A Letter From Iceland - The Reykjavik Grapevine

A Letter From Iceland

A Letter From Iceland

Published June 24, 2009

Reykjavík, April 18, 2009
Subject: Grant Request
To: The Royal Literature Fund of Great Britain
From: Skallagrímur Daðason, writer, Iceland
Dear Sir/Madam
Although this letter might, admittedly, seem a bit strange to you when you commence reading, I assure you that its content will become crystal clear on completion, and I am absolutely certain that you and your institute will understand my point of view when everything is taken into account: politics, history, metaphysics and the essence of literature.
Let me say that this letter is not written on a whim; I place each finger carefully on the keyboard and consider every word like it was made of precious jewels. I am hopeful that you will see fit to more than seriously consider the following request, and which I must add is truly a humble one under the circumstances, although I have taken a certain initiative in writing this letter. Given the fact that it is among the duties of your institute to support literature, writers and their work, albeit be it normally in Britain and not the island from which I am writing (Iceland, recently labelled a terrorist state by your country), it is my belief that the very nature of the work of which I speak addresses your institute and indeed your very culture in such a direct fashion that even the most escapist and flighty reader would not be able to divert his or her eyes from it.
Let me digress. Not just for my mere affection for digression but to show what is and what is not, so to speak.
In discussing the function of literature and its connection with the politics of our nations, I refer you to the case of the Viking poet Egill Skallagrímsson and his poem “Head Ransom”, written in the ancient kingdom of York in Great Britain in celebration of the cruel king, Eric Bloodaxe. Eric had sentenced Skallagrímsson to death. To save his life Skallagrímsson composed a poem in praise of Eric, thereby reversing his fate. Eric pardoned Skallagrímsson when he recited the poem to him on the very day he was supposed to be executed. You will see that words have been quite powerful in the relations between our nations and regardless of whether the poet writes of his own initiative or not, he has been historically well rewarded, even with life itself.
At this stage you might be thinking that my literary work (and I hesitate still at this point to give exact information on the nature of my work) cannot be in every way comparable with the poem the Viking poet wrote to save his life. You might even be thinking that many a times modern man can, when comparing himself to ancient historical characters, seem less important or even trivial in some way. To paraphrase: that modern man’s dictions, in contrast to those of a man writing to save his head, can appear to be mere “whining” – the complaints of a “spoilt brat”. But what is life and when can one be considered to be saving it? Is our present state of living less vital in any way and have the words lost any of their essential meaning? If on the night he composed his poem, Skallagrímsson can be thought to have spent his time extremely well, when can modern man be thought to be spending his time well and when is he just wasting it? I, for one, consider myself to be using my time well; each time I press a finger on a letter on the keyboard it is with passion and conviction. Each letter is worth something, albeit be it not my entire life, each word has at least a part of my soul in it.
This brings us to the subject of time. “Time is like water”, reads a famous line from an Icelandic poem. What a ridiculous notion! Time is nothing at all like water! There are no evident similarities whatsoever between the two. For instance, time is not wet and water cannot be measured by a clock. And water is not relative as Albert Einstein claimed time was. There is no theory on the relativity of water. Does that not show how poetry can at times be void of logic? However, more than the theories of Einstein, I tend to agree when people say: ‘Time is money’. This is more in accordance with the logic of poetry, given that water is money as well, i.e. if you sell water to someone in a bottle, you get money for it. And whatever you do for a living, be it selling water or writing literature, you are selling your time for money.
This is how the logic of poetry works, on a deeper level, drawing similarities between seemingly remote objects by various methods:
A chattering rose spread its wings and flew.
A full moon came peeking from behind a cloud like the vacant eye of a lost political god, gazing upon the lovers as they strode, watched, down the street.
A speck of snow falling on my nose is like a whisper from the lips of angels.
All these metaphors, which I have invented for the sake of argument (as well as merely to include some metaphors, if you will) are worth money, however vulgar this may seem at first glance. In fact they might well form a part of the work of art to which I refer, to say no more. Even Shakespeare wrote for money.
