Jonas Hallgrimsson was a great romantic poet and also a great fighter for Iceland’s independence. In the nineteenth century all of small-nation Europe had these romantic patriot-poets: Petofi in Hungary, Mickiewiczin Poland, Preseren in Slovenia, Macha in Bohemia, Shevchenko in Ukraine, Wergeland in Norway, Lonnrot in Finland, and the like. Iceland was a colony of Denmark at the time, and Hallgrimsson lived out his last years in the Danish capital. All the great romantic poets, besides being great patriots, were great drinkers. One day, dead drunk, Hallgrimsson fell down a staircase, broke a leg, got an infection, died, and was buried in a Copenhagen cemetery. That was in 1845. Ninety-nine years later, in 1944, the Icelandic Republic declared its independence. From then on events hastened their course. In 1946 the poet’s soul visited a rich Icelandic industrialist in his sleep and confided: “For a hundred yearsnow my skeleton has lain in a foreign land, in the enemy country. Is it not time it came home to its own free Ithaca?”
Flattered and elated by this nocturnal visit, the patriotic industrialist had the poet’s skeleton dug out of the enemy soil and carried back to Iceland, intending to bury it in the lovely valley where the poet had been born. But no one can stop the mad course of events: in the ineffably exquisite landscape of Thingvellir (the sacred place where, a thousand years ago, the first Icelandic parliament gathered beneath the open sky), the ministers of the brand-new republic had created a cemetery for the great men of the homeland; they ripped the poet away from the industrialist and buried him in the pantheon that at the time contained only the grave of another great poet (small nations abound in great poets), Einar Benediktsson. But again events rushed on, and soon everyone learned what the patriotic industrialist had never dared admit: standing at the opened tomb back in Copenhagen, he had felt extremely disconcerted: the poet had been buried in a paupers’ field with no name marking his grave,only a number and, confronted with a bunch of skeletons tangled together, the patriotic industrialist had not known which one to pick. In the presence of the stern, impatient cemetery bureaucrats, he did not dareshow his uncertainty. And so he had transported to Iceland not the Icelandic poet but a Danish butcher. In Iceland people had initially tried to hush up this lugubriously comical mistake, but events continued torun their course, and in 1948 the indiscreet writer Halldor Laxnessspilled the beans in a novel. What to do? Keep quiet. Therefore Hallgrimsson’s bones still lie two thousand miles away from his Ithaca, in enemy soil, while the body of the Danish butcher, who although no poet was a patriot as well, still lies banished to a glacial island that never stirred him to anything but fear and repugnance. Even hushed up, the consequence of the truth was that no one else was ever buried in the ex-quisite cemetery at Thingvellir, which harbors only two coffins and which thereby, of all the world’s pantheons, those grotesque museums of pride, is the only one capable of touching our hearts.
Milan Kundera, Ignorance, published in 2000. 195 pp, Faber, £16.99
the title of the post refers to this one previous article I published.