To conclude my travel research for my second novel, Astra, I visited Iceland for a week. Astra is set in Mesopotamia in a new nation called Is-Land, a small state formed in the aftermath of a global environmental and economic collapse (we all know it’s coming, don’t we?). In Icelandic, Iceland is called Ísland, but the country’s relevance to my novel reaches much further than superficial nomenclature. Politically, Iceland is a interesting model for my own vision of an emerging small settler-state; its active volcanos suggest how Mesopotamia could appear during a period of geological turbulence; and its famous Sagas provide a rich seam of national myth-building for my storytelling instincts to mine. In a short period I explored all three areas of interest enough to inspire new developments in Astra, and to dream of returning to a chalet in the Southern valleys to finish writing the book. We shall see about that, but meanwhile here’s a short account of exactly why I found Iceland so fascinating.
Without giving away too much of the plot, Astra is set in a colonial settler state that in its militaristic and theocratic structure resembles Israel, a country I have been researching for the last three years. Is-Land, however, also has significant similarities to Iceland. Its population of 300,000 is about the same size, and while not ethnically homogeneous like the Icelanders, its citizens are unified in their ideological and spiritual beliefs. As a person who oscillates between anarchist and socialist principles, I am highly critical of abuses of state power, yet reluctantly acknowledge that human beings are far from being ready and able to create a devolved global network of self-managed communities, and for the time being a healthy, mutually supportive relationship between individuals and the state is a reasonable goal to aspire to. I also recognise that governments can and should play an important role in protecting collectively-owned or enjoyed features of a region, including culture, language, natural resources and wild life. I was therefore very interested in the Icelanders’ impressively dynamic relationship to their state.
After spending time in Turkey and Israel (and living for twenty years in the UK), my first reaction to Iceland was quite simply a sense of relief: here, for once, was a virtually blameless nation. Leaving aside the effect of their bankers and whalers on the rest of us, Iceland’s most objectionable foreign policies ended a thousand years ago with the decline of the Vikings, after which it spent centuries itself struggling against oppressive outside rule: as in Ireland, food was exported to feed colonial powers while the country suffered famines. Capitalising on the German occupation of Denmark, Iceland declared itself independent again in 1944 – a sneaky move applauded by even the King of Denmark, who sent his congratulations from his prison cell. Icelanders celebrated at their historic outdoor parliament, Þingvellir [THING-veht-ear], now a national park. Here, in the very place where the continental plates of North America and Eurasia are groaning apart at a rate of two centimetres a year, Viking chieftains met for an annual law-making session (leaving their blood feuds outside the two week circle of diplomacy). In this spectacular site – a rift valley edged by the country’s largest lake and a long basalt cliff – architecture, landscape, history and nationhood are indistingishable, and visiting it spurred me to likewise set Is-Land’s seat of political power in an imposing geographical arena.
Icelanders are also clearly proud of their key national endeavours, most of which have their roots in cottage industries: knitting, fishing, milking sheep, training horses, playing music, telling stories, swimming, driving 4WDs (they have an excuse) and seeing and drinking spirits . . . Supermarkets are stuffed with aisles full of wool, farmers keep herds of the small Icelandic horses even if they bring no economic benefit, Reykjavik boasts a towering three-storey book shop on every corner, and the smallest civic centre runs an outdoor pool and steamy ‘hot pot’ to soak in at the end of a light-drenched summer’s day. Being in the country caused me to reflect again on the positive aspects of national identity. Surely one reason people fall in love with Iceland is because its compact and attractive national culture embodies a profound sense of belonging to a specific place: a sense so many of the rest of us have lost. Here, where few people have wanted to live over the centuries, national yearnings have been deeply and simply fulfilled: not narrowly, however, but in a curious, generous, outward-looking way that refreshed my vision of what is possible for human societies. Such visions haunt dispossessed populations like the Kurds and the Palestinians, while bigger countries, with their aggressive disregard for the basic right to a decent quality of life, can only market them as corporate ideals.
