Two years ago and newly arrived in Iceland, 101 Reykjavik failed to give me the fuel for my romanticised notions of the country. I put the book to one side after reading a few chapters, but over time I recognised that it was impossible to live here and ignore a book that has achieved the most elusive of all Icelandic prizes, international success. It is also impossible to ignore Hallgrimur Helgason.
I again started the book a few months ago and this time found myself a willing inhabitant of Hlynur’s psyche. I realised that Hallgrimur had created one of the more fascinating and compelling characters that I have come across in contemporary fiction.
Hallgrímur is one of the most instantly recognisable ´characters´ in Reykjavik. The ‘pork pie’ hat, the overcoat, the chiselled cheeks, the flinty eyes, the ambiguous smile; all are trademarks of the writer who gave an Icelandic postcode international renown and, through his novels, plays and articles, has established himself as a prominent and lasting figure in the world of Icelandic literature.
Summer had been ‘declared’ (according to tradition, this takes place on the 22nd of April, although it has been known to snow on that day) a few weeks before I met him and to celebrate, Hallgrimur had bought himself a bicycle; he peddled up to Café Thorvaldsen, sat down ready to talk, and we started on Reykjavik 101.
101 Reykjavík wakes up from its coma
“It is a book that follows me forever. Sometimes I get tired of talking about it but one should never complain about success. In the beginning the book didn’t do that well. It had been laying half dead in a coma for four years when the film came out in the year 2000. It was shown at various film festivals, got prizes and was distributed in 22 countries. Then everybody wanted to have translations of the book. There are now 12 language versions; it’s really what I am known for outside of Iceland.”
We talk about the growing international interest in Iceland. It is a subject that he warms to and I ask him whether Reykjavik deserves the reputation it receives.
“Sometimes I really can’t understand why, because on your average Tuesday it looks like a small town in Sweden. It’s like Eskilstuna. You go downtown, it’s raining, there’s nobody around and it’s very far from this glamorous image that it’s received in recent years. I guess that there’s something foreigners see that we don’t see.
But I used to hate it as a boy. It was a horrible East European town where nothing was happening and everything was gray and state run and most things were closed. There was only ´One’ of anything: One restaurant, one bar, one hot dog stand, one tree, even only one guy walking around downtown. He’s dead now, bless his soul. The pre-war downtown culture had been wiped out and replaced by the horrible suburbs. It was the same old story but here we saw it happen in a bit more exaggerated form. After the war, Iceland finally found prosperity. After a thousand years in isolation, we finally became a part of the real world. And the generation of my parents went on a shopping spree. They wanted everything new; new cars, new hairdos, a new life. They built new houses and tore down the old ones. They had no sense of history; they just wanted everything new. They remembered the poverty, they were ashamed of their origins, and they wanted to be an active part of the new world. The seventies in Iceland were ugly, tasteless and boring. The books were boring, the paintings were ugly and everything we did was a total failure. We lost every football game and the rock bands always came empty-handed home from London. My generation was brought up feeling that we were out of place, a nation of losers; too small and provincial. I mean, we didn’t even have beer until 1989 and the first Icelandic pizza was baked in 1990. In my youth the word “red wine” had an exotic ring to it, a bit like “balsamic vinegar” has here today. We really didn’t feel proud of our country. But now everything has changed. All thanks to Björk, I guess. We’ve gained our self-esteem and our self-respect, a generation has grown up that is more internationally thinking.
At the moment many fine talents are growing up in Iceland. Many bands are getting exposure abroad, every once in a while we make a decent film, our literature is being translated like never before, an Icelandic theatre production is a hit in London, Gudjohnsen has secured his place on the Chelsea football team and the Baugur Group is buying all the shops in the UK. We should be thankful, we should be grateful.” He stops for a pause to reflect, and smiles. “Yes, now it’s very cool to be Icelandic.” He says the word cool with more than a hint of irony.
The country you love to hate
I ask whether he ever feels like leaving Iceland.
