Sweet mysteries

THE SWAN by Gudbergur Bergsson trs Bernard Scudder Mare's Nest pounds 8.95
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TO AN unnamed farm in the interior of Iceland an unnamed little girl of nine is sent to spend the summer, with a man and his wife who are also nameless. This is the first time that the girl has left the coast, and on the coach-ride away "from the sea's waves to green, arched hills", she has the sensation she's "withering and dying". And though her knowledge of life is to expand immeasurably during the months ahead of her, she's never altogether to lose this feeling.

The girl has been caught stealing from sweet shops, helping herself to sandwiches and jars of marmalade which she's devoured on the premises; exile to the country is the sentence handed out by the juvenile court to bring about her reformation. As her mother says: "You ought to live in harmony with nature in the countryside ... and uproot from within you, with God, all that is evil in your own bad nature."

Just as there is ironic contrast between the girl's peccadillos and the metaphysical thrill they give her, so is there between authority's sensible decision and the actual experiences consequent on it. Certainly nature can provide beneficial images of harmony and beauty - which the novel's sharp, beautiful prose conveys - but it is an ambiguous teacher, especially as manifested through harsh farming life. The little town-girl witnesses first a calf's difficult birth and then its early slaughter for meat, the cow-mother for some hours out of her wits with distress. There's confusion and pain everywhere, but also a general amoral resilience of which we all partake. In one of the most powerful passages of the book, girl and farmer-host rescue an errant mare, and, making the journey home, have to force the animal to swim a fast-flowing river. The horse is terrified, and the girl miserable on her behalf, yet only a few minutes after she's emerged from the water, the mare has become glossy, ordinary, serviceable and seemingly contented again.

Gudbergur Bergsson (born 1932) is the author of nearly 20 novels, and divides his life between Ireland and Spain. The Swan is a novel of exceptional originality and distinction, informed by duende, or poetic apprehension of death, which we should perhaps in part attribute to the author's saturation in the Spanish literature he translates. The girl is at once a convincingly rendered human being and a conductor of the Anima; the other characters - the unhappy, untrustworthy farmhand and the farouche farmer's daughter with her crossed love-affair - add to the dimensions of this parable of discovery while never ceasing to be autonomous beings. The transcendent adventure with which the book closes, relating to the titular swan of local folklore, admits of no easy explanation; mystery is all.

! Mare's Nest, 49 Norland Sq, London W11 4PZ. ISBN 1 899197 35 4