Sunday, May 31, 2009

Mondays In Iceland - #4

The Atom Station


U.S. Military base, Keflavík

"But the people did nothing. The people are children. They are taught that criminals live in Skólavörðustígur and not Austurvöllur. Their faith in this wavers a bit, perhaps, from time to time, but when politicians have sworn often enough and hurrahed for long enough, they begin to believe it again. People don't have the imagination to understand politicians. People are too innocent."

Halldór Laxness' post-WWII satire The Atom Station has many parallels to the current Kreppa (crisis) in Iceland. As the story begins the country is in turmoil, there are demonstrations in the streets, and foreign powers threaten Iceland's recently won independence. Ugla (the name translates as "owl") is a young woman from the rural north, who finds employment as a housekeeper at the home of Búi Árland: Businessman, Doctor of Philosophy and Member of Parliament. In Ugla's eyes Búi's wife and children are spoiled rotten, symptomatic of the degenerate modern life in the city. When asked as to why she is in Reykjavík, Ugla says that she has come "south" to learn how to play the harmonium for church services back home. As the story progresses, however, she reveals that her real longing is to "...become a person, to know something, to be able to do something for myself..."

She takes "lessons" from a strange "organist" and his suspect circle of "friends." These lessons are as much about the way the world works as they are about music. Ugla also encounters a "cell" of Communists, further raising her awareness. Meanwhile, Búi hosts U.S. military men and members of parliament during negotiations to "sell the country" for an "atom station"- an event which did, in reality, lead to the existence of a U.S. military base in Keflavík for nearly sixty years.

All this inter-twined plot gives plenty of room for Laxness to explore the social issues of the day. Many of them, such as fraudulent deals by sham Icelandic businesses, read as if they were torn from today's headlines. Ugla's faith in the values of her rural upbringing is challenged, but she is ultimately true to it in her refusal to become Búi's mistress. Her decision to start a family with the somewhat shady man who fathered her child, while possibly not the best choice (although he is a Northerner), is a life of her choosing.

This book isn't on the epic scale of some of Laxness' other works, but I found it to be an enjoyable read- and much better the second time after I had gotten a little more background on its setting and themes. It has a much faster pace than most of his others, the whole novel unfolds in less than a year. Laxness again shows sensitivity and insight in handling a female character, and while Ugla is hardly the heroic figure portrayed in Salka Valka, her character has real depth. I've found myself quoting this book on more than one occasion. It might be a bit bewildering at times for the beginning Laxness reader, but it is a solid effort by a truly great novelist.

I'll leave you with these thoughts from the "simple" farm girl Ugla as she prepares to leave home:
"When the peace of Autumn has become poetic instead of being taken for granted...the last day of the plover become a matter of personal regret...the horse become associated with the history of art and mythology...the evening ice-film on the farm stream become reminiscent of crystal...and the smoke from the chimney become a message to us from those who discovered fire - then the time has come to say goodbye. The world-bacterium has overcome you, the countryside has turned into literature, poetry and art; and you no longer belong there."


My Laxness blog-pal Rose has also read and reviewed this book.

By Professor Batty



16 Comments:

Blogger Rose said...

I love that last quote, Batty. I knew you'd have some interesting things to say about the political climate that the book is referencing. Hmmm. Now what? :-(


Anonymous Niranjana said...

I'm having poor luck with my Iceland novels. This time it's Lauren Baratz-Logsted chick-lit novel "How Nancy Drew Saved my Life". Modern-day Jane Eyre goes to Reykjavik as nanny to the Ambassador's daughter. Nice premise, but alas, completley squandered, and no real insights into Iceland or Icelandic culture. I read this book solely for the setting, so I'm very disappointed. Think I'll confine myself to Laxness from now on.


Blogger Rose said...

Well, Niranjana, you saved us the trouble--thanks! ;-) Too many good books to read to bother with one that isn't.


Blogger Professor Batty said...

Niranjana ~ If you read mysteries, Arnaldur Indriðason has written several which capture both the culture and psychology of modern Iceland. Tainted Blood also known as Jar City (Mýrin) or The Silence of the Grave are both good bets. Jar
City has been made into a movie that is pretty good.

Rose ~ Maybe Independent People next winter?


Blogger Rose said...

ooh, good idea. We'll review it and see if our readers notice that we've done it before! And see if we remember if we've done it before! Let's see, have I done it before?


Anonymous Niranjana said...

@ Rose: I live to serve :)

@ Batty: I incline towards cosy English whodunits, but I'm happy to try chilly Icleandic thrillers.
Incidentally, a European mystery writer I like is Jan Willem Van De Vetering--have you tried his work?


Blogger Rose said...

oooh, ooooh I LOVE van de Wetering. I think I've read all his mysteries. You might also enjoy James Melville...


Blogger Professor Batty said...

Hmmm, a another name for my library list...


Blogger Professor Batty said...

... so it seems as if van de Wetering is popular at my library as well, with a several week waiting list for every copy! I made do with something completely different: Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake...


Anonymous Niranjana said...

@ Batty: Oooh, oooh, Lahiri. I can talk endlessly about those books--let me know if you're ever up for that conversation.

@ Rose: Haven't read Melville. And so Mount TBR grows...


Blogger Rose said...

Maybe those of us with blogs should photograph our Mount TBRs and post them :-) My book club students from school wanted to post pictures of their personal bookshelves/bookcases on the book club web page, and it's interesting to think how one's bookshelves might provide a good portrait. I love the term Mount TBR, and now you've got me thinking...


Blogger Professor Batty said...

Who'll be the next in line? I'm not that organized, I usually only read one book at a time, and spend a week or two between books. I go in streaks. I'm having good luck so far with Lahiri...


Anonymous Niranjana said...

You probably know this, but: The Guardian has an ongoing series on writers' rooms--all of which invariably feature overflowing bookshelves. I love matching the rooms to the writing.
Photographs/details of other Mount TBRs would be very welcome indeed. In my case, I have little hills all over the house :)

Glad to hear you're enjoying the Lahiri, Batty.


Blogger Professor Batty said...

I'll post a picture of my Mount TBR sometime next week...


Blogger Maria Alva said...

People here in Iceland don't actually really believe me when I say there are souls out there in the big world who banter and chat about Icelandic novels, just for fun (and some even translate them only for the pleasure it brings!) It's a tickle reading your opinions and reviews, my friends, and very informative too :)


Blogger Professor Batty said...

Maria ~ Well, there may not be a lot of us, but we are really here- with Laxness it's a real pleasure, and the more I discover in my informal studies of Icelandic culture, the more I understand Laxness on each re-reading.

Arnaldur Indriðason's mysteries have shown me a different side of the "Icelandic Mind", very much appreciated as well. I'm looking forward to returning in October...

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