Independent People





How to Cite

Gíslason, K. (2010). Independent People. M/C Journal, 13(1).
Vol. 13 No. 1 (2010): cohesion
Published 2010-03-22

There is an old Danish fable that says that the Devil was watching when God created the earth, and that, as the creation progressed, he became increasingly agitated over the wondrous achievements he was made to witness. At the end of it all, the Devil turned to God, and said, ‘Now, watch this.’

He created Iceland.

It’s a vision of the country that resembles my own. I have always thought of Iceland as the island apart. The place that came last in the earth’s construction, whoever the engineer, and so remains forever distant. Perhaps that’s because, for me, Iceland is a home far from home. It is the country that I am from, and the place to which I am always tending—in my reading, my travels, and my thoughts. But since we left when I was ten, I am only ever in Iceland for mere glimpses of the Devil’s work, and always leave wanting more, some kind of deeper involvement. Perhaps all of his temptations are like that.

Iceland’s is an inverted landscape, stuck like a plug on the roof of the Earth, revealing all the violence and destruction of the layers beneath. The island expands as the tectonic plates beneath it move. It grows by ten centimetres a year, but in two different directions—one towards the States, and the other towards Europe. I have noticed something similar happening to me. Each year, the fissure is a little wider. I come to be more like a visitor, and less like the one returning to his birthplace.

I last visited in February just gone, to see whether Iceland was still drifting away from me and, indeed, from the rest of the world. I was doing research in Germany, and set aside an extra week for Reykjavík, to visit friends and family, and to see whether things were really as bad as they appeared to be from Brisbane, where I have lived for most of my life. I had read countless bleak reports of financial ruin and social unrest, and yet I couldn’t suppress the thought that Iceland was probably just being Iceland. The same country that had fought three wars over cod; that offered asylum to Bobby Fischer when no-one else would take him; and that allowed Yoko Ono to occupy a small island near Reykjavík with a peace sculpture made of light. Wasn’t it always the country stuck out on its own, with a people who claimed their independent spirit, and self-reliance, as their most-prized values? No doubt, things were bad. But did Iceland really mean to tie itself closer to Europe as a way out of the economic crisis? And what would this mean for its much-cherished sense of apartness?

I spent a week of clear, cold days talking to those who made up my Iceland. They all told me what I most wanted to hear—that nothing much had changed since the financial collapse in 2008. Yes, the value of the currency had halved, and this made it harder to travel abroad. Yes, there was some unemployment now, whereas before there had been none. And, certainly, those who had over-extended on their mortgages were struggling to keep their homes. But wasn’t this the case everywhere? If it wasn’t for Icesave, they said, no-one would spare a thought for Iceland.

They were referring to the disastrous internet bank, a wing of the National Bank of Iceland, which had captured and then lost billions in British and Dutch savings. The result was an earthquake in the nation’s financial sector, which in recent years had come to challenge fishing and hot springs as the nation’s chief source of wealth. In a couple of months in late 2008, this sector all but disappeared, or was nationalised as part of the Icelandic government’s scrambling efforts to salvage the economy. Meanwhile, the British and Dutch governments insisted on their citizens’ interests, and issued such a wealth of abuse towards Iceland that the country must have wondered whether it wasn’t still seen, in some quarters, as the Devil’s work. At one point, the National Bank—my bank in Iceland—was even listed by the British as a terrorist organization.

I asked whether people were angry with the entrepreneurs who caused all this trouble, the bankers behind Icesave, and so on. The reply was that they were all still in London. ‘They wouldn’t dare show their faces in Reykjavík.’ Well, that was new, I thought. It sounded like a different kind of anger, much more bitter than the usual, fisherman’s jealous awareness of his neighbours’ harvests. Different, too, from the gossip, a national addiction which nevertheless always struck me as being rather homely and forgiving. In Iceland, just about everyone is related, and the thirty or so bankers who have caused the nation’s bankruptcy are well-known to all. But somehow they have gone too far, and their exile is suspended only by their appearances in the newspapers, the law courts, or on the satirical T-shirts sold in main street Laugavegur.

There, too, you saw the other side of the currency collapse. The place was buzzing with tourists, unusual at this dark time of year. Iceland was half-price, they had been told, and it was true—anything made locally was affordable, for so long unthinkable in Iceland. This was a country that had always prided itself on being hopelessly expensive. So perhaps what was being lost in the local value of the economy would be recouped through the waves of extra tourists? Certainly, the sudden cheapness of Iceland had affected my decision to come, and to stay in a hotel downtown rather than with friends.

