- the search for literary crisis
(Practically) all political writing engages in representation and a form of adjudication – i.e. “picking a side”. Classic social realist writing of capitalist societies not only represents the exploited classes, but furthermore represents them against their mortal enemy, the bourgeoise classes; nationalist literature not only represents a certain land and a certain people, but it represents the land and people as different (unique) from other lands and other peoples; feminist writing represents women against male domination (and/or “men”); postcolonial literature represents “natives” or “immigrants” vs. “colonials”, “locals” or “nationals”; pacifist writing represents those willing to “be friendly” against those who feel agression is the only viable course of action; postmodern capitalist literature represents “the individual” vs. the alienating, dystopic horrors of society (and ritually asks: do I deserve to be selfish?). And, at least theoretically, if not in practice, vice versa (i.e. Ayn Rand represents the “energetic” bourgeoise against the “lazy” classes who allow themselves to be exploited).
(Practically) all Icelandic writing represents Iceland, regardless of the author’s intentions. The mere size of the population (320 thousand) creates a situation where anything said aloud becomes first and foremost “Icelandic” and what is actually said takes second place to that fact, which in and of itself is peculiar enough to demand most of your attention – because statistically speaking only around 0,0046% of all words spoken (or written) in the world are spoken (or written) in Icelandic. An Icelandic opinion is thus a rarity like Bigfoot or The Abominable Snowman—so rare in fact that most people who’ve come into contact with it aren’t entirely sure if they did at all, and think that perhaps what they saw was just a really big cow or a really small Danish person. When best-selling crime novelist Arnaldur Indriðason is sold to German readers, the book cover will generally sport a picture of an old Icelandic farm and perhaps a horse, despite the fact that his books are about the criminal horrors of big city living (in as much as Reykjavík—pop. 120.000—can be considered a “big city”); that is to say: drugs, alienation, loneliness and murder.
This form of representation is not limited to books written for a foreign market—the Icelandic condition is one of constant awareness of the (ridiculous) size of the country as well as the speaking population and the limits that this imposes. Thus Icelandic literature tends first and foremost to represent Iceland to Icelanders, and this reaches back to (Nobel laureate!—woohoo!) Halldór Kiljan Laxness teaching Icelandic farmers basic hygiene (and thus claiming they were filthy) and propogating the literary myth that goes all the way back to the Sagas, that Icelanders were first and foremost a stubborn independent people not willing to be subjugated. Although Laxness did not necessarily glorify these traits, as is done in the Sagas (and in some modern literature), he nevertheless maintained that they were present, which still today means that Icelanders cannot by definition be “complacent”, “tame” and easily led – despite any evidence to the contrary, such as the national ecstacy over the “success” of “our” “financial vikings” (known as the “outvasion”—Iceland invades the entire world, “outvades” the world); or the vilification of protesters before and after the immediate uproar surrounding the actual financial crash; or the easily manufactured consent for lax civil liberties to uproot “undesirable” organisations (such as Hell’s Angels) or allow inclusive privately-owned genetic databanks with everybody’s medical information; or the current national lunacy, which claims that reducing spending on health, culture and education can be done while simultaneously jumping for joy that “we finally have a left-wing government”.
Icelanders have their own personal agenda; they are individualists who refuse their common identity. Or so goes the myth. Someone like me might in turn argue (bitterly, foaming at the mouth) that Icelanders are in fact a bunch of easily manipulated sheep.
Bowing to the mighty Medici
Up until the crisis many of the financial institutions in Iceland played Medici-like patrons to artists – and used the artists’ image to promote their loans, overdrafts, savings and pension-plans in national ad-campaigns and carefully orchestrated media events, complete with oversized cheques, handshakes and photo-ops. Everybody (more or less) played along. There were sponsored squats for artists and a rubbing of shoulders with European jet-set elites—including the president’s wife, Dorritt Moussaieff and the baroness Francesca von Habsburg—a considerable portion of the young art scene in Reykjavík had in this way direct access to some of the most powerful people in the European art scene. And the financial institutions—mainly Landsbanki Íslands—would throw petty alms at the starving artists, who proved more than willing to prostitute themselves (including me and my friends) for what was in all honesty a mere pittance.