Of course time – as well as similes and metaphors – is often wasted, spent in vain. Think of other noble notions on par with literature, such as love, religion or metaphysics. I am in fact of the opinion that every work of literature should include love, religion, metaphors, aesthetics, metaphysics, and politics. This is a decisive list and I do not make exceptions in my own literary work that consists exclusively of short stories that pertain to a subgenre of my own invention. I have taken a Borgesian line, lending my stories an aura of something else than straight fiction, at risk of somewhat narrowing my number of readers, even extensively so. Now, love is often a waste of time. People fall hopelessly in love, think compulsively of their love object and love it even more if they cannot have it. Surely in this way they are spending money, as time is money. The metaphysics of whining are a source of endless thought. The complaints and whining of a lover can in some cases seem somewhat similar to those of writers and their writing; I mean that both include a certain degree of desire and when considering the metaphysics of complaining (and I must insist that I would never complain or try to force my will upon anyone) they seem to be somehow compatible. Religion is obviously time-consuming for those who practice it and it also costs money: the time people spend going to church makes up for lost work hours, they perhaps take the bus and drop their change in the collection plate. So you see that when everything is taken into consideration, all dignified things, be it love, religion, literature or time, are connected to money. Money does not make even the most noble notions any less respectable – least of all literature.
And money is perhaps, metaphysically speaking, closest to the core of this letter, if you will. Let us now pause to think about the thing closest to money: politics. As you may or may not be aware, your country, Britain, has made use of its laws on terrorism against my country, Iceland. The politicians responsible for this being Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. The Icesave accounts have gained a somewhat notorious reputation. Icesave was an Icelandic bank in England that went bankrupt, leaving enormous debts owed to individuals, local councils and charities in Britain. Gordon Brown used the terrorist law against the tiny nation of Iceland to freeze the assets of all Icelandic banks in Britain. The results? Some say it has led to the nationalization and fall of all the banks and most recently the fall of Baugur Group. Personally I am not so sure about that, but certainly we, the Icelandic public, and our children now owe an exorbitant sum of money to the British state, the former debts of about 30 Icelandic bank tycoons and millionaires. Our bank system, now collapsed, was so much bigger than the state that there is no chance of the public ever paying this back, even if we were to become slaves (here we call it Iceslave) for about twenty years.
I will add that as a writer who writes in the tradition of Egill Skallagrímsson I am not in the least worried about this. Worrying is another form of wasting one’s time and a waste of time (or water, for that matter) must never, ever be directly associated with literature. However, all my sympathy lies with British charity organisations as well as the Icelandic public. If I were to write to save my life, metaphorically speaking, in the eyes of an English king or, rather, the British public, I would point out that I have at least gone out to the streets along with thousands of other Icelanders and protested against both the government, financial institutes, and business tycoons. The demonstrations here are called “The Kitchen Revolution” and consisted of grouping in front of public buildings and making an enormous racket with pots and pans whilst chanting slogans. Professional percussionists joined in and this made for wonderful music, to which I myself have played my part with a casserole dish. The music is working, the government has fallen and the millionaires are intimidated; I address the subject of music and discuss it in detail in a letter to another institute, but suffice it to say, by way of an apology to the ill treated British citizens, that at least many of us here are protesting, which is more than can be said of the British public, as far as I know; that is to say, until the G20 demonstrations. Should a poet or a human being not be rewarded for his or her efforts and life at least spared?
I considered to send an application to an Icelandic institution but then came Icesave – and not only Icesave, also it seems that the now nationalized bank Kaupthing owes her majesty the Queen of England in person a huge sum of money for rent; it seems she owns some buildings in the West End of London which she rented to Singer & Friedlander, a company owned by the idiots and criminals at Kaupthing. So it seems that I, a common man, must pay her majesty her salary! Fuck! Pardon the expression. Should you suspect that I am making some sort of morbid joke in this letter, let me assure you; it could never be as ridiculous as this! We are not amused. I immediately cancelled my letter (actually part of a series) to the Icelandic institute as it now seems much more logical to me that as long as I am paying for Icesave and her majesty, a royal literature fund in England, such as the one you represent, should pay my allowance or reward me in some way.
Thinking back to the times of Eric Bloodaxe, it is a matter of opinion who really has the axe in hand now. I do hope that your respected institute is not in the habit of chopping anything off Icelandic writers, directly or indirectly – symbolically or literally.

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