An exhibition to be held this summer in Europe will shed light on an author much beloved in Germany and Scandinavia, who might still become as beloved among English-speaking readers. A traveller who left his native Iceland, yet never forgot it, a convert who became a Jesuit priest, a scholar who would inspire young readers and who is now revered even in Japan, Father Jón “Nonni” Sveinsson will soon get his due in the country where he would finally rest his bones.
In Cologne, Germany, on June 18-30 there will take place an exhibition of Nonni's life and work at the “DOMFORUM” (Cathedral Forum) – a cultural and information center and meeting point for tourists and citizens likewise - located in the very center of the city. It is next to the famous landmark “Kölner Dom” (Cologne Cathedral).
The exhibition is called “Nonni. Leben und Werk (Life and Work). Jón Stefán Sveinsson (1857-1944)” and recounts Nonni’s life and work by means of photo panels plus text. It will be opened on Saturday, June 18, at 4 pm, by Gert Kreutzer (University of Cologne, Dept. of Nordic Philology) and the Icelandic author Kristín Steinsdóttir. At 5 pm, the first part of the TV series “Nonni und Manni” will be shown at Domforum Cinema. One week later, Saturday June 25, at 3 pm, the actor Axel Gottschick will read from Jón Svensson’s book “Nonni und Manni”. Admission is free.
The background for this exhibition are the so-called “Internationale Kinder- und Jugend¬buch¬wochen” (International Children’s Book Weeks) that have been organized in Cologne for many years by a Cologne savings bank foundation and several municipal and Catholic institutions. This year, these weeks are dedicated to Iceland – Nonni’s homeland – which will be the guest of honor at the famous Frankfurt Book Fair, the most important of its kind worldwide. It will be held October 12-16, 2011. Iceland’s motto at the fair is “Sagenhaftes Island” (fabulous Iceland), implying the many sagas, fairytales and myths – and of course the famous Edda.
Speaking about “children’s books”, Nonni must not be left out, of course! Besides, there is a strong bond between Jón Sveinsson and Cologne. Not only is he buried at the famous and ancient “Melatenfriedhof”, but in the district of Köln-Ehrenfeld there are also three “lively” “Nonni memorials”, namely “Nonniweg” (Nonni lane), “Nonnibrunnen” (Nonni fountain) and the “Nonni-Club” for children. These “memorials” were set up in the 1960s by Rev. Hermann-Josef Hieronymi who was a great admirer of Nonni and most likely met him personally when he was a student. The 12 Nonni books had fascinated him greatly – as happened to thousands of readers, young and old – and in the end, Hieronymi decided to become a priest like his idol Jón Sveinsson.
In the last century, Nonni had been the best known Icelandic author in Germany – and I hope he will be read again more often by youngsters and grown-ups. Maybe – hopefully – the exhibition and the movie will kindle the visitors’ interest to find out more about Jón Sveinsson. His 12 adventure books, i.e. more or less his autobiography, are indeed worth reading. However, the originals are only available at online bookstores, because they have long been out-of-print. In 2007 and 2008 though, and commemorating Sveinsson’s 150th birthday, the German Catholic publisher Herder edited two modern “Nonni and Manni” books, selecting a few of the adventures and changing the language and layout cautiously. My hope is that Herder will continue in this manner.
What I like most about the “Nonni books” is the clean and simple language and the fascinating way in which the author Jón Sveinsson takes the reader with him right into the story: you can picture yourself in the middle of the beautiful and breathtaking Icelandic nature and you feel being part of the whole adventurous plot! Most stories are very thrilling and even dramatic – and at times also sad and even cruel – yet there is no ugly or shameful vocabulary which in modern books – even children’s books – can be found today.
“Friendship” and “family ties” are also very important in Jón Sveinsson’s books and last, but not least, Nonni’s, Manni’s and their mother’s absolute trust in God is exemplary and catching! This is the main reason why I wish that Jón Sveinsson’s books should be re-edited in a modern way so that also today’s readers – young and old – would find them attractive, therefore would enjoy reading them – and also find trust and peace in God.
Another point is that Sveinsson’s stories are great “read aloud tales” – for instance at bedtime or by grandparents when visiting with their grandchildren. As “Nonni” lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries, life was completely different and Iceland was one of the poorest countries. Parents/grandparents could discuss with their kids all sorts of interesting historical, social and technical facts and circumstances based on the “Nonni books”.
A very good example of the religious content of Jón Sveinsson’s books is the title “Lost in the Arctic. Adventures of Two Boys” – a dramatic story whose outcome was decisive for the future of both Nonni and Manni: being in mortal danger at sea, the two brothers aged 11 and 7 promise God to become missionaries if HE saves them from death! They had heard that sailors in great danger used to make similar vows – and as the boys feared they were about to drown, they were sure only the Good Lord could save them.
And HE did – and the brothers first converted to Catholicism and later became Jesuits! - It is the only Nonni book that was translated into English in 1927, but the version of 1958 is preferable because its English is a bit more modern. Still, for readers of the 21st century, a newer translation would even be better, especially as these old books are out of print and are hardly available any more.
Before eventually re-editions of some or all Nonni books might appear on the market, the TV series “Nonni und Manni” might be a solution meanwhile, but only the 3-lingual DVD set released in 2009 in Iceland – because it also covers the English language. Although this movie is not a genuine Jón Sveinsson biography, it is based on his complete work, even though some scenes have got nothing to do with the original book.
Finally, I do hope that Nonni’s adventures will be translated into modern English so that also American readers - and other English speaking countries - will have the chance to get to know them. Interested publishers or even readers should ask Iceland - at Frankfurt Book Fair this year!
Friedrika Priemer is a literature enthusiast who writes from Cologne, Germany.