The US Naval Air Station in Keflavík, which operated for 55 years before closing in 2006, has cast a long shadow over Icelandic culture. Before the advent of Icelandic media other than state-sponsored radio, American Armed Forces Radio and Television was the country’s main window into the wider world of pop culture.
If one looks at the generation of Icelandic artists that grew up in the decades after the war, the American presence is everywhere, be it in the novels of
Einars Kárason and Már Guðmundsson, the films of Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, and the songs of Bubbi and Megas. But, it is perhaps best captured in Einar Kárasons’ first trilogy, as represented in the books’ titles: ‘Devil’s Island’ (this being Iceland, of course), ‘The Golden Island’ (referring to the post-war boom) and ‘The Promised Land’ (a semi-ironic allusion to some of the characters’ relocation to America).
The Birth of TV
Two examples of the new batch are Icelandic journalist Haukur Ingvarsson, who published his first novel ‘Nóvember 1976’ last year, and Norwegian writer Mette Karlsvik, who wrote ‘Bli Björk’ (which could be translated as “Become Björk”), also published last year.
Haukur Ingvarsson, himself a presenter at RÚV State Radio, focuses his novel on television. A repressed housewife breaks the family TV and her son tries to procure a new one, first hoping to buy it with money raised by smuggling beer (illegal in Iceland until 1989) out of the US Station and later by stealing a set from the Americans outright.
In between, we get flashes of the history of the groove tube in Iceland, from the Armed Forces Broadcasts in the ‘50s to the beginning of Icelandic television itself in 1966, and the glorious advent of colour TV in the year of the title. The book begins rather symbolically with TV sets going off in every window of an apartment building at the moment the evening news begins, and ends with the radio waves leaving Earth and heading into the universe.
The Romeo and Juliet of Keflavík
Mette Karlsvik’s book is a work of fiction based on the life of singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir. Karlsvik also works as a journalist for the Norwegian daily “Dagsavisen,” and the novel is as thoroughly researched as it is poetically phrased. As all good Icelandic sagas do, it begins with the ancestors of the titular character, her grandfather Gunnar and her mother Heiða, but most of all her father, Guðmundur.
Guðmundur (from whom Björk’s surname is derived) is born in 1945, the year World War II ends and the year after Iceland declares independence. Guðmundur and Heiða are an Icelandic Romeo and Juliet of sorts; love draws them together, but the Naval Station pulls them apart. He is an aspiring electrician who works on the Station alongside his father, and she an aspiring hippie who proudly wears her “Iceland out of NATO” badges and participates in protests against the damming of a river in the countryside.
A Björk is Born
Björk is born a year before Icelandic television begins broadcasting. Like a character out of a Gunther Grass novel, a young Björk walks around beating on a tin drum, announcing her arrival at her parent’s respective households with loud singing. She wears American rubber boots and listens to Julie Andrews while turning her immediate surroundings into a wellspring of sounds, tapping on hot water tanks or kitchenware, claiming this to be music. Her father disagrees, however, and gives her a Beatles record instead.
We look on as the child slowly discovers the larger world through television, wondering whether the Americans and the Russians will start fighting in space and learning to tell the difference between images of Sæmi Rokk, a swing dance champion and Bobby Fischer’s bodyguard, and Boris Spassky, the defeated Soviet champion, during the world chess championship in 1972
Alcohol and TV
Much like Mette, the older Einar and the younger Haukur purport to tell Iceland’s post-war history through a family saga, and, to paraphrase Tolstoy: All unhappy families are unhappy in their own particular way.
Einar’s trilogy focuses on the dislocation as well as the opportunities available in the post-war years. The poor of Reykjavík moved into abandoned military barracks, which were then littered around the city, and many women left the country with American soldiers, sending back-stories and presents from the land of wonder. Still others fail to find their place in this brave new world and become cheaters, drunkards and thieves.
The situation in Haukur’s ‘November 1976’ is less colourful in its ups and downs; it’s more quietly desperate. Small wonder then that everything centres on the colour emanating from television, and that this would be the perspective of someone writing many decades later. The US military may have left and we no longer need to break into the Station to get beer, but it is precisely the American influence on culture rather than the cityscape that is most enduring.
The barracks in downtown Reykjavík are long gone, but we still have television.
It is only from the Norwegian perspective that the people in post-war Iceland, at least some of them, find their own way. Björk grew up with her father’s American influences and her mother’s opposition to them and her search for refuge in Iceland’s nature instead. It was the offspring of this combination that became the first Icelandic artist to truly conquer the English speaking world.
Where Einar’s characters succumb to drunkenness and Haukur’s to boredom, Mette’s eventually sit perched on top of the world with Iceland proving to be more of a golden island than a demon one in this case.