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  • Truth and TestimoniesThe Year in Iceland
  • Gunnthorunn Gudmundsdottir (bio)

In 2016 incursions of the “real” were very much in evidence in Icelandic cultural life. Hrafnhildur Hagalín and Björn Thors’s documentary theatre piece Flóð premiered at Reykjavik City Theatre in January 2016, and a related radio series on the same material, which Thorgerður Sigurðardóttir produced, both broadcasted on Channel 1 of the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (RÚV) and was made available as a podcast. The play and the series were based on testimonies from the avalanche that devastated the small town of Flateyri in the Westfjords of Iceland in 1995. The authors interviewed survivors, members of the emergency and rescue services, and politicians who visited the site, and all were given the time to tell their own stories, reflect on the twenty years that had passed, and address their traumatic experiences. In September of the same year another documentary play premiered to rave reviews in Tjarnarbíó, Reykjavik: Sóley Rós ræstitæknir by María Reyndal and Sólveig Guðmundsdóttir, which was based on interviews with a woman who tells the story of her life and culminates in the traumatic experience of a stillbirth. The radio series Sendur í sveit by the writer and journalist Mikael Torfason, also produced by Sigurðardóttir for the same radio station, tells of the many summers he was sent to farms around the country to work as a child and teenager (a common practice up until the 1990s in Iceland), and is based on his reminiscences and his interviews with the people he stayed with. Testimonial theatre and radio therefore appear to be popular in Iceland at the moment, perhaps answering a need for such works that more often than not tell of a traumatic experience. However, as we well know, testimony has long been one of the preferred ways by which we learn of another’s experience and of particular historical periods or events.

Documentary theatre is by no means a recent phenomenon and has popped up in Western culture regularly during the twentieth century, often [End Page 629] associated with some type of political theatre. It is, however, safe to say that it has gained new popularity in recent decades, not least, like the plays mentioned above, so-called verbatim theatre.1 This is not the only indication of the rise of referential literature and art in our times, but one of many, including what has been termed the memoir boom in North American culture2 (also seen in many other areas and regions); the rise (and fall) of so-called “reality TV” in popular culture; and last but not least the digitization of our environment with the advent of social media where users constantly express their “reality” in words and images online.3 The proliferation of autobiographical texts in the last few years in Iceland can be viewed in this context. Iceland has a very vibrant book market, with books being among the most popular Christmas presents, reflecting its high literacy levels and long literary history. Life writing has, however, come very much to the fore in recent years, with many writers, both established and of the younger generation, turning to the genre in the last decade or so. This growth in popularity has many roots and causes, which manifest themselves in a great variety of texts that have in common strong autobiographical resonances and references to the world outside the text, but that vary greatly in style and form.

One possible cause of the rise of the memoir, and nonfiction more generally, is a certain impatience with the genre of the novel in contemporary culture. The Spanish writer Javier Cercas states in the beginning of his nonfiction text on the 1981 attempted coup in Spain, Anatomía de un instante, that he had initially intended to write a novel, but then—because he had read in the paper that many Brits believed Winston Churchill to be a fictional character—he changed his course, gave up on the novel, and decided to write a documentary work instead (13). Karl Ove Knausgård was on a similar path when he claimed...