From Iceland — So What's This Literary Scandal I Keep Hearing About?

So What’s This Literary Scandal I Keep Hearing About?

Published June 9, 2015

Photo by
Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir

On May 30, poet and novelist Bragi Ólafsson finally commented on a controversial book he had written, entitled ‘Bögglapóststofan’ (“Parcel Post Office”), in an interview with Reykjavík Vikublað. In fact, it was the first time the former Sugarcubes bass player had spoken publicly about the book, even though it had been published in December of 2014.

What do you call a bass player who writes books?

One of Iceland’s most respected authors. His novels ‘Gæludýrin’ (“The Pets”) and ‘Sendiherrann’ (“The Ambassador”) are widely considered among the very finest written in Icelandic this century (they are also available in English). But in the interview he pretty much renounced his latest book, saying: “This is just a product I am selling,” and “I do not even consider it, if one is to get formal, as a part of my oeuvre.”

I once had an oeuvre, but a doctor removed it.

The controversy around the book began a month before the interview, when the webzine Druslubækur & doðrantar critiqued it harshly. The critique came as a surprise to most since few people had actually heard of the book. They were not hard on the book itself and, in fact, fans of Bragi Ólafsson would like it if they could read it. The problem is that the book was a stealth publication.

Were the pages completely black and the book built to not show up on radar?

The book was standard, if fairly short at less than 80 pages. It had not been sent to stores but had been given to a select group of 300 people as a Christmas gift. And when the critique appeared, the book had not been sent to the National Library, as required by law. Though once its existence became public knowledge, four copies were sent to the National Library. The webzine sarcastically credited underworld contacts and likened the book to Soviet Union-era samizdat.

What kind of subject matter would require that kind of secrecy? Sex? Violence? Illegal uses of moist towelettes?

The controversy is in who bought his product and turned it into a book. It was a Christmas gift distributed by the very unpopular financial management company Gamma to its 300 top customers. No one would have minded very much if a chocolate factory had commissioned the book for Iceland’s greatest chocoholics. Gamma itself seems aware of public opinion, and has gone to some lengths to show itself in a good light, supporting various organisations and events, such as chess tournaments and the Icelandic Symphony, opening a public art gallery, and now publishing a book. All good things, but hard not to see mainly as a public relations effort.

How does Gamma manage finances so unpopularly? Do they turn Islamic State’s oil wealth into dead puppies?

Probably not. They manage various funds worth in total about 45 billion Icelandic krónur (300 million Euros), and there are various speculations about whose money it is, but the company keeps it secret. The root of their unpopularity is their wide-scale buying of property in Iceland, which they then rent out. Gamma has been accused of driving up the price of renting and buying apartments in the city.

Are they slumlords, sending biker gangs to terrorize old ladies so that their homes can be sold to cocaine-sniffing yuppies?

Not that either. But they have become a symbol of the broken hopes following the 2009 Kitchenware Revolution. Those who protested in January of 2009 may have had different kinds of ideas about how Icelandic society should change, but none of them thought financial management companies would become major landlords. Though perhaps the reason why Gamma became a symbol is that their name is very close to the word “gammar,” which translates to “vultures.”

Poor vultures, no one likes them. They perform an important role in the ecosystem.

In a way, so does Gamma. Due to financial restrictions that the government enacted following the financial crash in 2008, those who own large amounts of Icelandic krónur are not allowed to change them into foreign currencies. Gamma invests those krónur in real estate. They are certainly not the only factor in rising housing costs, but they are certainly no help to people looking to find a home.

Hopefully Bragi Ólafsson received enough money to buy a home of his own.

Author Hermann Stefánsson wrote that his friend and colleague had received “almost nothing” for his work. During the financial bubble years preceding the crash, Icelandic authors, like other artists, received some money from since discredited financial institutions. But unlike, for instance, painters or sculptors, writers received only a few thousand euros for their work. It is one thing for an artist’s work to be used for public relations, but an artist’s name should be worth more than “almost nothing.”

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