A collossal symbol of this situation is a series of commercials done for Landsbanki Íslands, where a large group of people are playing football—variously inside the bank or outside in a field. The ads read like a veritable “who’s who” of Icelandic arts, literature, culture and music. Everybody was involved in this scene. Even self-proclaimed revolutionary organisations, such as Nýhil (which I had a large part in founding and running), were for sale—on the premise that a) everybody else was doing it b) it’s good to get money to run this proverbially bankrupt industry and c) it’s not as if they control what we say, just ‘cause they give us money. All of which were illusions, it turned out. Some people did in fact refuse to participate (although not many), the little money we got did not help (we got overly zealous and almost literally went bankrupt; and it deprived us of much credibility) and whether or not they “controlled” what we said … at least they were never openly criticised. They may not have bought our silence, but they did buy our friendship—or at least a sort of kindness.
Before the collapse only a constantly fading grey line seperated what painter Tolli Morthens once called “two of humanity’s greatest interests”: The arts and the financial market.
After the collapse this situation has hardly been mentioned, let alone discussed to any serious degree—the artists in question variously denying involvement (even doing so overtly to foreign media), pointing to others as “having been worse” or trying to kill any mention of it by saying it only aimed at provoking bitterness and “blame-games”. As for the Icelandic literary scene, routinely when anything controversial is about to be discussed collectively, memories are invoked of “the great rift” of the early eighties, when the Writer’s Union split over some argument which nobody really remembers anymore—and thus everyone becomes convinced that, as the song goes, silence is golden (and everything else is not).
Not there anymore: The Ground Beneath Our Feet
Immediately after the “hrun” (collapse) – followed by the “kreppa” (crisis) and the “kitchen utensil revolution” (named for the banging of pots and pans during the protests)—questions of an aesthetic nature started forcing themselves on unsuspecting artist circles. What does this mean for literature? For music? For the visual arts? What will be the response? For a few years before the collapse artists had been becoming increasingly political, although it was mostly in the realm of the environmental issues rather than economics or social justice—and it had less to do with their art and more to do with parallel activities (like playing concerts for nature, as opposed to writing songs against aluminum plants).
Critic Valur Gunnarsson probably echoed a common sentiment when he said that people would start paying more attention to “serious” art and (at least partially) turn their gaze away from inconsequential popular culture. Though not necessarily implicit in Valur’s words, I often found that this sentiment included a disdain for the experimental, avant-garde or plain “weirdo” arts—that which at times in history has been described as “degenerated” art, devoid of the socially improving agendas of either “beauty” or “message”. Before the collapse there might have been a sort of pointlessness, or self-obsession, habitual to the art scene, where artists ritually explored the possibilities and limits of art itself—repeatedly asking the same (important?) question: “Is this art?” And after the collapse you could feel an increase in the disdain for artist happenings such as cleaning an apartment or standing on a street corner for a week—a hatred for the pointlessness in art, which for some is the whole point with doing arts, the true zen-like magic of art; that which seperates it from the goal-orientation of everything else in the world. Why were these people getting paid, people asked, to fool around like idiots, often from the empty pockets of taxpayers—while the government was closing hospital wards and firing “actual” workers? And, like in any society of (relative) less-than-plenty, the artists themselves had to ask themselves these same questions: why were they getting paid, when people needed hospital beds?
Valur also predicted that the “outvasion” of Icelandic artists would come to a halt, like the “outvasion” of Icelandic businessmen; and that consequent generations would be more angry than their “cute” predecessors—“cute” being a derogatory term for musicians Björk, Sigur Rós, Amiina, múm and the like. This has not necessarily proven to be the case, although it’s hard to notice in the short run, but it seems young Icelandic musicians are still touring the world—and while there might not be a new Björk on the scene, that has hardly anything to do with the crisis. As for literature, Iceland is going to be the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, which means that international interest in Icelandic books is probably greater than ever before.
Groupies cum Revolutionaries
Interestingly enough, just as artists played groupies to the “outvasion”, they also had a grand presence in the “kitchen utensil revolution”—being both numerous among protesters and in the forefront of organising and rabble-rousing. Most self-respecting artists made sure they were seen on Austurvöllur-square, beating pots and pans—participating with various degrees of irony, from going “all in” and seemingly taking a sincere interest in an important cause, to somehow completely missing the point and taking a break from the tear-gas and mayhem with the masses to attend an exclusive champagne-party with the Baroness von Habsburg at a nearby theatre (which many did): celebrating the still-standing aristocracy while cursing the fallen aristocracy, and seemingly not experiencing it as a contradiction.