“Iceland is a country that you love and hate. Every week you think about leaving. Like last week, when the polar wind blew solidly from Monday to Friday. It was hell and I was thinking: How do the tourists cope? It gets me down and I think of going but I’ve already done that. I was abroad for ten years. I lived in America and it was very uncomfortable in the long run. I guess it has to do with the fact that they have no real national soul. The USA is just too big. And it’s all about money. In the end I just couldn’t stand the commercial breaks on TV. It was driving me nuts. Then I went to Paris and lived there for 5 years. There was nothing happening there. It was like living in the Louvre. I felt more isolated in Paris than in Reykjavik so I just came back. I mean, where else can you live? I went to London the other day. There you have the same weather but no real heating in the houses. All people talk about are royal sluts, all the bars close at eleven and they drive on the wrong side of the road. I think the big cities are just outdated. They are dinosaurs. Too huge and heavy. I don’t want to spend my days sitting on the tube or chatting my way through endless openings and cocktail parties. Reykjavík is small but energetic. It’s big at heart but accessible at the same time. It’s the Palm Pilot of world cities.”
However much Hallgrimur dislikes current American and European culture, he has absorbed a huge amount of it. Much of the appeal of Reykjavik 101 is the stream of fantasies and rants that focus on that troika of mindlessness – consumerism, internet and satellite TV. The book projects a bleak image of Reykjavik, and yet it is not one that Hallgrimur sees today.
“Iceland is the land of opportunities. It’s so small. You can have your breakthrough every week. One weekend you open an art exhibition and the next one you publish a book of poetry or write a play and then all of a sudden you’re a stand-up comedian. Here you cannot live off one success; you always have to move on, you’re always judged by your latest work, or rather by your latest career. It keeps you on your toes, you have to continue creating. It’s a good thing.”
Without doubt Hallgrimur has thrived in this environment. He is by training a painter who has shown at over fifty exhibitions. There are five published novels, three plays and a staggering 5,000 articles to his name. He has a ‘voice’ and he is not afraid to use it. He also has Grim.
The Grim truth
Grim is a cartoon character that Hallgrimur created in Paris in 1995. In those days Grim ‘spoke’ French and was used as a weapon to attack the Art Establishment in Paris.
“Grim is my alter ego, my other self, he resembles me a lot and in many ways I wished I had spent more time on him. I’ve had three solo exhibitions featuring him and I have the ‘Best of Grim’ book coming out in June.”
I ask him whether he is ever used for political purposes.
“Well. I did one painting of our prime minister, Mr. David Oddsson, as Grim. This was after he called me into his office where he lectured me for 75 minutes for having written a piece about him in Morgunblaðið, nicknaming him The Blue Hand. The name has stuck with him ever since. He was angry. He was grim. So I did the painting…”
“On the whole David Oddsson has done a good job, though he’s about to ruin his reputation by his weakness for personal revenge. In fact, Icelandic society is the best one the earth has ever seen.” He pauses and I assume that he is about to rephrase or alter the remark but he continues in the same vein. “It is a big statement but it is true. There has never been a society where almost everyone has been provided for. Nobody goes hungry to bed and no one is cold at night. Our healthcare system covers everybody, most people travel abroad three times a year and every home has an internet connection. Our only real problem is the Berlusconian character of the Prime Minister.”
The issue of the day
It seems an opportune moment to raise the issue which is currently dominating the headlines: The new Media Ownership laws. Should the President refuse to sign the media bill?
“Yes. I think it would be a good idea because then we would have a referendum. And hopefully the people would reject this law that is only directed against one man; Jón Ásgeir, the head of Baugur Group. It’s Davið Oddsson’s personal revenge, since Jón Ásgeir hasn’t played by “his rules” and is now funding two independent newspapers and a TV station. It’s not your ideal situation, but we have to think about the smallness of our market. No one else was willing to put up money for these things. If you become too big in a small society it will always turn against you in the end. It’s a classic story. This is what’s happening now and this is why all our biggest names live abroad.
