Not The Knee-Jerk Reaction - Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl on Illska

Not The Knee-Jerk Reaction – Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl on Illska

Published March 12, 2013

Raised in Iceland by Lithuanian parents, Agnes is a history student writing her thesis on today’s right wing populism and its resemblance to the Nazi’s Third Reich. Her boyfriend Ómar carries with him all of his problems from youth, unsolved and silenced, and is incapable of finding himself a fixed existential position. Arnór is an educated Neo-Nazi who gets to know Agnes through her thesis work and winds up having an affair with her. Finally, Snorri is the newborn son of Agnes and Ómar—or of Agnes and Arnór—who slowly but systematically gets to know the complex nature of human existence.

These four are the main protagonists of Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl’s most recent novel, ‘Illska’ (“Evil”), which was awarded the 2012 Icelandic Literary Prize last month. Eiríkur simultaneously tells a number of different stories from the past and present through the above-mentioned characters, who are often faced with the complicated, paradoxical conflict between who we believe we are and who others believe we are. We contacted Eiríkur to congratulate him on his work and ask him a few questions about it.

My first impression of ‘Illska’ is that of the complexity of human society—the seemingly essential state of conflicts implied in human coexistence. Is this something you intended to highlight?
When I had written about half of the book, I realised that at its core it dealt with the phenomena of seeing and being seen. We often think that we alone decide “who we are”—that we are the masters of our existence, capable of being or becoming what we like, and this is true to a certain extent, but we also need others to recognise our ideas about ourselves.

This “fundamental truth,” if we can call it that, is the basis of almost everything in the book—the roles we are given, the roles we choose, and the conflicts between them. In the world’s eyes, Arnór is unrighteous but he experiences himself as righteous. Ómar, meanwhile, appears just to the world, but he experiences himself as unjust. Agnes feels like the world incorrectly associates her with “foreign” mischief and Snorri is discovering all these structures. All of this is then mirrored in the historical dimension—abstractly in the Lithuanian town of Jurbarkas and more generally in the Holocaust, WWII, nationalism, right wing populism and possibly left wing populism as well.

In the foreground is polarisation—this dialogue centred on stigmatising the interlocutors. I push you into one corner and you push me into the other. This doesn’t only change the way we see each other, but it also changes where we stand in the world and what thoughts we are capable of—it changes the way we see ourselves.

Can the communication between Agnes and Arnór then be interpreted as a call for a new method of discussion, one that is different from the predominant political trench warfare?
I want to say yes, as I want to call for discussion, but I didn’t think of it that way. Their interest in each other is for me somewhat of a fetish for the past and possibly an indication of Iceland’s smallness. Agnes can trace her ancestors only a few generations back to WWII. Arnór is a doctoral student who subscribes to a European school of thought regarding nationality and nationalism on quite a “high level.” Agnes has never met a “real” Neo-Nazi and Arnór has never known Jews—they are sort of an archaeological discovery for each other.

And Arnór is quite far from the stereotypical all-stupid-racist-idiot that many would assume him to be…
I’m not sure if calling people idiots is the best way to deal with xenophobia. Quite the contrary, I think there’s good reason to take this fear seriously and discuss it with composure even though one sticks to some fundamental principles and the demand for human dignity, which is not something we just “take ourselves”—we only enjoy it if society is ready to acknowledge that we are worth it.

I realised early on that the book would be in contradiction to itself. And it has been interesting to see how people take out of it what suits them best. Most simply, someone would say that theme A is better than theme B—but then there are more complicated interpretations, for instance that the Holocaust is completely incomparable to anything else or that the book’s main thesis is a comparison of the Holocaust and Iceland’s immigration policies. Both points are far from my thought, although they are brought up in the book. The book also contradicts itself, putting forth different ideas, trying one out before moving to another one, which is often a complete paradox.

