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The Atom Station by Halldór Laxness

The Atom Station (1948)

by Halldór Laxness

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I was introduced to the work of Nobel Laureate Halldor Laxness by Rory McTurk, my tutor at Leeds University what now seems about a hundred years ago. Although he initially just taught me Old English, Dr (indeed later Professor) McTurk was one of Britain’s leading authorities on Old Norse literature, but was almost as enthusiastic about contemporary Icelandic fiction too.

I fear that Rory’s enthusiasm was not infectious, and although I dabbled in some of Laxness’s works back in the early 1980s, I found I just couldn’t properly get to grips with them. I did, however, feel a flush of fond memories of sipping beer (or even mead) with Rory and his colleague Tom Shippey when I saw a special display of this Laxness book in my local bookstore, and succumbed to a purchase on a wave of nostalgia. I think, on refelction, that that was a mistake. I would have better served my mentor’s memory by returning to the sagas or a quick romp through The Battle of Maldon.

The basic premise of this novel is sound, which was why I fell for the blurb on the cover. Published in the close aftermath of the Second World War, the book revolves around the true story of plans for the United States of America to buy significant plots of land in Iceland on which to establish a major airbase (that would eventually become Keflavik). This provoked major protests across Iceland, which are recounted by a simple country girl who has come to Reykjavik from her home in the north of the island to work as a maid for the family of a member of the Thing, the Icelandic parliament.

This allows Laxness great scope to comment on the bourgeois lifestyle in Reykjavik compared with the maid’s harsh prior existence in the untamed hinterlands. Of course, there is a sort of parallax effect reading this now in Paris in 2015, a perspective from which the Reykjavik of 1948 seems irredeemably lacking in any hint of bourgeois comfort or complacency. The maid’s sense of wonder as she moves through her new environment is certainly endearing.

Unfortunately, the novel has not aged well. The political tension fuelling the historic context should have cut through the gap in time, but the characters now seem hopelessly flat and stilted. Laxness also seemed to try too hard to cast some air of charm or oddness about the family that employs the maid. Perhaps something was lost in translation, but I just found this to be an exercise in misplaced quirkiness that lacked the comic deftness to bring it off.

Sorry, Rory! ( )
  Eyejaybee | Apr 3, 2017 |
One of Laxness's shorter and possibly more accessible books, Atom Station is a satire on post-war society, politics and authority. Even though it is short, it needs to be read carefully, as much of Laxness's writing here stirs further reflection. It is very good at highlighting the clash between the northern Icelandic serving girl and the southern politicians and city-dwellers whose lives and idiosyncrasies are a source of amusement. Often, though I found it difficult to read mainly because of its disjointedness and slightly surreal nature. However, this should not deter me from either re-reading it or attempting some of Laxness's longer novels. ( )
  xuebi | May 30, 2014 |
The context of this novel is that it was published in 1948, when Hiroshima was a fresh memory, and the old alliances of World War II were giving way to the new ones of the Cold War, in which Iceland became vitally important to the West's containment strategy towards the Soviet Union.

By controlling the "GIUK Gap" (Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap), the West could keep the Soviet Northern and Baltic fleets out of the Atlantic. Powerful Britain could be relied on to cover the gap from the Scotland to Iceland, but a NATO (read: American) naval base was needed in either Iceland or Greenland to cover the rest of the gap. Iceland's existing infrastructure and comparatively more welcoming climate made it the far more attractive option.

Thus, immense political and economic pressure fell on Icelandic leaders to agree to a base... the titular "Atom Station" (i.e. a platform from which an atomic war could be started). The Icelandic population, however, was not enthusiastic. For one thing, a NATO base was regarded as an assault on their sovereignty, and it was thought that it endangered the country by elevating it to a high-priority nuclear target. Furthermore, Iceland had attempted to remain neutral in World War II, but was invaded by Britain in 1940, and occupied throughout the war by British and Americans. The occupation was punctuated by a lot of friction between locals and the foreigners, so the prospect of a permanent American presence was decidedly unwelcome.

The domestic politics of this controversy is the backdrop of the story, and a lot of reviews of this novel consider it to be political commentary. Author Halldór Laxness- a self-identifying Communist at the time of the writing- had been a critic of the U.S. naval base in Keflavik, so it's probably fair to read the book bearing that in mind.

