Published November 9, 2017
I meet authors Valur Gunnarsson and Halldór Armand Ásgeirsson at Fridarhús (Peace House), “the home of the Campaign against militarism,” to discuss Nazis, 9/11 and Icelandic society. Unfortunately for us, it has yet to open and after a few phone calls, we learn that the owner is still 20 minutes away. In the meantime, we get out of the biting cold, have coffee and mull over other potential venues. Journeying to MÍR, the Icelandic-Russian cultural foundation, we end up having a confusing encounter with an Orthodox priest celebrating the 60th anniversary of Sputnik 2 with schoolchildren. Soon enough, we decide that our presence is an intrusion on the ceremony and leave. A last-ditch attempt to gain entry to the Peace House seems to be our only option and finally, we are in luck. The door is open and we settle down for our conversation.
Nazis and 9/11
Valur’s most recent publication, “Örninn og Fálkinn” (The Eagle and The Falcon) occurs on an alternate timeline in which the Nazis arrived on Icelandic shores before the British in 1940. The teetering axis of history, Valur notes, means that Nazi occupation is “something we can imagine happening and would have had profound consequences.” Similarly, Halldór’s new novel “Aftur og Aftur” (Again and Again) considers the impact of global geopolitics on Iceland, beginning on September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers fell.
For Halldór personally, the world began on that day, and arguably it began again for historians after the poststructuralist trends of the nineties. “History is back with a vengeance,” confirms Valur. “I’m so interested in alternative history and chaos theory because it’s so easy to imagine a world where there was no Brexit, where there was no Trump, where in Iceland we have this government or that. History is just kicking us in the teeth constantly these days.”
The Icelandic Psyche
Since the 2008 financial crash, there have been three different governments in Iceland, with a fourth currently being formed. Despite the complete reversal of public opinion about bankers and politicians, both authors believe that a moral and philosophical crisis remains. According to them, this is because there’s yet to be an honest discussion about the complicity of Icelanders in the financial crisis.
Halldór proposes, “We’re still stuck in this narrative of being this very pure and innocent country that was taken by some corrupt, evil bankers and corrupt politicians and they did this horrible thing that we’re all suffering from.” This is expanded by Valur, who reminds us, “Almost everyone believed in the boom until 2007/8. Everyone thought Iceland was the greatest and [the financial system] was almost something for society to gather around.”
The denial of collective responsibility in Iceland over the crisis, however, is nothing new. “I was reading a lot of German authors like Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass [for my novel] and they were saying in 1945 that no one in Germany was a Nazi, ”says Valur. In the process of vilifying a ruling elite, then, it often seems to be forgotten that it ever had any popular support at all. More importantly, the reasons for that support are consciously overlooked.
According to Halldór, “In Iceland, there are lots of atheists who believe in the English Premier League, who believe in the welfare state, and just want the government to take their problems away. That’s why you never see old people in the street and that’s why we drug our children constantly with ADHD medication.” When so much power and responsibility is culturally centralised, an unaccountable, corrupt government does not seem all that farfetched. In fact, Valur begrudgingly empathises with politicians in the modern era. He says, “I wouldn’t want to be a politician these days because the one thing everyone agrees on is that they’re hateful. There’s always unhappiness these days with whatever person comes to power.”
The biggest protest in Iceland’s history may have removed Sigmundur Davið from his Prime Ministership in April of last year, but Halldór says the country still lacks the “foundational morals” to lead it out of crisis. Bjarni Benediktsson’s subsequent government lasted just over a year because of the paedophile scandal, and any new coalition is likely to be unstable from the outset.
The unfortunate reality in these moments of great political flux, Valur notes, is that while there is often great hope that the political landscape will change, as he says, “Very often the opposite happens. This is because everyone has become so exhausted by politics in general that they just vote for whoever shouts the loudest or who promises the most.” In a sense, this helps to explain the return of Davið to the political fold with the Centre Party, who received 10% of the vote share on October 28.
In Iceland and more broadly in the West, it seems that the linear, post-war narrative of progress is dissolving and for the first time in generations, younger people are worse off than their parents. To set Iceland on a path away from chaos and towards progress once more, Valur suggests that politically, “the way forward would be for parties to form electoral alliances so you know which government you’ll be voting for, not just which party.” In that case, Halldór’s concern that “there’s no trust in the parliament and thus, no trust in the society” could be redressed by outlining campaign compromises before elections.
Philosophically, Valur and Halldór have different speculative proposals. Since religion has only maintained and even intensified its value outside of the West, the latter thinks a resurgence in Iceland is a slight possibility, and that it could fill the current moral void. Valur, on the other hand, would like us all to go back to basics. He argues, “All of the things we thought were boring and took for granted in the nineties like human rights and science and democracy should be defended. It’s scary we even have to say that, but they’re worth defending.”
In a post-truth political landscape, there is surely no better antidote than to agree on undeniable facts and work from there. Perhaps the only way to re-establish progress is by taking lessons from the past, and to appreciate the metaphorical value of the Sputnik-celebrating priest. With a common myth and a shared appreciation of the fundamentals, after all, comes harmony. On reflection, maybe our encounter with him wasn’t so confusing after all.
Novels by Valur Gunnarsson and Halldór Armand Ásgeirsson are available now from Amazon and most Icelandic book stores.