On my last full day, a Saturday, I joined my namesake Kári for a drive into the country. For a while, our conversation was taken up with the crisis: the President, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, had recently declined to sign a bill that ensured that Iceland repaid its debts to the British and Dutch governments. His refusal meant a referendum on the bill in the coming March. No-one doubted that the nation would say no. The terms were unfair. And yet it was felt that Iceland’s entry into the EU, and its adoption of the Euro in place of the failed krónur, were conditional on its acceptance of the blame apportioned by international investors, and Britain in particular. Britain, one recalled, was the enemy in the Cod Wars, when Iceland had last entered the international press. Iceland had won that war. Why not this one, as well?

That Iceland should suddenly need the forgiveness and assistance of its neighbours was no surprise to them. The Danes and others had long been warning Icelandic bankers that the finance sector was massively over-leveraged and bound for failure at the first sign of trouble in the international economy. I remember being in Iceland at the time of these warnings, in May 2007. It was Eurovision Song Contest month, and there was great local consternation at Iceland’s dismal showing that year. Amid the outpouring of Eurovision grief, and accusations against the rest of Europe that it was block-voting small countries like Iceland out of the contest, the dire economic warnings from the Danes seemed small news.

‘They just didn’t like the útrásarvíkingar,’ said Kári. That is, the Danes were simply upset that their former colonial children had produced offspring of their own who were capable of taking over shops, football clubs, and even banks in main streets of Copenhagen, Amsterdam and London. With interests as glamorous as West Ham United, Hamleys, and Karen Millen, it is not surprising that the útrásarvíkingar, or ‘Viking raiders’, were fast attaining the status of national heroes.

Today, it’s a term of abuse rather than pride. The entrepreneurs are exiled in the countries they once sought to raid, and the modern Viking achievement, rather like the one a thousand years before, is a victim of negative press. All that raiding suddenly seems vain and greedy, and the ships that bore the raiders—private jets that for a while were a common sight over the skies of Reykjavík—have found new homes in foreign lands.

The Danes were right about the Icelandic economy, just as they’d been right about the Devil’s landscaping efforts. But hundreds of years of colonial rule and only six decades of independence made it difficult for the Icelanders to listen. To curtail the flight of the new Vikings went against the Icelandic project, which from the very beginning was about independence.

A thousand years before, in the 870s, Iceland had been a refuge. The medieval stories—known collectively as the sagas—tell us that the island was settled by Norwegian chieftains who were driven out of the fjordlands of their ancestors by the ruthless King Harald the Fair-Haired, who demanded total control of Norway. They refused to humble themselves before the king, and instead took the risk of a new life on a remote, inhospitable island.

Icelandic independence, which was lost in the 1260s, was only regained in full in 1944, after Denmark had fallen under German occupation. Ten years later, with the war over and Iceland in the full stride of its independence, Denmark began returning the medieval Icelandic manuscripts that it had acquired during the colonial era. At that point, says the common wisdom, Icelanders forgave the Danes for centuries of poor governance. Although the strict commercial laws of the colonial period had made it all but impossible for Icelanders to rise out of economic hardship, the Danes had, at least, given the sagas back. National sovereignty was returned, and so too the literature that dated back to the time the country had last stood on its own.

But, most powerfully, being Icelandic meant being independent of one’s immediate neighbours. Halldór Laxness, the nation’s Nobel Laureate, would satirize this national characteristic in his most enduring masterpiece, Sjálfstætt fólk, or Independent People. It is also what the dominant political party of the independence period, Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn, The Independence Party, has long treasured as a political ideal. To be Icelandic means being free of interference. And in a country of independent people, who would want to stop the bankers on their raids into Europe? Or, for that matter, who was now going to admit that it was time to join Europe instead of emphasizing one’s apartness from it?

Kári and I turned off the south road out of Reykjavík and climbed into the heath. From here, the wounds of the country’s geological past still dominated the surface of the land. Little wonder that Jules Verne claimed that the journey to the centre of the world began on Snæfellsnes, a peninsula of volcanoes, lava, and ice caps on a long arm of land that extends desperately from the west of the island, as if forever in hope of reaching America, or at the very least Greenland.

