Cold Comfort

Absolution

by Olafur Jóhann Olafsson
Pantheon, 259 pp., $20.00

There’s a distant winking of lights in the gray cityscape of Olafur Olafsson’s Absolution: we’re approaching Christmas. The holidays aren’t an occasion that the book’s aged hero, an Icelandic-expatriate-turned-New-Yorker named Peter Peterson, is likely to make much of. Even so, the lights are there, conspiring in their gaiety and warmth to censure Peterson, who is as chilly a misanthrope as any literary character I’ve met in years. Absolution is a sort of dissonant Christmas Carol, the tale of a Scrooge whose holiday ghosts inspire not redemption but only increased bile and bitterness.

Is it too late? Scrooge wondered when the empty shambles of his life—as cold and glintless as any dead bed of embers—was arrayed before him. By contrast, it’s not a question old Peterson need fret over. He knows the time is past for untangling the bitter knots of his existence. It is too late to substitute another family for the “greedy, despicable, trivial” bunch whose attentions he ignores or deflects: a “stupid and vain” ex-wife and two children he dismisses as “weaklings.” It is too late for the “power and toughness” of sexual exultation, the pursuit of some woman who “will wrap herself around me like the crown of a flower around a sunbeam,” although the young Cambodian woman he lives with (his former secretary) would probably prove compliant. And it is too late—much too late—to undo the mysterious “little crime” that has dogged him for something like half a century.

Peterson conducts his readers backward, first to his schoolboy days in Reykjavik, then to his subsequent pursuit of a business education in Copenhagen, a city to which Icelandic students of Peterson’s generation traditionally turned for advanced study, for at that time Iceland was still a Danish colony. The year is 1939 and within a few months of Peterson’s arrival the country has been overrun by the Nazis. Peterson’s “little crime”—the details of which he is slow to the point of coyness in revealing—is therefore placed against a background of crimes almost too large to compass.

Fortunately, the reader’s surmises outrun the slow pace of the story’s revelations: it becomes clear that Peterson has somehow betrayed a fellow Icelander named Jon, who is active in the fledgling resistance movement. Although Peterson keeps his deliberations to himself, we sense that he is mulling things over, while surreptitiously establishing the contacts among the Nazis which would allow him to be an informer against Jon. Why would Peterson do such a thing? From his point of view, what Jon is “guilty” of is nothing more than sleeping with a young woman, Gudrun, whom Peterson himself has been seeking, unsuccessfully, to sleep with, and Peterson’s act of betrayal seems as much a lashing out at his own shortcomings as a venting of hostility toward a rival; at bottom, Absolution is steeped in self-hatred.

After he informs on Jon, Peterson leaves Copenhagen, and the …

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