Halldór Laxness - The Atom Station
'Immoral women do not exist'
Immoral women may not exist, but immoral politicians certainly do. Set during the confusing aftermath of the second World War, in Iceland, The Atom Station by Icelandic Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness is a novel by turns amused with the conflicting forces of Communism and American Capitalism amongst the upper-class elite of Reykjavík and the city's idealistic young students, and sadly aware that the pure, ice-cold water that runs through the veins of the stolid peasants 'in the North' of Iceland, may in fact be no match for the encroaching attention of World Powers and the problems that come with being noticed.
The Prime Minister, a man much impressed with the influx of American dollars that have come since the faraway country decided Iceland could hold strategic benefit as a military base, becomes convinced that the will of his people is incorrect, and that only those in power know the 'right' way for the nation. Students in particular, but then the vast mass of Reykjavík's general population, and the poorer peasants in the surrounding small villages and cities, take up protest and give speeches. One “most unlikely” person, had this to say,: “You can impose on us limitless taxes; you can have companies which add many thousand per cent to the prices of the foreign goods we buy off you; you can buy two pliers and ten anvils a head, and buy Portuguese sardines for all the nation's currency...everything, everything, everything, except only this, this, this: do not hand over the sovereignty which we have battled for seven hundred years to regain, we charge you, Sir, in the name of everything which is sacred to this nation, do not make our young republic the mere appendage to a foreign atom station; only that, only that; and nothing but that.”
The Prime Minister's response? “'Eat shit!' said the Prime Minister. 'Though they flog me publicly at Austurvöllour and kick me to hell out of the Government I shall still sell my country. Even though I have to give my country away for nothing, the dollar shall conquer. I know Stalin's a clever man, but he shall not be a match for the Prime Minister of Iceland.'”
But it would be wrong to harp on excessively about the machinations of politics and protest. In truth, the novel is concerned with the topic, yes, and even quite forceful in its arguments against such a thing, but it is more concerned with Ugla, a young, pretty, plucky and intelligent woman from the Northern part of Iceland, who has come to Reykjavík to work as a maid for Búi Árland, a Minister, and to broaden her experience. Ugla is told by the Minister's wife, who takes a sudden and rapid dislike to har, that “You have a faintly educated look about you. An educated girl never has an educated look. I cannot stand an educated look on women. It's communism.”
Ugla has strong feelings for the soil of Iceland, she is a woman not quite earthy or simple, but honest and true. She sees through the cynicism and casual debauchery of the wealthy people around her, and is touched by gestures of kindness, and is herself kind to others. With consummate skill, Laxness creates in Ugla a character who, while being very much of peasant stock, and drenched with the myths and legends of Iceland, is much more than the cliché of the pure, hard-working girl come to show the wealthy and powerful the errors of their materialistic ways. The novel, which is narrated from her perspective, allows us a deep view into her intellectual and psychological make-up, and shows the reader a complete personality, one very much in touch with a culture and history spanning hundreds of years, but who is also excited by the glitter of the city, and the stimulation provided by duelling ideologies and, of course, men.
As the novel progresses, and the debate over the military base intensifies, Ugla enthusiastically dabbles with the Communist Party, she aids a (too) young girl in her love troubles, and helps her again when escape or abortion becomes her awful choice, and she allows herself the pleasure of being romanced by various appealing (and some not so) men, and she falls under the sway of the organist who is teaching her how to play the instrument, and who is quite the figure in the underground intellectual scene of Reykjavík. All this is very well, and follows the classical bildungsroman genre closely. However, what separates The Atom Station is Laxness' clear identification with Ugla's peasant background. For all that she learns in the capital, she never forgets that the wisdom and beauty present in Northern Iceland still has beauty, even if it isn't as exciting. At one stage in the novel, she thinks: “It may well be that this picture of a bird cost many thousands of krónur but, may I ask, could any honourable person, or any person who appreciates birds at all, justify to his own conscience painting a bird sitting on a stone for all eternity, motionless as a convicted criminal or a country person posing for the photographer at Sanðárkrókur? A bird is first and foremost movement; the sky is part of a bird or, rather, the air and the bird are one; a long journey in a straight line into space, that is a bird; and heat, for a bird is warmer than a human being and has a quicker heartbeat, and is happier besides, as one can hear from its call – for there is no sound like the chirp of a bird and it is not a bird a all if it does not chirp.”
Halldóor Laxness' characters are never far from a mention of one of the Iceland sagas or another. They all, though most often Ugla and her kin, refer to great heroes of antiquity, to their famous words and deeds, and they use this cultural 'currency' as a method by which to rapidly impart complex ideas to one another. Great poets and historians are another touchstone, as are important battles and proud warrior kings. History is a part of the present for Ugla and her people, and there is a strong sense that the elite of Reykjavík, who have in their quest for money and power that extends beyond the boundaries of their own small country, are in many ways less tangible and real. Ugla's pregnancy spurs these feelings from the small worries she initially experienced upon arriving in the city to the certainty that the older ways are worth preserving. “I felt within myself all the strange humours which can rage within a woman, felt how this my own body was stirred by the enlarged and intensified presence of the soul, with the soul which was once merely a theological abstraction becoming a component of the body, and life becoming a strange greedy joy bordering on unhappiness as if one were wanting to eat and vomit at the same time; and not only could I see a difference every day in how I was swelling up, but there was also a taste in my mouth which I could not recognise, a glint in my eyes and a color on my skin...”
The administrative aspects of the novel are few and shall be dealt with quickly. It is true that a few of the characters, including Búi Árland and his wife, are not drawn all that clearly, but they fulfil their roles sufficiently and the novel is not overly harmed by these weak points. Magnus Magnusson's translation is readable and enjoyable, with the humour carrying across language and cultural barriers. Any terms and references which may not be clear are amply explained in footnotes, and a handy pronunciation guide is provided for those curious Icelandic names. The Harvill Press edition, which I used for the review, is excellent, and a number of Laxness' other works (all of the major ones, at least), remain in print.
Halldór Laxness' achievement with The Atom Station is to merge the bildungsroman with the political novel, to show the maturation of a young female into a confident woman at peace with herself, and to marry the quite different tone of farce with the serious examination of history, mythology, and the crash of the present with the past. The shifts in the novel are never jarring, and remain grounded in large part thanks to the strength of its central character, Ugla. She is a delight to read and experience, and remains from start to finish a character who is intriguing thanks to the richness of her inner dialogue, and the solid and confident sense of self she displays, even when uncertain.
||The Atom Station
(Original Title: Atómstöðin)
List of Icelandic authors under review
The Guardian (UK)
"for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland"
-Nobel Prize in Literature, 1955
www.haarsager.org (Small hobbyist website)