- The Whole World Is One Atom Station:Laxness, the Cold War, Postcolonialism, and the Economic Crisis in Iceland
Until late 2013, on the website and the menu of Íslenski barinn in Reykjavík (a trendy café in Austurvöllur, the site of the Icelandic parliament), one could read of a dramatic episode.1 On January 22, 2009, a crowd gathered in front of the parliament and demanded the resignation of the government, after the local banks had declared bankruptcy and an agreement to repay the Icesave debt had been signed (Bergmann 2014, 140–6). At one point during the demonstration, as agitation increased and tensions rose, the police used tear gas to disperse the crowd. At the café, shocked customers and waiters looked at the scene, until someone opened the door to the demonstrators in order to protect them from the police’s actions. After closing time, the staff of Íslenski barinn started discussing the events and were struck by one analogy. Icelanders had not witnessed the use of tear gas since March 30, 1949, when a crowd had gathered in the same square to protest against Iceland joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The people of Íslenski barinn thought it seemed like a ghost from the past had returned in the peaceful Icelandic society. [End Page 457]
The fact that the 2009 Austurvöllur episode ended up in a menu, accompanied by a reference to the 1949 events, betokens the parallel shocks such experiences visited upon the Icelandic population. Such a parallel can be better exposed through a literary work by Iceland’s Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness and its Cold War and postcolonial implications. Laxness’s novel Atómstöðin (1948; The Atom Station, 1961) gives a vivid portrait of the starting phase of a network of power relations and economic-ideological positions that arose in postwar Iceland and developed throughout the twentieth century up to the economic crisis that hit the country in 2008. In so doing, the novel strikes the modern reader for its relevance and the similarity between the events it somehow anticipated (such as the protests against Iceland’s entrance into NATO, which occurred one year after its publication) and the conditions of Iceland after the economic crisis.
In order to discuss this relationship between the novel and the contemporary period, this article will start with the socio-political context in which Atómstöðin arose, and then focus on two aspects, namely its nature as a novel of the Cold War and as a postcolonial narrative. Within this context, I will also address Atómstöðin’s relationship to nationalism and its relevance as a postnational novel. In the final part of the article, these perspectives will be used to inform a reading of Atómstöðin in the light of the recent economic crisis in Iceland.
Atómstöɖin and Its Context
Atómstöðin tells the story of Ugla, a young woman from the north of Iceland. At the beginning of the novel, she has just started working as a maid at the home of member of parliament Búi Árland, where US army personnel and local politicians meet to discuss building an American military base on Icelandic soil. Ugla has made plans for her stay in Reykjavík, as she intends to take harmonium lessons in order to play in her village’s church. In reality, one soon understands that her trip has an existential reason. A peculiar organist starts teaching her, but he and Ugla spend most of the time discussing life and philosophy with his friends, among others, two “gods,” Benjamín atómskáld (atomic poet) and Briljantín (Brilliantine), a prostitute named Kleópatra, and a mysterious, self-conscious policeman. After one of these lessons, the policeman and Ugla spend the night together, an episode that results in a pregnancy. Ugla goes home to give birth to a baby girl, but after a while, she returns to Reykjavík, first to Búi Árland (with whom she [End Page 458] has a quick affair), later to the organist, and finally to the policeman, who has ended up...