“By the time this interview is printed and read it might all be over, so my words here might be quite meaningless. But I do think that this example is extreme enough: A personal bill directed against one person. And plus: Davíð has crossed the line already. He was even tasteless enough to attack our president openly; calling him unfit to handle this bill. The lowest point in political debate I have ever witnessed in Iceland came when the Prime Minister used the President’s own daughter against him. She works for Jón Ásgeir he said, and that makes the President unfit for his office. By saying that, Davíð also admitted that this law is only directed against one man, contrary to what all his people are saying. And then the blue dogs start attacking the President’s right to refuse a bill from the parliament, even though it’s all there in the constitution. For those guys nothing is holy anymore. We’re only this close from dictatorship. I sure hope the President finally uses this small power he has. If ever there was a need it is now. This is the moment to do it.” He shrugs and sips some water.
And what of Reykjavik’s new talent, how does he see them?
“They are operating in a wonderful environment. Iceland is on a higher level than it was some years back when you couldn’t even begin to talk about Jeff Koons or Matthew Barney when you came home from New York. Up here nobody knew who they were. Nowadays those guys are walking the streets of Reykjavík. But I am curious about the latest output of artistic stuff from the young. The young generation seems so old. Most of those kids are very quiet, very inward, very subtle. They walk around with woollen hats like this.” He makes an impression of a Buddhist monk on the way to the monastery. “They light candles, drink tea and wear no shoes. When they play on stage they make sure you can’t see their face. And in interviews they don’t say much. In Icelandic it’s called the “Krútt-kynslóðin”, The Mild Bunch. That’s their style. It’s OK, but still a surprise to me.”
A black stain on Vatnajökull
Inevitably, the conversation is drawn to Iraq.
“Iceland is stained by the Iraq war. Our traditional position has been that we do not go to war. Actually we have never fought any war at all. I mean, how could we, when we don’t even have an army?!… But this all changed last year when Davíð & Co. got us into the mess in Iraq.
“We know now that this war was fought under false pretences. On top of everything, we have those recent pictures of abuse by the American Army that are totally incredible. That is a BIG SHOCK to the whole Western culture. “We” were meant to be the good ones. But we’re not anymore. And we cannot escape sharing some of the blame.
“More significantly, you have to see those horrors as a product of our western culture. This is what you get when generations bred on violent movies, porn videos and computer games go to war. We have to ask ourselves some questions. Have we gone too far? We have allowed everything. We allow dead stupid violence on TV, brainburning computer games built on rape and murder, gang-rapes shown at “respectable” film festivals… etc… The whole mess has been bred into a couple of generations and we now see it acted out in Baghdad. They can live out their fucked-up fantasises. And it’s all done in our name. Prisoners raped with broomsticks. “With kind regards from the people of Iceland”. It’s the saddest story. One of the single biggest mistakes in our history. A huge black stain on the Vatnajökull glacier. In four years Bush has created more Muslim terrorists than the previous 2000 years of Christianity.”
My mind goes to Hlynur and I ask how Hallgrimur´s character would have fared as a guard in Abu Ghaib prison. Hallgrimur continues – he is on a roll, the words come fast and for the first time his face is animated.
“Morbid as he may be, I think even Hlynur would have been outraged by the atrocities carried out by the “bringers of freedom”. It might be too strong to liken it all to the discovery of Auschwitz, but it is very close and Bush and Blair have to bear responsibility. They cannot say they didn’t know. Hitler could just as well have said he didn’t know about the gas chambers. These guys were stupid enough to create this stupid situation where things like these have flourished. They have to take the blame along with Rumsfeld and the rest. A leader is a leader, at the top as well as at the bottom. If the head is stupid, the limbs can do stupid things. I also believe that our leaders too should take some responsibility. If you side with Hitler, you go down with Hitler.”
So where should Iceland stand in its future relationship with America and what about stronger ties with Europe? He pauses for a drink of iced water. The storm has passed and a smile emerges.
“We’re doing well. We don’t need to plunge into one camp or the other. Maybe we should just relax and wait and be happy.”
We said our farewells as he plonked his hat on his head, wrapped his coat around his shoulders, mounted his bicycle and pedalled off into the cool of a spring afternoon, in his beloved Reykjavik.