But the Cold War has been over for twenty years, and the U.S. naval base in Keflavik was completely decomissioned in 2008, so I found myself drawn to some of the more enduring themes in this short, thoughtful novel. The story follows twenty-one year old Ugla (pronounced "Ooog-lah", according to the preface) from hard times in her small Northern village of Eystridalur to a maid position in the Reykjavík mansion of an Alþingi (i.e. Icelandic parliament) member, Dr. Arland. Through her eyes, traditional sensibilities are sharply contrasted with the cosmopolitan moores of Reykjavík.

traditional sod-roofing in rural Iceland

At first, I thought this was going to be a very clichéd set-up where the poor girl raised the with simple, unassuming wisdom of time-honored custom sees through the materialistic, shallow decadence of the city folk... sort of an Icelandic [book:Heidi|93], maybe. There is some of that, but it is balanced by persuasive counter points. The Arland kids run wild, get drunk, steal things, sleep around, and one of them ends up with an unwanted pregnancy. It's a disgrace, yet Ugla's memories and experience gradually reveal that no debauchery in the city is without a counterpart back in the North country. At first, Ugla is repulsed at Reykjavíkers who seem to lack pride (i.e. self-respect), a sense of cultural heritage, and the convictions of a traditonal upbringing, but when she visits Eystridalur after a taste of the city, she sees how these very things, taken to an opposite extreme, hinder her village and keep it in a poverty which suddenly doesn't seem so noble.

There are a lot of interesting social class contrasts here too. The Arland family is spoiled and wasteful, but also cultured and sophisticated. They play Chopan and other refined foreign music on the piano, quote poetry and listen to jazz, but they don't even know any of Iceland's own glorious sagas- some of the oldest and most dramatic literature in all of Europe. Their eagerness to embrace all things foreign and cosmopolitan at the expense of their own cultural identity is tragic to her "true Nordic" values... yet she grudgingly admits that Chopan is beautiful, and is secretly jealous she can only play a few simple church tunes on the harmonium.

modern Reykjavík

Apart from the topical issue of Iceland's role in NATO, The Atom Station examines more general themes about corruption and hypocrisy in a representative democracy. I haven't read Kazuo Ishiguro's [book:The Remains of the Day|28921], but the vehicle of using a domestic servant's gradual disillusionment with [her] ruling-class employers makes it a natural comparison. The Atom Station was written over thirty years before Remains of the Day. I wonder whether it was one of Ishiguro's influences.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable read; a snapshot of a nation in transition, but also the more timeless story of [book:The Country Mouse and the City Mouse|1034605], set in fascinating and beautiful Iceland.

( )
  BirdBrian | Apr 4, 2013 |
One of the strangest books I have ever read, particularly since published in 1948 (it reads like something from the 80s/90s or even contemporary). I cannot even describe in what way it is so strange. Moved me to tears, invoked fits of almost hysterical laughter and dumbfounded me in uncanny awe. And there are boring bits, and some parts that don't seem to work! Like Under the Glacier, you just think you have got it when the entire meaning of the thing shifts radically. Some of the novel is completely inexplicable and obviously requires deep ethnographic knowledge of Icelandic self-identity. ( )
  Mijk | Sep 24, 2012 |
I found the novel a bit disjointed and unclear, I'm unsure whether I liked it, or if I've given it a fair chance. It is certainly very different from Independent People, and perhaps the Nobel is deserved by writers who can master a wide range of styles, but it felt like a novel that was made up as it went along. I think you need to be more awake to the themes and deeper concerns to appreciate it; as a plot or story it has little to offer. ( )
  rrmmff2000 | Aug 26, 2011 |
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"Am I to take in this soup?" I ask.
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Ég spurði hvort hann vildi þá ekki breyta kirkjunni í hof handa þeim Þór, Óðni og Frey.
Faðir minn endurtók nöfn þeirra seinn í máli og hugsi, og svipurinn mildaðist aftur einsog við endirminníngu horfinna vina: Þór, Óðinn og Freyr. Hafðu sæl nefnt þá.
Alt sem þú biður um skaltu fá.
Já seisei, landsréttindin eru farin, altílagi með það. Reykjanes á að vera sérstakur hvíldarstaður fyrir góðgerðaleiðángra sem fara vestrum og austrum.
Og hverjir sögðu já, spurði ég.
Þú ert valla það barn að þurfa að spyrja að því, sagði hann. Auðvitað sögðu föðurlandshúrrararnir já.
„Ég er búinn að sjá allar myndirnar frá Buchenwald, sagði benjamín. Það er ekki hægt að vera skáld leingur. Tilfinníngarnar standa kyrrar og láta ekki að stjórn eftir að þú hefur skoðað þessa horkroppa á mynd; og þessa dauðu opnu munna. Ástamál silúnga, rósin rjóð á heiði, dichterliebe, það er búið; fini; slútt. Tristram og Ísodd eru látin.“
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When the Americans make an offer to buy land in Iceland to build a NATO airbase after World War II, a storm of protest is provoked throughout the country. This conflict provides Laxness with the catalyst for his astonishing and powerful satire. Narrated by a country girl from the north, the novel follows her experiences after she takes up employment as a maid in the house of her Member of Parliament. Marvelling at the customs and behaviour of the people around her, she emerges as the one obstinate reality in a world of unreality. Her observations and experiences expose the bourgeois society of the south as rootless and shallow and in stark contrast to the age-old culture of the solid and less fanciful north.
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