Every month, a group of friends and I choose a book from a different country or region and discuss it on Instagram. This month we settled on Iceland and Greenland. I’ve read only one book partly set in Greenland (“We, the Drowned” by Danish author Carsten Jensen – a marvelous book by-the-way) but nothing taking place in Iceland. I decided to pick up “Atom Station” by Halldor Laxness (who before researching Icelandic literature I must confess I had never heard about). This is one of his most controversial works which got him blacklisted once upon a time in his own country. It is a satire of the political class of Iceland shortly after the Second World War, for it was written in 1948.
This is the story of Ulga, a woman in her early twenties, native of a village in northern Iceland, who moves to Reykjavik to work as a maid in the house of the member of parliament for her district. She dreams of saving enough money to afford lessons to learn how to play the harmonium and play it at the church her father is building in her village. She is not very educated and somewhat naïve, but outspoken and determined. She will take offense from no one, not even her snobby employer. In the course of the story she will encounter all sort of strange characters; men who claim to be gods, an Atom poet, an anarchist music teacher, a snobby prostitute named Cleopatra, policemen who are thieves, and priests with strange beliefs. The story is a wild ride infused with dark humor and mockery of upper classes and religion. But overall, a feminist story. While many authors believe that women characters must be constrained by moral conventions of the time and show a subtle sense of empowerment, Laxness has gone full-on into creating a heroine like no other. She is determined not to be a damsel in distress no matter what life throws her way and emerges like a savior of her loved one. She is the knight in shiny armor rescuing HIM from the pire.
However, it is not an easy read. It may be because of its satirical elements, it’s unpredictability or maybe even the more-literal approach to translation. But, let me tell you something. Since I put it down I have been fighting the urge to re-read all over again. It is mesmerizing and a true work of art. Well, I guess they don’t hand out Nobels for nothing. Recommendation: read it, laugh and re-read it. Repeat as necessary.