Living abroad I only attended one of these protests—on a quiet sunday in early December when it seemed the revolutionary fire was going out. That day a group of younger boys climbed up on the balcony of parliament, where it had become tradition to hang protest banners, but this time the hooligans were in fact not protesters but a little-known rock band using the momentum to advertise their MySpace-page. At another instance I heard of an Icelandic rapper, famous for his “revolutionary stance”, having his picture taken outside a siege at the Central Bank—before leaving to attend to more important business. There were a number of similar events, where artists tried to “use” the protests to up their public image, in a somewhat less than sincere manner.
The media having failed, in the opinion of most of the protesters (and the people at large, I assume), an online webzine called Nei. (No. – including the period), run by poet, novelist, philosopher and filmmaker Haukur Már Helgason (who coincidentally is my best friend), became the hub for both immediate (reliable) information about events as they unfolded as well as in-depth commentary and first-person accounts after-the-fact.
The main organiser of the protests on Austurvöllur, starting with only a handful of people shortly after the collapse, was old-timer Hörður Torfason—a troubadour and gay-rights campaigner who was most influential in the seventies and early eighties. Of the 47 speeches held at Austurvöllur from October 11, 2008, to January 31, 2009 – 22 were held by artists or people immediately connected to the arts, including writer Einar Már Guðmundsson and poet Gerður Kristný. At one point, famed writer Hallgrímur Helgason was seen banging his hands on the hood of the Prime Minister’s car; “distorted with rage” claimed the media. After the “kitchen utensil revolution” at least two of the artists involved with the protests got elected to parliament, as members of the newly founded Borgarahreyfing (Citizen’s Movement – soon after they split and the parliamentary faction was renamed Hreyfingin, The Movement)—poet Birgitta Jónsdóttir and novelist and filmmaker Þráinn Bertelsson. Besides the “bona fide” artists, a creative spirit was plentiful on Austurvöllur during the protests – noticable on anything from slogans, signs, flags, dolls, clothing and the “instruments” themselves: anything that made a racket was suddenly useful.
What is ‘Crisis’? What is ‘Book’?
Defining what literature counts as “crisis-literature” is not an easy task. To a certain extent (practically) all literature written during (or right after) the crisis is “crisis-literature”—and even a great deal of the literature written during the economic boom, before the crisis. Many books included the crisis, the collapse and/or the protests – simply adapted the storyline to the times. If the story happened in 2008-2009, there was no way of skipping it, although most of the books that included the crisis were not about it at all—they neither reflected it to any degree nor did they comment on it. Then there are books which don’t mention the crisis as all, but somehow seem to allude to it constantly – this of course goes mostly for poetry books, which are more easily interpretable in all directions, and if you look for it you can probably find in them whatever you wish to find. Finally there was plenty of immediate work being published both online and on protest-signs at the time of the crisis—small bits, ranging from video cut-ups of speeches to remixing classics of modernist and pre-modernist Icelandic verse, fitting it to the political situation. Much of this was non-authored and none of it had a consistency justifying a specific treatment, other than of the whole thing as a social phenomena—it wasn’t necessarily many poems, but one really big poem.
Excluding the non-fiction written about the crisis—like Einar Már Guðmundsson’s ‘The White Book’ – the prose fiction which deals with the crisis does so, in a certain sense, peripherally. The novels are all essentially about something else—they stand right in front of the crisis and they turn their gaze away. ‘Bankster’ by Guðmundur Óskarsson, winner of the Icelandic Literature Prize 2010, is for instance first and foremost a story about being unemployed and falling into self-deprecation, self-pity and thus losing control of one’s life. The protagonist is an employee in a bank which comes crashing down, and subsequently he loses his job. For the rest of the book he lounges about in a Raskolnikovian introversy, without the guilt—and while lounging about his life falls apart around him, his wife leaving him and so forth. At the same time the massive protests are going on, literally outside his house, but he hardly notices—and the one time he gets mixed up in them he flees the chaos back into his introvert world of spiritual exile.