It was from Snæfellsnes that Eirík the Red began his Viking voyages westwards, and from where his famous son Leif would reach Vínland, the Land of Vines, most probably Newfoundland. Eight hundred years later, during the worst of the nation’s hardships—when the famines and natural disasters of the late eighteenth century reduced the nation almost to extinction—thousands of Icelanders followed in Leif’s footsteps, across the ‘whale road’, as the Vikings called it, to Canada, and mainly Winnipeg, where they recreated Iceland in an environment arguably even more hostile than the one they’d left.

At least there weren’t any volcanoes in Winnipeg. In Iceland, you could never escape the feeling that the world was still evolving, and that the Devil’s work was ongoing. Even the national Assembly was established on one of the island’s most visible outward signs of the deep rift beneath—where a lake had cracked off the heath around it, which now surrounded it as a scar-scape of broken rocks and torn cliffs. The Almannagjá, or People’s Gorge, which is the most dramatic part of the rift, stands, or rather falls apart, as the ultimate symbol of Icelandic national unity.

That is Iceland, an island on the edge of Europe, and forever on the edge of itself, too, a place where unity is defined by constant points of separation, not only in the landscape as it crunches itself apart and pushes through at the weak points, but also in a persistently small social world—the population is only 320,000—that is so closely related that it has had little choice but to emphasise the differences that do exist. 

After a slow drive through the low hills near Thingvellir, we reached the national park, and followed the dirt roads down to the lake. It’s an exclusive place for summerhouses, many of which now seem to stand as reminders of the excesses of the past ten years: the haphazardly-constructed huts that once made the summerhouse experience a bit of an adventure were replaced by two-storey buildings with satellite dishes, spa baths, and the ubiquitous black Range Rovers parked outside—the latter are now known as ‘Game Overs’. Like so much that has been sold off to pay the debts, the luxury houses seem ‘very 2007,’ the local term for anything unsustainable.

But even the opulent summerhouses of the Viking raiders don’t diminish the landscape of Thingvellir, and a lake that was frozen from the shore to about fifty metres out. At the shoreline, lapping water had crystallized into blue, translucent ice-waves that formed in lines of dark and light water. Then we left the black beach for the site of the old Assembly. It was a place that had witnessed many encounters, not least the love matches that were formed when young Icelanders returned from their Viking raids and visits to the courts of Scandinavia, Scotland, Ireland, and England.

On this particular day, though, the site was occupied by only five Dutchmen in bright, orange coats. They were throwing stones into Öxará, the river that runs off the heath into the Thingvellir lake, and looked up guiltily as we passed. I’m not sure what they felt bad about—throwing stones in the river was surely the most natural thing to do.

On my last night, I barely slept. The Saturday night street noise was too much, and my thoughts were taken with the ever-apart Iceland, and with the anticipation of my returning to Brisbane the next day. Reykjavík the party town certainly hadn’t changed with the financial crisis, and nor had my mixed feelings about living so far away. The broken glass and obscenities of a night out didn’t ease until 5am, when it was time for me to board the Flybus to Keflavík Airport. I made my way through the screams and drunken stumblers, and into the quiet of the dark bus, where, in the back, I could just make out the five Dutchmen who, the day before, Kári and I had seen at Thingvellir, and who were now fast asleep and emitting a perfume of vodka and tobacco smoke that made it all the way to the front.

It had all seemed too familiar not to be true—the relentless Icelandic optimism around its independence, the sense that it would always be an up-and-down sort of a place anyway, and the jagged volcanoes and lava fields that formed the distant shadows of the half-hour drive to the airport. The people, like the landscape, were fixed on separation, and I doubted that the difficulties with Europe would force them in any other direction.

And I, too, was on my way back, as uncertain as ever about Iceland and my place in it. I returned to the clinging heat and my own separation from home, which, as before, I also recognized as my homecoming to Brisbane. Isn’t that in the nature of split affinities, to always be nearly there but never quite there?

In the weeks since my return, the Icelanders have voted by referendum to reject the deal made for the repayment of the Icesave debts, and a fresh round of negotiations with the British and Dutch governments begins. For the time being, Iceland retains its right to independence, at least as expressed by the right to sidestep the consequences of its unhappy raids into Europe. Pinning down the Devil, it seems, is just as hard as ever.

Author Biography

Kári Gíslason, Queensland University of Technology

Lecturer, Creative Writing and Literary Studies, QUT