The Bishop Wants an Emissary
The bishop summoned the undersigned to his presence yesterday evening. He offered me snuff. Thanks all the same, but it makes me sneeze, I said.
Bishop: Good gracious! Well I never! In the old days all young theologians took snuff.
Undersigned: Oh, I'm not much of a theologian. Hardly more than in name, really.
Bishop: I can't offer you coffee, I'm afraid, because madam is not at home. Even bishops' wives don't stay home in the evenings any more: society's going to pieces nowadays. Well now, my boy, you seem to be a nice young fellow. I've had my eye on you since last year, when you wrote up the minutes of the synod for us. It was a masterpiece, the way you got all their drivel down, word for word. We've never had a theologian who knew shorthand before. And you also know how to handle that phonograph or whatever it's called.
Undersigned: We call it a tape recorder. Phonograph is better.
Bishop: All this gramophone business nowadays, heavens above! Can you also do television? That's even more fantastic! Just like the cinema-after two minutes I'm sound asleep. Where on earth did you learn all this stuff?
Undersigned: Oh, there's nothing much to making a tape recording, really. I got some practise as a casual worker in radio. But I've never done television.
Bishop: Never mind. Tape will do us. And shorthand. It's amazing how people can learn to scribble these rats'-tails! A bit like Arabic. It's about time you got ordained! But no doubt you've got a steady job?
Undersigned: I've done some tuition in languages. And a little in arithmetic.
Bishop: I see, good at languages too!
Undersigned: Well, I've got a smattering of those five or six languages you need for matriculation; and a little bit of Spanish because I took a group of tourists to Majorca once and did some preparation for that.
Bishop: And the theology, everything all right there, is that not so?
Undersigned: I suppose so. I'm not really much of a believer, though.
Bishop: A rationalist? That's not so good! One wants to watch that sort of thing.
Undersigned: I don't know what I should be called, really. Just an ordinary silly ass, I suppose. Nothing else. I didn't do too badly in theology, though.
Bishop: Perhaps not even wanting to be ordained?
Undersigned: Haven't thought much about it.
Bishop: You ought to think about it. And then you ought to get yourself a wife. That's how it went with me. It is also wholesome to have children. That's when you first begin to understand the workings of Creation. I need someone to go on a little journey for me. If it turns out well, you will be given a good living by and by. But a wife you'll have to sort out for yourself.
I began to listen expectantly now, but the bishop began to talk about French literature. French literature is so enjoyable, he said. Don't you think so?
Undersigned: Yes, I suppose so. If one had the time for it.
Bishop: Don't you find it odd that the greatest French writers should have written books about Iceland that made them immortal? Victor Hugo wrote Han d'Islande
, Pierre Loti wrote Pécheurs d'Islande
, and Jules Verne crowned it with that tremendous masterpiece about Snæfellsjökull (Snæfells Glacier), Voyage au Centre de la Terre
. That's where Árni Saknússemm appears, the only alchemist and philosopher we've ever had in Iceland. No one can ever be the same after reading that book. Our people could never write a book like that-least of all about Snæfellsjökull.
The undersigned wasn't entirely in agreement with the bishop over the last book on the list, and declared that he himself was more impressed by that writer's account of Phileas Fogg's journey round the world than Otto Lidenbrock's descent down the crater on Snæfellsjökull.
It emerged, however, that what I thought about French literature was quite immaterial to the bishop.
Bishop: What do you say to putting your best foot forward and going to Snæfellsjökull to conduct the most important investigation at that world-famous mountain since the days of Jules Verne? I pay civil service rates.
Undersigned: Don't ask me to perform any heroic deeds. Besides, I've heard that heroic deeds are never performed on civil service rates. I'm not cut out for derring-do. But if I could deliver a letter for your Grace out at Glacier or something of that sort, that shouldn't be beyond my capacities.
Bishop: I want to send you on a three-day journey or so on my behalf. I'll be giving you a written brief for the mission. I'm going to ask you to call on the minister there, pastor Jón Prímus, for me, and tell him he is to put you up. There's something that needs investigating out there in the west.
Undersigned: What's to be investigated, if I may ask?
Bishop: We need to investigate Christianity at Glacier.
Undersigned: And how am I expected to do that-an inexperienced ignoramus like me?
Bishop: It would probably be best to begin by investigating old pastor Jón himself: for example, to establish whether the man's crazy or not, or is perhaps more brilliant than all the rest of us. He spent six years at a university in Germany trying to study history and eventually ended up as a theologian here with us. He was always a little equivocal. Some say he's lost his faith.
Undersigned: Am I to start meddling in that?
Bishop: What I want to know, because I happen to be the office boy at the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, is first of all why doesn't the man keep the church in good repair? And why doesn't he hold divine service? Why doesn't he baptise the children? Why doesn't he bury the dead? Why hasn't he drawn his stipend for ten or twenty years? Does that mean he's perhaps a better believer than the rest of us? And what does the congregation say? On three successive visitations I have instructed the old fellow to put these matters right. The office has written him all of fifty letters. And never a word in reply, of course. But you can't warn a man more than three times, let alone threaten him-the fourth time the threat just lulls him to sleep; after that there's nothing for it but summary defrocking. But where are the crimes? That's the whole point! An investigation is called for. There are some cock-and-bull stories going around just now that he has allowed a corpse to be deposited in the glacier. What corpse? It's an absolute scandal! Kindly check it! If it's a dead body, we want to lug it down to habitation and bury it in consecrated ground. And if it's something else, then what is it? The year before last I wrote to the chap who's supposed to be the parish clerk there, I've forgotten what his name is. The reply arrived yesterday, exactly eighteen months later; you can't say they're in a tearing hurry, these fellows! What sort of country bumpkins are they, may I ask? Is there some kind of mutual protection at Glacier? Against us here! Some sort of freemasonry! And this fellow's twice as crazy as pastor Jón Prímus has ever been. I think it wouldn't come amiss to examine him a little, too. Here's his bit of scribble.