Kári Tulinius’ ‘Píslarvottar án hæfileika’ (‘Martyrs without talents’) is about a group of young would-be revolutionaries, pre-crisis, who wish to start a terrorist cell. These are young people, with young problems—love, ideals etc – trying to find a footing in life. The first section ends in september, 2008, days before the collapse, when two of them go as volunteers to Palestine on a humanitarian aid mission. The second section starts in November, when the volunteers are back. Instead of throwing themselves into the revolutionary spirits of Austurvöllur, they (like the protagonist of ‘Bankster’) are thrown off track by a personal tragedy: namely the accidental (yet violent) death of one of the main characters in Palestine.
A third novel, ‘Vormenn Íslands’ (‘Iceland’s Men of Spring’) by Mikael Torfason, is about a former assistant to a financial viking who is reckoning his past—but instead of dealing with the years as an assistant to a financial viking, it jumps over it and mostly focuses on the protagonist’s childhood. A fourth, ‘Paradísarborgin’ (‘The Paradise City’) by Óttar Martin Norðfjörð is a Saramagoan account, if a tad more Sci-fi-ish and less style-orientated than the Portuguese nobel laureate, about a fungus growing under Reykjavík and which entices the minds of the people, like a shamanic drug. It does in some sense deal directly with the crisis but it does so with a metaphor which is perhaps too vague and too general in its presentation, and too conspicuous in its (solicited) interpretation – and the author did at some point stress that it in fact wasn’t about the crisis.
‘Allir litir regnbogans’ (‘All the Colours of the Rainbow’) by Vignir Árnason is a strangely puerile self-published novel about an anarchist movement, which runs quickly through the kitchen utensil revolution into total (melodramatic) civil war between cops and revolutionaries. An interesting account, if rather callow, which never surpasses the expression of its teeth-grinding angst to provide anything resembling an idea.
Thus these authors, whose novels deal most directly with the crisis of all of the novels published in Iceland since the collapse, avoid dealing with the actual events of Austurvöllur or the crisis itself, but circle it, or rather confront it and, having seen a glimpse of it, take a violent turn towards the personal and away from the general, the masses, the overtly political.
This may of course be interpreted in a symbolic sense, as literature’s utter defeat before the “actualities of life”. In private correspondance poet and novelist Haukur Már Helgason confided in me that after editing Nei. he felt a much greater need to engage in text that directly affected the world—and perhaps this lack of ‘crisis’ in the ‘crisis-literature’ is mainly a symptom of another ‘crisis’, namely the lack of agency in contemporary literature which for too long may have been busy picking at it’s own bellybutton and now knows not what to do.
Cue the Pre-Cog
Bizarrely the novel most tenaciously associated with the collapse was written before it happened and published shortly after the banks fell. ‘Women’ (‘Konur’) by Steinar Bragi is symbolically foreboding—it tells of a young woman, Eva, returning to Iceland from living in the USA and her inhabiting a borrowed apartment of a wealthy friend. The apartment—showy, expensive and in bad ‘nouveau riche’ taste—turns out to be (almost) alive, an entity of it’s own, and it starts sadistically manipulating Eva’s life, pushing further and further until the end, when she literally gets sucked into the walls.
One of the major noticable symbols of the “plentiful years” in Reykjavík was the building of houses (in great part by Polish workers). Entire neighbourhoods were built without anyone to live in them; the rich tore down their mansions to build better mansions; higher income apartment buildings for the elderly were built, only to stand empty while the contractors built a lower income apartment building next to it, one that the elderly could “afford” to live in; a woman could not have a dog in her apartment building, because she needed a signed aproval from the inhabitants of the 20 other apartments in the house, all of which were empty. Loans for building were granted without fail and plots were distributed with much ease.
It should therefore be easily understood how ‘Konur’ might be construed as a crisis-novel, where the newly-built house of ‘nouveau riche’ plenty, owned by a “financial viking”, turns on the inhabitant, starts torturing her before literally (and symbolically) devouring her. It is in all ways a novel written about the times pre-crisis and it successfully demonstrates the seeds of the city’s, and the country’s, self-destruction, through a kind of symbolic pre-cognition.
There’s boatloads of poetry about the crisis. The immediate answer to the crisis was poetic, with countless and nameless online personalities sharing remixed versions of modernist classics (with metre and rhyme)—so you could literally sing the kitchen utensil revolution in real time, if you wanted to. Hallgrímur Helgason wrote a rap and performed on TV (printed in the Reykjavík Grapevine), several people made YouTube videos with cartoons or cut-up news footage—making poems from the bits and pieces surrounding them. Actor Hjalti Rögnvaldsson read political poetry at the protest events on Austurvöllur. During the kitchen utensil revolution the whole of Iceland somehow became (at least for some) a poetic dimension. Even that which wasn’t poetry, was still somehow poetry.
