Iceland's Most Poetic Murderer
I’m sitting with Bjarni Bernhardur. Twenty five years ago, he butchered his landlord to the sounds of Louis Armstrong. Today, he’s invited me over to drink some tea, eat some salami, and hear about his life.
Like a lot of rotund old dudes living out their pension dreams, these days Bjarni smokes a pipe, writes poetry, takes regular walks, and smells like leek soup. But before becoming a murderer, Bjarni was a moderately successful poet. It's a career he's taken up again as a way of coming to terms with the tragedies that have dogged his life. Everyone in Reykjavik knows him—he stands out on the corner of downtown Pósthússtræti shouting “Poems! Poems! Come and get your poems!” on Mondays, Wednesday, and Saturdays. Go find him.
Back in 1986, when Gorbachev and Reagan met in Reykjavik for the summit that would mark the beginning of the end of The Cold War, Bjarni Bernhardur was just up the road, caught in the midst of one of his frequent LSD-fueled psychotic attacks. He tells me this well-rehearsed tale of how he sat at his bedroom window and watched the two private jets flying in from their respective datelines for that historic meeting. To him, this summit seemed a dire portent of some fascist conspiracy. While Gorby and Big Ron chatted nukes and a new world order, Bjarni paid a call to his landlord who, in Bjarni's visions, had morphed into an undercover Fuhrer working in cahoots with the Soviet Union and America. Once the landlord let him in, Bjarni asked if they could listen to some Louis Armstrong. Then it all got dark.
Bjarni had had a troubled childhood followed by an endless adolescence spent on huge amounts of LSD in Copenhagen’s notorious Christiana district—a self-governing hippy Atlantis which the government officially de-cooled in 2011.
After meeting God during a particularly revealing trip, he lost it. It became clear to him that everyone he met was a secret agent acting in the name of an imminent fascist apocalypse that was being orchestrated in unison by all the world's leaders.
As his drug habit increased and his behavior became more erratic, he found himself in and out of mental wings in Copenhagen, Oslo, and Reykjavik. Now that he was certified crazy, the state started giving him generous welfare to try and help him build up a life on the straight and narrow. Bjarni instead took the money and went on another drug binge around Europe, falling asleep in Paris, waking up in Greece, and twice getting booted out of the UK at the border after turning up in the midst of a psychotic episode.
Eventually Bjarni lost the steam to keep moving, and found himself back in Reykjavik. He'd got into the habit of carrying a knife. “For security,” he tells me, “I never intended to use it. I was always very self-conscious of it, but it felt necessary.”
Back at his landlord's place, he was proving awkward company. Bjarni wasn't really sure why he'd come, and his landlord had only really let him in out of politeness. It was when his landlord turned his back and leaned over the record player to put the needle on “What A Wonderful World”, one of Bjarni's favorite tunes, that Bjarni was overcome.
“I'd been having these strong feelings of fear and danger ever since Gorbachev and Ronald Regan had arrived in Iceland,” Bjarni recounts, “it felt like it was the final stage of something. I'm not even sure why I went to my landlord that night, all I remember is that when I got there, everything just collapsed in my head. I somehow connected my landlord to my conspiracy theory, to the arrival of the leaders in Reykjavik... I assumed my landlord to be the leader of a fascist terror group...”
Bjarni plunged the knife from his pocket into his landlord's back and exacted one of the goriest murders in Icelandic history. “He was wearing a big coat. He didn't see it coming. I just went for him. Again and Again. I did some terrible things to the body. I think, looking back, I didn't need to do all of that. I stabbed it over and over again. Mutilating it. I stuffed something in its mouth. In my mania I smeared his blood on the walls—I used it to write the names of the terror groups I assumed to be involved. Nothing had happened before that. We'd not argued. Even now I'm not sure why it happened. I just thought he was Hitler.”
It's lucky for Bjarni that the people of Iceland are a forgiving bunch, and now—after two years in Icelandic jail and another two in a Swedish mental unit—they're helping him turn his vice into virtue, his evil into art. He writes and publishes the poems that have made him famous on home turf and paints the many colorful abstracts that pepper his bedroom walls. After he's finished telling me the story of how he stabbed a man to death, he shows me some of his lovely paintings of swirls. They're OK. For some reason, Icelanders have a peculiar fondness for Bjarni and his sad tale. Apparently Baltasar Kormákur, director of the acclaimed Reykjavik 101, is making a movie of his life now, which weirdly feels a bit like justification for the killing. “My story is a tragedy,” says Bjarni with an odd sense of pride, “but it's one people always love to hear.”