Many of the highly political issues ‘Illska’ takes on—refugee and immigration policies, for instance—are mostly absent from Iceland’s political discourse and are instead executed as they follow a certain form of logic. That’s quite dangerous, isn’t it?
It’s very dangerous. It’s remarkable how political issues—those regarding the nation’s participation in real and harsh miseries—are almost never discussed, at least not before elections. This has been the case since I started voting. NATO and the presence of the US army in Iceland were for instance never discussed.

Well, there was a party called ‘Frjálsyndi flokkurinn’ which was infamous for its loud xenophobic rhetoric, but it sort of vanished after the post-collapse 2009 parliamentary elections. In your book, this is indeed a turning point for Agnes, who feels like the xenophobic rhetoric she is studying is eclipsed by the new rhetoric of the collapse.
It’s even possible to interpret the death of ‘Frjálsyndi flokkurinn’ as a lost opportunity for discussion. Although the party’s rhetoric was built on quite shaky ground, there were some parliamentarians and others who were ready to jump into the fray. But they were met with force—I myself almost called for the beating of one of their MPs in a radio column—so the opportunity for discussion was lost. I’m not sure what a proper discussion would have resulted in, and it’s impossible to say because we flinched from taking part in it. But I think this indignation wasn’t the right tactic. We are no better off by silencing unpopular and ethically unjustifiable ideas.

Is the book supposed to change the way we talk? Do you hope that it does anything like that?
It’s important to note that the book is not a political manifesto and was never meant to be one. Its ideas are only the ideas of the book, wherein everything is permitted and the text is allowed to contradict itself. It’s political in the sense that everything is political, but its only agenda is that of the fiction—the hypothesis.
But, of course I hope that it affects readers somehow—that they allow themselves to try the ideas on and discuss them out-loud without taking them too seriously. At the same time, we need to be capable of listening open-mindedly to other people’s ideas, giving them a chance before we talk them down—so that we won’t have a knee-jerk reaction based on who the speaker “is” or who we think he or she is.

Eiríkur Örn Presents A Taste Of Evil

Evil (Illska) is a new novel by Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl about Agnes Lukauskaité, the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, and her obsession with the Holocaust and the extreme right. This is a shortened version of chapter 14. Agnes is alone in Italy on her way from Iceland to Lithuania, trying to put together something towards her Master’s thesis on the extreme right in Icelandic politics.

Agnes was raised on Hófí – Miss World, ’85 – and Jón Páll – The World’s Strongest Man throughout most of the eighties. Hófí was so pretty and Jón Páll was so strong. She so modest and he so bold. She so innocent and he so honest. She so petite and he so barrel-chested and swarthy. Both of them blond and blue-eyed, she like an angel, he like a viking. Both of them so perfect. By comparison, Lithuania just seemed slightly pitiful, somehow. It wasn’t until Agnes had finished high-school that Lithuanians became serious contenders in the World’s Strongest Man tournament, and not until the summer of 2009 did they finally clinch the title. By then Agnes had lost interest.

Beauty contests were illegal in the Soviet Union. Everything seemed so hopeless in Lithuania. Somehow, they always just seemed slightly pitiful. In Iceland, by contrast, lived the world’s strongest man, the world’s most beautiful woman, and they were everywhere – advertising Svali fruit juice and The Non- Smoking Team and all things pure and good, not to mention Iceland itself. But above all, they were virtuous.

Hófí wanted no part in any sort of jet-set life, and the moment she had discharged her duties as Miss World she went back to being a babysitter at her old daycare center. As far as anyone knows, she’s still there.


Agnes had written half a page. She tried to express her stance on nationality. On herself as an Icelander. She tried to answer her own question on whether she was a second-generation Lithuanian immigrant in Iceland, or a first-generation Icelandic immigrant from Lithuania. It was raining outside and the temperature had dropped sharply since yesterday. She was fully-dressed, wearing a thin, white jumper and jeans, and she tried to recall the ads with Jón Páll and Hófí. Because that’s how she remembered them. In the ads. She remembered the ads for Svali and she hazily recalled the Non-Smoking Team – or maybe the B-League World Champions in handball appeared in that one? Weren’t they always kind of hanging around the edges back then? And that made her suddenly remember Bogdan Kowalczyk, the Polish coach for the Icelandic national handball team in 1989, the year Iceland won the B-League World Championship. B-League? Agnes wasn’t completely clear on what that meant, but it didn’t sound quite as glamorous as it should have.