In the months and seasons following the collapse this energy seems to have dissipated as it has not been extensively seen in the poetry books published, where the poets seem to have reverted back to the “contemplative” and away from the “immediate”. Most of the poems which deal with the crisis do so in a rather mundane manner (though by no means all of them) and many of the books supposedly about the crisis seem to be not at all about the crisis—but as if either the author or the publisher had decided the crisis was an easy sell. Crisis-stuff was in vogue, so everything was “somehow” and “symbolically” about the crisis.
There were two notable exceptions to this trend. ‘Gengismunur’ (‘Arbitrage’) by Jón Örn Loðmfjörð and ‘Ljóðveldið Ísland’ (‘The Poetic Republic of Iceland’) by Sindri Freysson; both very ambitious projects. The former is a computerized textual mashup of a nine-volume, 2.000 pages report written by a parliamentary investigative committee on the events leading up the collapse of the banking system (resulting in a 65 page long poem); and the latter is its own investigative report, of sorts, published before the actual report—a long poem (over 200 pages) divided into chapters for each year from the founding of the republic (1944) until the supposed bankruptcy of the republic (2009—a few months after the collapse, when the government finally fell).
‘The Poetic Republic’ is as highly “creative” as ‘Arbitrage’ is not. While ‘Arbitrage’ deals with and represents the banality (and hilarity) of the language surrounding the crisis, the politics and the market—as well as dealing a blow to more traditional poetry, ‘The Poetic Republic’ is a flamboyant retelling of Icelandic 20th century history in a traditional postmodern ironic tone. Its vision or historical perspective is hardly new, but nor does it have to be. Its vision is probably correct (from a liberal, (moderate) leftist stand-point), however common it may be.
‘The Poetic Republic’ doesn’t dwell on any single event for more than a few lines, and thus it starts casually but increases in weight and speed until you feel you’re drowning in knowledge, memories, history and feeling; while ‘Arbitrage’ reads like a malfunctioning economic robot—like a Burroughs adding machine for the 21st century—and hardly needs to be read at all, being first and foremost a conceptual work. One would probably benefit more from looking at it like one looks at a painting, rather than reading it from A to Z like a (traditional) poem.
These two poetry books deal with the crisis in an almost unthinkably dissimilar manner; and yet they somehow belong to each other, could be published in tête-bêche format as brother and sister, hand in hand, shoulder to shrugging shoulder; not having a solution, but somehow trying hard enough to get us an inch closer to “something”, whatever it is.
A Total Uncontrollable Shitstorm of Metaphorising
A literary reaction worth mentioning is the constant metaphorising in public debate surrounding the crisis. Common phrases included “the financial thunderstorm”—the word for thunderstorm being used is “gjörningaveður”, a weather of great “happenings” (same noun as used for performance art happenings); the national ship (a common euphemism for the economy of a fishing nation) was shipwrecked; the leaders of the country were the crew of a ship; the old government (which refused to resign) were arsonists in charge of putting out their own fire; the crisis was rough seas or a game of war (“hildarleikur”); the nation needed to “arm itself” (“vígbúast”); Iceland was “in flames”; a great “catastrophy” had hit the international financial market – there were earthquakes, tidalwaves and the markets were frozen; the infrastructure had collapsed (like a building); the people were sheep; the currency was in “free fall” (and subsequently either getting “stronger” or “weaker”); the wheels of the economic life (called “the job life” in Icelandic) needed to be kept in motion; the plentiful years had been a raucous orgy and the aftermath was the hangover, and somebody had to clean up after the party; unemployment was an infectious disease and so forth and so on. 
According to a media study conducted by Álfhildur E. Þorsteinsdóttir, in the week following the crash the most common categories of metaphor were “ocean and sailing”, “militaristic”, “fire and catastrophy” and “weather”—in this order. No one needs to be surprised that on a volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean people would resort to metaphors of fishing, fire or weather—but military? In a country whose traditional role in NATO is not having its own military but nodding yes to the American agenda (they had a base in Iceland until 2006). Iceland has neither had conscription nor a professional army, excluding the dozen or so “peace keepers”—who are more like our former foreign minister’s tin soldier collection than anything else. Militaristic metaphors were furthermore the second most common category after ocean and sailing metaphors.
