The Atom Station by Halldór Laxness

Set in Iceland after World War II when America was trying to buy land to build a NATO airbase, The Atom Station tells the story of a nation in turmoil through the eyes of a young girl from the North. Ugla has come to the capital to work in the household of her Northern MP. She comes South full of the wide open landscapes of the countryside and a love of Icelandic sagas. She hopes to learn to play the harmonium.

What Ugla, our narrator, finds is a city full of people with ideas that have as little connection to reality as the mythical wild horses of her Northern home. The only difference being that the mythical horses may have a weight of history behind them.

Though Ugla finds much that would lean her towards communism, no ism escapes her level-headed observation. She listens to the politicians in her employer’s home and the radical thinkers in the home of her harmonium teacher and treats them all equally, her eyes bent thoroughly on the importance of the basics of living.

Of course there is also love – love within and across social boundaries – offering us an insight into how basic living continues through social upheaval, and offering us a different plot line through which to examine the political lay of the country.

I enjoyed reading The Atom Station, but I felt unequal to it. There was much that went over my head. I felt I would have enjoyed it more if I’d read all the Icelandic sagas immediately prior to picking it up. I felt like the country bumpkin Ugla is perceived as. I was lost in the maze of political and philosophical posturing, even if I did enjoy it.

I particularly liked her eccentric, and flippant, harmonium teacher. For him criminals are politicians without financial backing and he propounds many theories that make the modern ear stand to attention:

“Iceland does not matter very much, when one looks at the total picture,” said the organist. “Icelanders have not been in existence for more than, at the most, a thousand years, and we have been rather an insignificant nation; except that we wrote this heroic literature seven centuries ago. Many empires have been wiped out so utterly that we no longer even know their names, because they did not keep pace with evolution when Nature was seeking a more convenient pattern for herself. Nations are not very important on the whole, and indeed it is at one and the same time a recent and an obsolete phenomenon to think of nations as political entities: to confuse, in general, countries and politics. The Roman Empire was not a country but a particular armed civilisation. China has never been a country, but a particular moral civilisation. Christendom of the Middle Ages was not a country. Capitalism is not a country. Communism is not a country. East and West are not countries. Iceland is a country only in a geographical definition. The nuclear bomb wipes out cities but not geography; so Iceland will continue to exist.” (p171-2)

When asked if he would care that Iceland’s centres of culture might be devastated, the organist replies, “I have always heard that cities were the more valued the more ruins they had.”

It is true that sometimes I feel conscious of Ugla being used as a device to expose the South and I sometimes feel unsettled by this use of her, but the book will stay with me. I will see the hills of the North, the view through the window of the their church, and I will continue to imagine the organist tearing and burning money.

I may not understand it all, but I do admire The Atom Station. It is easy to see why Halldór Laxness won the nobel prize for literature. His characters have a surreal and mythic quality that makes them stand out beyond the time of their creation.

Next week I’m reading Tainted Love by Anna Chilvers.

For those of you eager to discover what the #readwithoutprejudice book was, follow this link…