Published November 22, 2011
“Is he Swiss?” asks a person in the back row. “No, I think he‘s Estonian,” replies another. The man on the stage is, as it happens, Icelandic, and is per-forming at the very underground Frankfurt anti-book fair at Café Exzess. Here, one can attend lectures about anarchist poster art and the history of anarchism in Quebec, say, while the flower of Iceland’s literati chase international publishers around like rabbits in spring in the gigantic and rather air-port-like Frankfurt Messehalle.
Like your erstwhile journalist, [frequent Grapevine contributor] Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl plays both sides of the fence. Here he quickly captures the crowd with his peculiar brand of sound-poetry, performing rather than reading in English, Icelandic and German. Language is rendered largely irrelevant as Eiríkur stakes a claim for poetry as the music of the 21st Century, without the aid of instruments or hooks. Having seen him read for almost a decade on the Icelandic scene, it is gratifying to see him in front of a foreign audience at the top of his game. “I can see he has done a lot of slam-poetry,” says my German friend. Perhaps, but his style probably has more to do with drunken and perpetually attention deficient Icelandic audiences rather than any particular type of event.
A Virtual Island
A few days earlier, the President of Iceland, in front of an audience that included the German Foreign Minister and the Mayor of Frankfurt, presented a portrait of Iceland as a country where the bookshelf is the centrepiece of every home. This comes as news to the group of 30-something Icelandic wri-ters who are crowded around the bar at Café Exzess and whose relatives still hope will someday get a real job. Most of them have fled a country where they never really managed to fit in, and now live among their bookshelves somewhere in Germany, in Finland, in Sweden.
Perhaps Iceland has since its beginning, like other settler communities, been an idealised country, a country where people can see what they want to see. ‘The Saga Island’ gives other nations, tired of their own reality shows and tabloid media, an example to look to. Even if this in itself is mostly virtual.
An imaginary haven
Maike Stommer is a doctor of Political Science who has lived in Iceland and speaks the language fluently. She tells me that while there are several people in Germany well versed in Icelandic culture and literature, she is among the few who have studied Icelandic politics which is why journalists tend to call her asking about such items as the International Modern Media Institute. Everyone loves the idea of a safe haven for investigative journalism and free speech and hence Iceland gets held up as an example to follow. Sadly, this does not necessarily reflect the facts on the ground, where journalists can and do get fined for quoting sources and even other news stories if these are deemed somehow offensive, however accurate they may be.
Icelandic literature, thankfully, fares far better than Icelandic journalism, and the country has more than its fair share of great writers. Some may not always be appreciated as well as they should be, but the book fair in Frankfurt is a welcome opportunity to celebrate Iceland’s finest. We still need so-meone to look up to, after all, and my heroes have always been writers rather than bankers.
The beauty of reading
During the boom, Iceland was seen by many neo-liberals as a shining example of the validity of their doctrine. After the collapse, it was seen by others as an example of its folly. The image of Iceland as a nation of entrepreneurs and financial geniuses was never an accurate one, as we now know. The image of Iceland as a nation of thoughtful readers and writers might not be entirely accurate either, but it is a far better one.
The Icelandic exhibition room at the Frankfurt Buchmesse is widely, and probably rightly, considered the best in years. One can have a cup of coffee and sit down in an old-style sofa among the many bookshelves and pick out a copy of Laxness or Einar Kárason or, indeed, Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, and leaf through the pages while the Geysirs and Glaciers and Lava Fields and Fosses lull by on the walls in the background, as if the entire reading room had been transported to somewhere in the highlands on an improbably warm and windless day. This might not be Iceland as it is, but certainly it is Ice-land as we would like it to be.