This is the popular poem—poem of the people, for the people—the world democratically poesied; sometimes in extremely mundane and predictable manners and at other times divine, fresh like spring and/or mighty. It’s always there and we hardly ever notice it. But when an event occurs which sends the minds of a certain community seeking in the same direction, like the economic collapse in Iceland, all of a sudden the visibility of this collective metaphorical agenda increases manyfold and we’re presented with a massive lingual project which can not be fully understood or interpreted outside the poetic dimension.
Finnish Lama vs. Icelandic Kreppa
I’m told that in Finland, my adoptive country, which experienced its own total collapse in the early nineties (the “lama”), the crisis got relatively little attention in literature, if it was dealt with in words at all—the cliché, which undoubtably is at least partly true, being that the Finnish people suffered in silence, making their (relative) poverty and social problems go away by not mentioning them. But of course there were certain social and economic effects which could not leave the literary scenes be. The bigger publishing companies, for instance, started publishing less poetry—what with the lack of funds for this financially disastrous art form—eventually leading to the emergence of a scene of poetry collectives, self-publishing and small-publishing which still thrives today, two decades later. During the “lama”, and in the wake of it, there also seem to have been certain tendencies to “bring the poetry to the people”—a trend towards a popular realism in the vain of Charles Bukowski or Hal Sirowitz, rather than experimentation or political confrontation, which may have been left to what is termed “the new millenium generation” whose debut works have only been published in the last few years.
Fighting over the Paradigm
I think it is safe to say that the literary response to the crisis in Iceland has been both swift and markedly honest, even if it seems that the authors and poets don’t have any particular answers to give. There is no new moral center, no serious deconstructive (or reconstructive) tendency, no reckoning with capitalism nor exacting analysis within the ‘belles lettres’ published as a reaction to the collapse. You could even imagine many of the authors mentioned here objecting to being construed as “reacting to the collapse”, as indeed in some respect they hardly deal with it at all (while simultaneously standing knee-deep in it).
The non-fiction about the crisis has mostly been fighting over the paradigm, constructing present-day history and bickering about the interpretation of events, the focus of discussion—ranging from confessions of aged, right wing, cold-war newspaper editor Styrmir Gunnarsson, to megolomaniac (and disturbingly disassociated, in an ‘American Psycho’ kind of way) accounts of financial viking Ármann Þorvaldsson during the economic boom, and the clear-cut anti-capitalist and metaphorically raptured essays of Einar Már Guðmundsson.
A Healthy Distrust
One of the immediate responses of the Icelandic critics—not to call it a “critical response”, as it was mostly presented in the form of commentary rather than an attempt at succinct analysis—was to question, belittle and even ridicule the attempts to portray or comment upon the crisis in fiction or poetry. This was of course not an across-the-board response—there were many exceptions amongst the critics, especially in more formulated essays, reviews and articles, which were by and large less irritable and more generous than were stray comments. But this one was, in my opinion, most obviously felt as a response to the phenomenon in total, as opposed to more generous critical responses to individual books or projects.
The argument mostly went that it was “too early” to write about the crisis; that the authors and poets were lacking the necessary “historical distance” to provide understanding (an argument surprisingly not present in the treatment of non-fiction books about the crisis). This attitude may be criticised for confusing the writing of history with the writing of fictional accounts, which are not subject to rules of “providing understanding” nor even historical accuracy, and as propagating an elitist attitude towards literature—i.e. that instead of literature being a massive democratic project to try and approach (as opposed to provide) any understanding of our societies and “the human condition”, an understanding inherently impossible in any perfect or even near perfect sense, the author is (supposed to be) a demi-godly figure who steps down from Olympus to tell us what is what, in no uncertain terms (and yet perfect bull’s eye metaphors). If I may be so bold: This is of course nothing short of the 20th century fascist idea of the genius classes—the leaders of society.