The bishop handed me a dog-eared scrap of paper that could hardly have come through the post; it looked as if it had been carried from farm to farm and shuffled from pocket to pocket through many districts. Nonetheless, the letter evinced a mental attitude, if you could call it that, which has more to it than meets the eye and which expresses the logic of the place where it belongs but has little validity anywhere else, perhaps. The bishop rattled on while I ran my eye over the letter: And then he's said to have allowed anglers and foreigners to knock up some monstrosity of a building practically on top of the church-tell him from me to have it pulled down at once! Moreover, he really must get round to divorcing his wife. I've heard he's been married for more than thirty years, since long before I became bishop, and hasn't got round to divorcing his wife yet, even though it's a known fact that she has never shared bed nor board with him. Instead, he seems to have got mixed up with a woman they call Hnallpóra, of all things! Is Christianity being tampered with, or what?
Letter to the bishop from the parish clerk, one Tumi Jónsen of Brún-under-Glacier. Main contents: The writer begs indulgence for laziness with the pen, senile decay, etcetera, and is now at last getting down to answering the letter from the Bishop of Iceland, duly received the year before last, containing questions regarding Christian observance at Glacier. Likewise what truth there might be in rumours that the pastor is inadequate to his calling and that parish duties are being neglected; item, has there in recent years been any queer traffic with some unspecified casket on the glacier, and other goings-on of that nature? The parish clerk simply permits himself to place on record his unshakeable conviction that neither in this parish nor anywhere else around Glacier could anyone be found who would not acknowledge that the minister at Glacier, pastor Jón Jónsson, known as Prímus, is a man of gold. Not a living creature in this place would choose to be without pastor Jón for a single day. The whole community would be grief-stricken if a hair of his noble head were harmed. To be sure it is sometimes suggested that our pastor is not overhasty regarding his parish duties, but I venture to assert upon my conscience as parish clerk that everyone eventually gets buried with all due propriety and honour, just as in other places in the country. On the other hand, if any implement anywhere in these parts is in disrepair (because they no longer manufacture anything but rubbish here in Iceland or abroad nowadays), then you come to the crux of the matter where our pastor Jón is concerned: whatever it is that's damaged, be it utensils or machines, ladles or old knives, even broken earthenware pots, everything is resurrected as good as new or better than new at the hands of pastor Jón. I'm afraid that many a rider or motorist in these parts would think it a tragedy if pastor Jón were removed, such an excellent man to have near the main road, always ready to shoe a horse at any time of the day or night, a veritable artist at patching up people's worn-out engines so that everything goes again like new. In conclusion, it's quite true that our church is a little the worse for wear, although in fact there haven't been many complaints; but God is said to be great. No need to elaborate further on that. Your Grace's loving and obedient servant, Tumi Jónsen of Brún-under-Glacier. 2
Emissary of the Bishop: EmBi for Short
When the undersigned had eventually agreed to make the journey, the bishop said: The first thing is to have the will; the rest is technique.
The undersigned continued, for appearance's sake, to protest his youth and lack of authority to scrutinise a venerable old man's discharge of his pastoral duties or to reform Christianity in places where the words of even the bishop himself were disregarded; or what kind of "technique" could one expect from an ignorant youth in such a predicament? What am I to say? What am I to do?
Bishop: One should simply say and do as little as possible. Keep your eyes peeled. Talk about the weather. Ask what sort of summer they had last year, and the year before last. Say that the bishop has rheumatism. If any others have rheumatism, ask where it affects them. Don't try to put anything right-that's our business in the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, provided that we know what's wrong. We're asking for a report, that's all. No matter what credos or fables they come up with, you're not to try to convert them or try to reform anything or anyone. Let them talk; don't argue with them. And if they are silent, what are they silent about? Note down everything relevant-I'll give you the outline in the brief. Don't be personal-be dry! We don't want to hear anything funny from the west; we laugh at our own expense here in the south. Write in the third person as much as possible. Be academic, yes, but in moderation. Take a tip from the phonograph.
EmBi (hereinafter written Embi): If the pastor is always patching up old engines or mending saucepans and forgets to bury the dead so that corpses are taken up onto the glacier, well, can a farce be made less comical than it actually is?
Bishop: I'm asking for facts. The rest is my business.
Embi: Am I not even to say what I think about it, then?
Bishop: No no no, my dear chap. We don't care in the slightest what you think about it. We want to know what you see and hear, not how the situation strikes you. Do you imagine we're such babies here that people need to think for us and draw conclusions for us and put us on the potty?
Embi: But what if they start filling me up with lies?
Bishop: I'm paying for the tape. Just so long as they don't lie through you. One must take care not to start lying oneself!
Embi: But somehow I've got to verify what they say.
Bishop: No verifying! If people tell lies, that's as may be. If they've come up with some credo or other, so much the better! Don't forget that few people are likely to tell more than a small part of the truth: no one tells much of the truth, let alone the whole truth. Spoken words are facts in themselves, whether true or false. When people talk they reveal themselves, whether they're lying or telling the truth.
Embi: And if I find them out in a lie?
Bishop: Never speak ill of anyone in a report. Remember, any lie you are told, even deliberately, is often a more significant fact than a truth told in all sincerity. Don't correct them, and don't try to interpret them either. That's our responsibility. He who would hold his own against them, let him take care not to lose his own faith.
Copyright © 1968 by Halldór Laxness. Translation copyright © 1972 by Magnus Magnusson.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.