REVIEW OF THE STORY OF ASTA BY J.K.STEFANSSON
I have the sea in front of me and the words I have just read stir in my head. Suddenly, I’m transported to the atmosphere of Icelandic fjords, so wonderfully created by J. K. Stefánsson in The story of Ásta. I can see these fjords opening
“as a scream in front of the icy sea and its depths, some of them as a silent hate, some others as an exhalation, but maybe the most part of them are a mix of all this”
Stefánsson paints Iceland in an impressionistic way with his words: using the paint-brush of poetry – because
“poetry is always resilience”.
Resilience to what, exactly? To life’s seasons and to change, the author seems to suggest. And so, page after page, that iced isle seems to rise straight towards the reader as it was solid and to be hard and fascinating, never softening its tightness even in the warmest moment of the year: “here you are born in the cold world” and you learn with no consolation the equivalence between living and fighting, sometimes lightened by the feeling of the sublime which reaches its peak in the northern lights. Ásta is exactly like Iceland – she is hard and stormy, and her beauty is stabbing, hence, dangerous.
However, The story of Ásta is not the story of her life, there is not a real biographical purpose. Instead, it is the story of the vicissitudes of her soul, marked by the persistent shift of time and place. You switch from the mythical atmosphere winding all the months adolescent Ásta spent in West Fjords, passing through the contemporary Wien, mitteleuropean unlocked door and getaway for student Ásta, until the present time of Trump and climate change considered mostly by the author – an author who cannot be easily tracked.
Therefore, Stefánsson’s prose, fluid and immersive, is not immediately approachable to the reader because of this persistent space-time shift. Even the intention of following her soul’s path jeopardizes the linearity of the narration: Ásta’s thoughts are added up and sequential, they appear – one after another – in continuous flow that simultaneously involves all other characters (including the narrator) who have to do with her and their thoughts – ergo, voices and points of view are superimposed. What emerges is a kind of polyphony in paragraphs, marking in italics every incipit by a sentence (sometimes similar to a maxim) or by few words which sum up the main emotion or the existential question of the paragraph. In some cases, only the first word of the first sentence of the paragraph is marked in italics – as if it was a way to say that the beginning is the most important part, but it is meaningless without the proper conclusion. Ásta’s mother, Helga, knows this very well. As well as the narrator who, in the prologue, is worried about how
“to tell a person’s story without touching other lives around”,
while in the epilogue he resolutely states that
“it is impossible to tell a story without fail, without take an hazardous path or without having to come back, at least twice – because we live simultaneously in all ages”.
Hence, the story is one of the spasmodic and heart-breaking quest for oneself, for a place among people and among the gathered wounds: “is it too much wanting to know cardinal points?”, one wonders. The characters rush towards answers they do not have, towards the love they long above all things, often misreading it and sometimes mistreating it. They run also and above all towards the craved happiness (“Where is my happiness? Have you seen it here somewhere? Is it hiding under the bed?”), but they do not always recognize it in its immanent manifestation because they are steered who knows where. A searching life, indeed; a getting away life, as well – the failed fulfilment of one’s own wish is a symptom of cowardice and courage at the same time.
Although the cycles of search and getaway that characterize Ásta, always victim of a self-proclaimed hereditary defect, come out in different forms, they are the authentic engine of all characters’ lives and they are stirred by Stefánsson into an emulsion as simple as it is real: the simplicity and the complexity of thought. The first allows for the adaptation to the world, for the letting go, at least a partially of one’s own claims; while the second does not ignore a certain amount of suffering, as deep as the sensibility of the one who endures it. However, this kind of binomial proceeding can be found during the whole narration
– “this light sometimes curiously married into the dark”; “God and the devil are a double-headed monster” –
which is, in the end, nothing less than a big question about life and death
(“Actually, the truths of the heart do not always agree with the ones of the world. It’s because life is inexplicable. It is grief. It is tragedy. It is the strength which make us shine”),
about the meaning of literature and the meaning of memory for life
(“So must literature firstly prepare us to die, and not help us to live better?”).
 J.K.Stefansson, Storia di Asta, Iperborea, 2018
(N.d.A: all quotes are translated by the author of this article, they may be different in the English version of the book).