But this is also evidence of an attitude of displeasure and dissatisfaction which has in general increased after the crisis – a (healthy) distrust of the amazingly populous army of self-proclaimed prophets and analysts who have bombarded the public scene (newspapers, radio and TV as well as the blogosphere, where they naturally enjoy a free reign) with their ideas and thoughts, sometimes perhaps provoking more confusion than anything else—and often one suspects that confusion (misinformation) is in fact the point, with great political and economic potential at stake. And this distrust does of course not limit itself to the non-fiction army of fiscal messiahs found online, but reaches the poets and authors as well.
It is nonetheless my opinion that this distrust would’ve been put to better use against the non-fiction books, most of which attempted to maintain (or re-attain) the status quo; to explain Iceland post-crisis in pre-crisis terms and thereby reinstating the old paradigm. Whereas I’ve found the ‘belles lettres’ to be inspiring, thought-provoking and, though less assertive and less self-confident, better at providing new (and limber) views and senses of what happened in Iceland in the first decade of the millenium. Most of the non-fiction felt as if it were there to provide a dead-end explanation—a final stop for thought—while the novels felt like serious attempts at seeing something—no matter if they turned away, which also constitutes seeing something (not to mention saying something)—serious attempts to not constrict understanding or meaning with exceedingly easy explanations; and the poetry did what poetry does best, and approached the weird, stupid, cerebral and divine about the crisis—all at the same time.
A Call for Immediacy
One of the myths or clichés about Icelanders goes that they are all kind of trawler-sailers—“the sort of people” who like to work like crazy and then lounge about sucking on beers and scratching their asses, that they are somehow simultaneously hard-working and lazy, and that they are willing to do a half-assed job if it means they get to go home early. Their natural habitat is thus the trawler-boat, where you fish for a month and rest for a week or two, your pockets lined with money.
Despite the exceedingly limited truth found in these mythological self-explanations, the Icelandic “outvasion” was in fact deeply characterised by amateurism, lack of experience and a sense that “it was all gonna work itself out”—it was performed in the optimist spirit of the seasonal worker, the one who’s resourceful enough, strong enough, resilient enough, quick enough and daring enough not to need years of experience or time to mull things over. This may factor into the aforementioned critics’ response to the quick and sudden representation of the crisis, collapse and kitchen utensil revolution in Icelandic literature—seeing it as arriving in the same spirit, being performed in less than perfect tune, with a similar attitude of “anything’s possible”, and thereby foreboding a similar (aesthetic) collapse. But a thriving literary society needs not only mulled-over concise accounts of metaphorical precision (if it needs those at all), but a sense of immediacy, a sense of belonging to, and partaking in, society as it is happening—lest it want to be relegated to the dimension of history-telling, fairytale-ism.
Notwithstanding the fact that it would be horrible to keep repeating the same books about the crisis (which is not unlikely, as literature has a tendency to reproduce in it’s own image), and notwithstanding the relative excellence of the work produced thus far, it would be a great tragedy, in my mind, if this attempt to portray the crisis, collapse and kitchen utensil revolution in poetry and fiction were to end here, if it were to be buried now with an inscription of a job well done—as the job, the collective experiment, is still very much in its infancy.
 For obvious reasons I’m leaving out my own novel, ‘Gæska’ (‘Kindness’, 2009). But suffices to say, it also leaves off moments after the economic collapse (which, having been written before the actual collapse, looks quite a bit different from real life) and resumes “a while later this same endless summer”—meaning that it too contains a gap where the actual “action” took place, and does not deal directly (unsymbolically) with the events of Austurvöllur or the crisis itself. I’m leaving out at least two other novels, simply because I’ve yet not read them, ‘Martröð Millanna’ (‘The Nightmare of the Millionaires’) by Óskar Hrafn Þorvaldsson and ‘Önnur líf’ (‘Other Lives’) by Ævar Örn Jósepsson, both primarily crime fiction, but apparently taking place in the business world and the rebel world, respectively.
 Many of these examples are taken from Álfhildur E. Þorsteinsdóttir’s excellent analysis, ‘Krepputal. Myndlíkingar í dagblöðum á krepputímum’ (“Crisis-talk. Metaphors in Newspapers in Times of Crisis”). http://skemman.is/handle/1946/3625 Last read August 29, 2010
Originally appeared as a feature in The Reykjavík Grapevine. This version is slightly longer (I cut out the part about Finland for the print version, as paper is a finite text-holder, as explained to me by the editor).
Photos: © Hörður Sveinbjörnsson, The Reykjavík Grapevine et al (i.e. “the interwebs”).