Bogdan Kowalczyk was a former handball champion from Poland. He belonged to that clique of role-models for Icelandic youngsters – but in a sort of marginal way. Bogdan appeared in no advertisements for Svali, not as far as Agnes could remember. He smoked cigarettes perpetually, and was mostly known for being nasty to “our boys”. Or – it wasn’t called being nasty. It was called instilling discipline. Icelanders were children of nature, and in order to harness all those primal forces (from volcanoes, winds, glaciers and the sea), we needed to extend our search as far as Warsaw, Poland. We needed a man who could get angry. Very, very angry. Who could give the nature children what for. Mould them into bona-fide warriors. We needed Iron Curtain discipline.

And anyway, if Bogdan got angry no-one minded, because he spoke such funny Icelandic. And no matter how angry he got, he was never so angry that he wasn’t also funny. He was imitated in every breakroom in every workplace, all around the country. Comedians would work him over at annual gatherings, and occasionally, someone would even have a go at him on the country’s only talk show, Tonight With Hemmi Gunn. But it was all in good fun, of course.

Bogdan Kowalczyk was the closest thing to a Lithuanian role model that Agnes had. But he was Polish, not Lithuanian. And now, perhaps, she had Dorrit Moussaieff, the President’s wife. She was of Jewish descent, not Lithuanian. Agnes hadn’t given a thought to this until now. She’d never felt a connection to either Dorrit or Bogdan. When she was a child, Bogdan was just the weird foreign guy who couldn’t speak proper Icelandic. Like her parents. Like Dorrit was now: “Iceland is the giantest country in the world.” All that stuff. After the fall of Communism, Bogdan returned to Poland. Like Agnes’ parents. Although he left only one year later, while her parents waited for almost a decade. But still. In retrospect, Bogdan owned a bigger part of her than Hófí or Jón Páll.

But none of this had anything to do with her thesis.


Agnes awoke with a start. She couldn’t remember what she had been dreaming about, but she had the feeling someone was watching her. She got out of bed and went to the bathroom to pee. The feeling was unbearable.

She felt as though someone’s eyes were drilling holes in her back. But behind her was nothing but the toilet seat. She wiped herself, flushed and went back into the apartment. She secured the door with the bar, looked out the peephole, closed the balcony doors and lay down in bed again. Goddamn jitters. Whatever had she    been dreaming about? Something had whisked away her feeling of security. And though she knew it was just a dream, she couldn’t shake it off.

It was six o’clock. After lying in bed for almost an hour without feeling any better, she decided to get back on her feet and try to get some work done.


Lithuanians were a thieving lot. They smuggled drugs and raped people. Things hadn’t always been that way, but maybe they already were when Agnes started her thesis, two years ago. When she was little, there were maybe five to ten Lithuanians living in Iceland, not counting her parents. They would sometimes meet to celebrate the Lithuanian National Day – during the first year it was the old one, February 16 (the founding day of the Democracy of Lithuania in 1918), after 1991 they’d meet to celebrate the new one, March 11, and eventually it was both dates. When the Estonians and the Latvians were also invited, the total number might sometimes reach 30. One time, Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, the foreign minister who was the first to acknowledge the Baltic States’ independence, showed up. Some people felt he drank rather heavily and was a bit high and mighty, but nobody ever spoke ill of him aloud.

During the nineties, he was next to God in the eyes of Icelandic Lithuanians.


