Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Atom Station by Halldór Laxness

The humor is an acquired taste
The Atom Station, published in 1948, is a novel by Icelandic author Halldór Laxness, winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature. I had previously read his novel Independent People, which I enjoyed, so I thought I’d give this one a try. Though Laxness writes novels of modern Iceland, he depicts Icelandic life and culture as being firmly grounded in the classic sagas of his nation’s literature. There’s often a tension between the nation’s entry into the modern world and a harkening back to the traditions of the past. Chances are, the more you understand Iceland’s history and literature, the more you will enjoy Laxness’s work, which may prove a problem for many English-language readers, myself included. The Atom Station is a political satire, which complicates matters even further, and I’ll confess much of the humor was lost on me.

Ugla, a girl from a rural village in Northern Iceland, moves to Reykjavik to take up work as a servant in the home of Búi Arland, a member of parliament. The wealthy urban lifestyle of the legislator’s family is a culture shock to the small-town girl, but she soon earns the family’s trust and becomes an integral member of the household. Arland and his political cronies are plotting to “sell the country” to America, which wants to build a nuclear missile site in Iceland. Not only is this a threat to Icelandic sovereignty; it also endangers the lives of all the nation’s citizens if nuclear war should break out between the two Cold War superpowers. Part of the pro-American faction’s strategy for winning the hearts and minds of the populace, or at least distracting them, is to repatriate the bones of the Nation’s Darling, a revered poet who had been buried in Denmark. Ugla becomes involved with a communist cell who opposes the government’s plan. This episode, based on actual events, gives Laxness the opportunity to contrast rich and poor, urban and rural, North and South, conservative and communist—lampooning everyone in the process.

A few chapters into the book, Ugla goes to an organist’s house to take lessons on the harmonium. There she meets two men referred to as the atom poet and the god of Brilliantine, who speak mostly nonsense. There’s also a character named Two Hundred Thousand Pliers, an industrialist who serves as one of the villains in the book. Do we have Laxness to blame for these goofy names, or are these poorly handled puns on the part of the English translator? Hard to tell, but it was all a bit too heavy-handed and slapstick for me. Later in the book, there are some more serious scenes that give a better idea of Laxness’s talents as a writer. Ugla’s relationship with the family who employs her, and her own family in the North, allow for some moving moments, as does her desire to live as an independent woman. You really do feel for the character, and there’s a definite feminist message to the book that’s ahead of its time. But just when you think Laxness has given you something to hold onto, something to care about, he forces you to wade through another absurd conversation that feels like an utter waste of time.

I can see how The Atom Station might be hailed as a comic masterpiece in Iceland, much like the movie Dr. Strangelove is regarded in the U.S. However, few English-language readers will have the prior knowledge of Icelandic politics and culture necessary to get the jokes. What I liked about Independent People is that it gave me a glimpse into the life and history of a nation I know little about, but the social realism of that novel is a lot more accessible than the parody of this one. I don’t think I’m done with Laxness yet, but if I see another book of his described as “comedy” or “satire,” I’m going to steer clear.
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