in his home in Akureyri. The murderer leaves a message on both crime scenes and Salka realises that the killer is seeking revenge but she also fears that the lives of some other people in the church society are in danger. The two cases take an unexpected turn when Salka discovers a connection between the killings and events that took place two decades earlier. Former police officer Salka Steinsdóttir finds herself pitched into the toughest investigation of her life, just as she is back in the tranquil north of Iceland to recover from a personal trauma. The victim is someone she had pursued earlier in her career – and had never been able to pin down. Now a killer has taken the law into their own hands and meted out brutal retribution for ancient crimes. Salka is faced with tracking down the murderer of a stalwart of the church and the community, a man whose dark reputation stretches deep into the past, and even into the police team tasked with solving the case. As the killer prepares to strike again, Salka and her team search for the band of old friends who could be either killers or victims – or both.
More information about the author can be found on his website. You can also follow him on Twitter @oskargudmunds.