The Lithuanians grew fast in numbers after the turn of the millennium. According to official records, they were fifteen in 2000. Three years later they were 254. A year after that, Lithuania became a full-fledged member of the European Union, and Lithuanians could freely travel and work within it. Now they were over 1,500. Half a percent of the nation. Like a respectably sized Icelandic town. Suddenly, Lithuanians started popping up in the Icelandic media. All of a sudden Icelanders, who hadn’t shown any interest in the country once they were done patting themselves on the back for acknowledging its independence, began exhibiting an unfettered interest in the citizens of Lithuania. Lithuanians broke other people’s kneecaps, swarmed around in organized crime gangs and robbed stores. They strong-armed honest youths into becoming drug mules. They cohabited, dozens of them to each apartment, drinking and doing drugs and brawling, so that upstanding citizens were positively aghast. It got to the point that you could hardly open a newspaper without seeing some sort of rundown on the “Lithuanian Mafia.”


Agnes was angry at this rap. How Lithuanians were isolated and made into monsters. She was angry that there was never any talk of “Icelandic” pedophiles and “Icelandic” leg-breakers and “Icelandic” rapists. Most of all she was angry at the way that Lithuanians were turned into a faceless, nameless mass of bad intentions. Even Icelandic criminals were named something, were something. They were small-time crook Lalli Johns, leg-breaker Annþór Karlsson, pedophile Steingrímur Njálsson, rapist Bjarki Már, drug dealer Franklín Steiner. The Lithuanians were just the Lithuanian. The two Lithuanians. Five Lithuanians. Nine Lithuanians. Fourteen Lithuanians. And somehow, they all seemed to be jammed, ass-to-nose, into the same apartment, even though they were big-shot international criminals who smuggled dope, hookers and weapons for multimillions per day. Where was lovable small-time crook Vytautas? Rolandas the friendly thug? Raimondas, pimp with a heart of gold?


Worst of all, thought Agnes, was that it was all true. Nobody was lying about anybody. Not that she could see. They had assuredly raped, stolen, assaulted and battered – maybe worse. But so had many others, she thought, without being singled out especially – and above all, Icelanders had never needed any help when it came to rape and violence. They had always been perfectly capable of raping their own and beating up their own. Perhaps these were the jobs that populists were so afraid the foreigners would steal? Agnes knew she was bitter. She just didn’t care.

And this, of course, was one of the main reasons for her thesis. Stemming the tide of the xenophobia, elevating herself above her own society. As if though she could, by ascending from these atrocities, cancel out her own nationality and absolve herself of the (shared) guilt that the newspapers seemed to imply that she carried. She wouldn’t be just one more faceless head in an anonymous mob of Lithuanians. Lithuanian number 8. Lithuanian number 27. Lithuanian number 1,589. But the thesis wasn’t supposed to be about Lithuanians. It was supposed to be about populists.


Agnes fell asleep shortly after dinner, so she was back on her feet a little past three AM. It was pitch black outside, and the temperature close to freezing. She hadn’t seen the Colosseum yet, or applied for an audience with the Pope. She hadn’t even ordered a pizza. The simple act of staring at a blank computer screen consumed her entire attention. Occasionally, she wrote a page or two, but she’d always move the results from the main text into a separate document, since these digressions of hers had nothing to do with a master’s thesis in history.

Once, someone asked how I perceived myself. Whether I was who I thought I was, or who others thought I was. The answer to that question, that time around, was that I was she who I thought others thought I was. Philosophers speak of the Other, with a big O, the imaginary party sitting somewhere on-top an imaginary mountain, looking down on us, mouth agape in ceaseless, judgmental wonder. He is a figment of our imagination, no less real for all that. He represents what we think that others think of us – the Other is the eye on the wall, the keyhole, peephole, webcam. If there is anyplace he acquires solid form, it is in unmarked and hidden surveillance cameras, the suspicious eye watching over us, but never offering an opinion, never asking for the time of day or a light, and yet haunting every street corner.


When the Israelites hunched up, exhausted and harassed, in Babylon, God said to them: You are my witnesses, the guiding light of eternity, and I am God. In the Jewish midrash his words are interpreted thusly: When you are my witnesses I am God, and when you aren’t my witnesses I am, so to speak, not God.

For not even the God of the Israelites exists, if there is no one watching.

Translated from the Icelandic by Steingrímur Teague

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