‘And what are your plans?’
‘I want to become a person.’
Politics and its ‘criminal’ nature, ideals and reality, the self in the world, patriotism and helplessness of one small country hankering for the approval of an economic superpower … : these are all major themes in the Nobel Prize winning Icelandic author Halldór Laxness’ novel The Atom Station. While on occasion the execution of central ideas does seem somewhat heavy- handed and seeped in perhaps a little over-constructed post-war binary opposition, the messages themselves surely still resonate.
First and foremost (and most successfully in its execution), ‘The Atom Station’ is an apt political satire repeatedly mocking and commenting on the ‘criminal society’ that we live in. Although the contrast of Capitalist versus Communist ideas possibly seems somewhat obsolete and the black – and – white contrast of country versus city life a touch too idealised, the 21st century reader cannot deny that the self-serving political practices remain uncannily current. Time and time again we act surprised hearing about yet another political scandal, or promises broken as soon as an electoral campaign is safely over. Are we really ‘too innocent’ and ‘lack imagination to understand politicians’? Perhaps we simply accept ‘an expedient social system’: willing to turn a blind eye as long as it is useful and/ or does not concern our own individual existence too much; upset and annoyed once inconvenienced, personally. Hence, ‘the thievery that really matters’ perpetually forms an inseparable part of the established status quo. The darkly humorous and sardonic undertone Laxness employs to present the cynical view of humanity and ‘one vast barbarian land’ the world is becoming is well judged; the surreal, absurd and parodic elements pleasantly reminiscent in its social commentary of Boris Vian and Daniil Kharms.
Considering the second decade of the 21st century and its political context, the ideas of patriotism, sovereignty and international relations undoubtedly strike a resonant (dis)cord. The novel’s repeated public concern that ‘the country is to be sold,’ could feature on many a political banner. Laxness’ setting being firmly positioned in the contemporary East/ West divide concerns and power struggles, he emphasises the role and position of a small country at the mercy of an economic superpower promoting its own international interests (somewhat stereotypically) represented by ‘chewing gum’ handing ‘Yanks’. However, reflecting on current affairs, the perception that national history and heritage could be under threat is at once ‘a recent and an obsolete phenomenon’ which serves as a timeless reminder that nations and its ordinary people have always been affected by political forces manipulating the public attitudes to serve its own agendas; not least in their own countries. Nevertheless, in true philosophical spirit, Laxness presents a hopeful view: a view not ‘to confuse countries and politics’; a view that the spirit of a nation and its people cannot be vanquished by premeditated political rhetoric ‘in a slightly different sense.’
To demonstrate his ultimately hopeful messages, Laxness uses the contrasts of country juxtaposed with city and north in opposition to south. The idealistic vision of what is unspoilt is represented by ‘an innocent girl from the north’: the focal character Ugla. Inconspicuously witty and sarcastic and, on the surface, self-deprecating and meek, she stands for the voice of the people. As she asserts herself standing up to her pretentious, judgemental and socially unaware employer ‘I am people.’ While Ugla recognizes the unequal clash of ‘the two worlds in which we lived’, she is seen as proudly certain in her own principles and durability whereas her mistress may live a life of comfort but her existence is in essence metaphorically ‘made of porcelain’. Her way of life cannot last and will shatter at the slightest oppositional blow. Like many other authors of the period, Laxness emphasises the importance of social responsibility in the modern world ‘as anyone has duties towards anyone’. The order based on divisions is bound to collapse.
Perhaps predictably, Laxness not only uses a country girl but also art(ists) and nature as the idealised symbols of what is archetypally pure and carries a promise of a better society. The poets of the Romantic movement in particular (but not exclusively) are used as a short-hand for patriotism, individuality and misunderstood ‘most wretched outcasts’ of the world. The recurrent motif of the bones of ‘The Nation’s Darling’ (Jónas Hallgrímsson) being re-buried in his native country is used as an example of political misappropriation to function as a public image of national identity and appeasement of the disillusioned masses; an empty propagandist gesture to disguise political decisions benefitting the selected few. Similarly, pastoral settings of hills are (somewhat conventionally) utilised to represent the idealised simple past and the lives of noble peasants in opposition to ‘sterile towns folk’. Regardless, although not unique, nor original, Laxness’ symbolic use of horses ‘like a storm incarnate’ as the epitome of beauty, freedom and indeed spiritual elements of wilderness and renewability of nature is rather striking. So much so, that I would argue this metaphorical section of the novel to be one of the most outstanding in its craftsmanship (and its literary nod to Romanticism and its ideals).
Nevertheless, the novel as a whole, in my opinion, attempts too much: both in terms of themes (such as the unmentioned religion, love, or gender representation) and forms. Possibly, to a degree, there is the issue of work in translation. Possibly, Laxness attempted merging of an epic Nordic saga with decidedly modernist forms to create a sense of universality and congruent flow of human experience to structurally underpin the central message that ‘the whole world is one atom station.’ Perhaps, there could have been fewer tributaries.