The tapestry of Icelandic writing in the 21st century is an ever expanding one. This is largely because although most Icelanders read English-language novels of all varieties, the Western world’s proclivity for literary subgenres has come relatively late to Icelandic publishing.
Still, one has only to look at the success of Icelandic crime fiction, a term relatively unheard of before the last millennium, to see how swiftly the tide can change. New genres always require literary daredevils willing to break from tradition and brave the scorn of local lit snobs. One such author is Valur Gunnarsson, whose alternative-historical novel ‘Örninn og Fálkinn’ (‘The Eagle and the Falcon’) offers the reader an insight into a fantasy WWII-era Iceland under German occupation.
Establishing a secure divergence point
Although most all fiction can be looked at as a way of revamping reality, alternative-fiction authors have a unique challenge before them. They need to create a separate historical dimension that abides by the rules of our own world. As such they must rely on an extremely thorough knowledge of history and the zeitgeists of the times.
“The book’s divergence point from our own history takes place in Norway on April 9th, 1940,” explains Valur. “In the history that we know, the Commander of the Oscarsborg Fortress, which safeguarded the Oslofjord, didn’t await orders before sinking the German flagship Blücher, thus delaying the occupation of Oslo by a precious few hours. In the novel, he doesn’t take this initiative, which leads to the imprisonment of the royal family and the government and an early surrender of Norway. This enables the Germans to move on to Iceland with an intact fleet before the British invasion of the country in May of the same year. It’s a good example of a butterfly effect that changes everything that comes after.”
A protagonist in the family
To set the scene for Reykjavík of the 1940s, Valur makes use of many prominent Icelanders of the time, but he also chose a specter from his own family tree to act as the reader’s guide in this strange land.
“The main protagonist is my grandmother’s older brother, Sigurður,” he explains. “He died in the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, when he was only a boy. In the novel, he survives, and is 26 at the time of the invasion. According to family lore, his parents would never have had another child if not for his death. In that case, my grandmother would never have been born, so this is a world without me, he laughs. “I thought that was kind of neat.”
The disappearance of the Icelandic Nazis
In a similar way, many roles in the novel are played by known Icelandic Nazi sympathisers, who were quite prevalent politically in the tumultuous time leading up to WWII.
“The most renowned of the Icelandic Nazis was probably Gísli Sigurbjörnsson,” Valur says. “He actually later became a well-respected man in the community, and was the administrator of a nursing home in Reykjavík. Naturally, his life takes a very different turn in the book. In real life, the Icelandic Nazi Party disbanded at the onset of WWII, with most of the members joining the Independence Party to try and change it from within. Whether they were successful is for you to decide.”