The Atom Station by Halldór Laxness

Vintage , 2003, 186 p. Translated from the Icelandic Atómstöðin (Helgafell, Reykjavik, 1948,) by Magnus Magnusson.

It is a time of political dispute in Iceland. The US has proposed to lease some land for what is always referred to in the text as an Atom Station. Opponents of this plan regard the potential base as a possible target for nuclear annihilation and in any case a sellout of Iceland’s seven-hundred-year struggle for independence. Our narrator Ugla is a country girl from the north who has come to Reykjavík to work as a maid in the house of her Member of Parliament, Búi Árland. She finds him, baldness and all, strangely attractive, his voice alone enough to make Ugla weak at the knees, though she does not express this outwardly. His overbearing wife treats her more or less dismissively. (The domestic environment here for some reason reminded me a little of those in the Norwegian TV drama State of Happiness shown on BBC Four in 2020.) Ugla also has ambitions to learn to play the harmonium and so goes to the teacher’s house to do so. There she meets various people with various parts to play later in the novel.

The Atom Station is a satire (mostly on politics) with heightened descriptions and characters named Brilliantine, the unselfconscious policeman, the organist, Cleopatra, and Two Hundred Thousand Pliers. There is also a strand involving a historical character known as the Nation’s Darling and the prospect of the return of his bones from Copenhagen to be re-interred in Iceland. (When they are it is in two crates – either of which may contain the real bones, or not.)

Ugla’s rich employers vilify Communists, but nevertheless she attends cell-meetings and agrees with the desire of the comrades for Day Nurseries for the nation’s poor. These, of course are derided by the moneyed classes who fail to see why they should pay for the education of the poor.

Ugla remembers, “When we children were little we were forbidden to laugh – out loud; that was wicked.” Furthermore “all cheerfulness which went beyond moderation was of the devil.” To talk about feelings would be “idle chatter,” unseemly. Tears were shameful. Yet later, after Búi Árland has procured his fourteen-year-old daughter an abortion, Ugla, while comforting, her notes her weeping and reflects, “Anyone who weeps does not die; weeping is a sign of life; weep and your life is worth something again.” In this respect rural Iceland is very similar to Scotland. Despite her exposure to a more comfortable existence fripperies are still strange to her. “What is the point of making a picture which is meant to be like Nature, when everyone knows that this is the one thing which a picture cannot be and should not and must not be?”

The text is scattered with sly observations on life. In one of Ugla’s conversations with the organist he says, “‘The reason a man talks is to hide his thoughts,’” and she goes on to tell us, “A man who says what he is thinking about is absurd; at least to a woman.” When someone says he has plenty of money, her reply is, “‘Plenty,’ I echoed. ‘If there is plenty, then it has quite certainly not been well come by.’” The organist has many comments to make, among them, “Nations are not very important on the whole.” He goes on to add that the Roman Empire was not a country, and, “China has never been a country, Christendom of the Middle Ages was not a country, Capitalism and Communism are not countries, East and West are not countries. Iceland is a country only in a geographical definition.” He is astringent on societal arrangements and the abuse of power, “If someone wants to steal in a thieves’ community he must steal according to the laws; and he should preferably have taken part in making the laws himself.”

In a campaign called over the question of the Atom Station Ugla is cynical as electioneering politicians swore they would not give part of the country over to foreigners – “they swore it on the country, on the nation and on history, swore it on all the gods and sacred relics they claimed to believe in, swore it on their mothers; but first and foremost they swore it on their honour. And then I knew that now it had been done.”

She is a strikingly free-thinking woman who, even after becoming pregnant by the unselfconscious policeman and a birth for which she had to go back to a more accepting home, wishes to be an independent person, “neither an unpaid bondswoman like the wives of the poor nor a bought madam like the wives of the rich; much less a paid mistress; nor the prisoner of a child which society has disowned.” “I know it’s laughable, comtemptible, disgraceful and revolutionary that a woman should not wish to be some sort of slave or harlot; but that’s the way I’m made.” She rejects the largesse which Búi Árland offers, “I want money which I have earned for myself because I am a person.”

In the end The Atom Station is not really about politics, and not about Iceland. It is about human relationships and their infinite variety.

Pedant’s corner:- In a footnote; calender (calendar.) Otherwise; a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, fifty minks (I have always understood the plural of mink [the animal] to be ‘mink’, minks would be the plural for the stoles made from their fur,) “I had to muster all my strength not lose touch” (not to lose touch,) “it is an an attack” (only one ‘an’ needed.)

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