Politically, of course, Iceland has hardly been immune to free marketeers, and its recent inspiring surge in people power comes after a tragic period of selling off its natural assets, well-analysed here by Rebecca Solnit. In exchange for providing a few hundred jobs Amercian aluminium companies mounted hydro-electric dam projects that devastated whole remote regions, and a fishing quota system virtually destroyed a traditional way of life when many small fishermen ended up irreversibly selling their permits to big trawlers. Contemporary Icelandic politicians are accessible – the current parliament meets in a modest, seemingly unguarded building and the prime minister is listed in the phone book – but this did not necessarily mean that people confronted them. Rather, people who had traditionally struggled to survive lept feet first into the net of privatization and financial speculation, and fed themselves on the elven illusion of instant wealth. Others were too polite or cynical or independently minded to join the kind of organised movement that would force the country to its senses.
Going bankrupt in 2008 forced Icelanders into a more assertive relationship to their government. The banking crisis, which caused the downfall of the financial sector and many personal bankruptcies and home repossessions, sparked a series of weekly demonstrations demanding the resignations of culpable politicians. Eventually the demonstrators unseated the government, the central bank manager, and the head of the financial authority. After a period of national soul-searching, formally conducted in conferences, a citizen’s council of 25 individuals from all walks of life was elected to rewrite the country’s constitution and pull the economy back into a temperate zone. Once ratified, one imagines the new constitution will be inaugurated at Þingvellir, where people still gather to celebrate events of national importance. As Rebecca Solnit observed in a follow-up to her earlier report, this process has been hugely inspiring, and her account of it reads like high drama. While the belligerent Is-Land has a very different character to Iceland, it is roughly the same size, and since my trip I have been pondering the narrative potential of the complex, evolving and intimate relationship between individuals and a small state. Could the state itself become a character in my novel? A research trip can provoke such questions, but only the writing process will answer them.
Geologically, too, Iceland was the source of creative revelation. I did know before I left that the country had a few volcanos … but sometimes information gathered in transit ends up filed in different brain-drawers, and it wasn’t until I arrived and saw the basalt rocks lining Reykjavik harbour that I made the connection to Diyarbakir and its basalt city walls. Over my week in Iceland I began to seriously appreciate the potential significance of volcanic eruptions and lava fields to my plot. Mesopotamia’s volcanoes are dormant now, but here I saw the fine black dust of the 2010 ash cloud, settled now between clumps of grass and wildflowers on the slopes and plains of Þorsmörk [THORS-myurk] valley. And courtesy of the shop clerk at the Farmers Market in Hvolsvöllur [Huh-VOLLS-vuht-ir (I think)] I heard stories of recent evacuations. Here my travelling companion Catherine and I were also treated to a display of the famous Icelandic sense of humour – renowned, I had already gathered, for being down-to-earth and quirky as a pig’s tail though often dry to the point of evaporation on contact with foreigners. Though understandably not as fluent as the hostel staff in Rejkyavik, Dorothea was an enthusiastic English-speaker, and her peals of laughter highly contagious. Hence I found myself in stitches at the thought of Þorsmörk farmers being called on their mobile phones two minutes before Eyafjallajökull (don’t ask) was about to blow, and being forced to evacuate the area IN THEIR COW-SHED CLOTHES!!! I even doubled over remembering it four hours later, though sadly my delivery cannot match Dorothea’s and the joke has suffered in the retelling. Only a friend who has read all the novels of the Nobel Prize-winning Halldór Laxness has laughed at it, and even he only managed a chuckle. Whether the Is-Landers will have a similarly eccentric sense of humour is something I am curious to discover. As for that unpronounceable volcano, Dorothea did give us a lesson, but even in Iceland opinions differ, and I still don’t know if ‘kull’ is two syllables or one. . .
I had also come to Iceland with the intention of discovering more about its exemplary commitment to sustainable energy, a central feature of Is-Land’s economy, and was hugely excited by my visit to the Geothermal Energy Exhibition at the Hellisheiði Power Plant just outside Reykjavik. Here, bore-holes extending up to 2 kilometres beneath the earth’s crust poke like straws into the country’s vast underground reservoirs, and extract water heated by magma spumes to temperatures of up to 400 degrees Celsius. The steam from this water produces up to 25% of Iceland’s electricity, and while, contaminated by toxic gases and dissolved solids, the water is too dirty to be used directly, cold water from glacier-fed reservoirs is piped through it and heated to sufficient temperatures to supply over 87% of Icelandic homes with warm radiators and hot showers you can stay in for half an hour without feeling guilty. After use, the dirty water is piped back to the underground reservoirs, ensuring that they will never be depleted. But the good news for anti-capitalist eco-warriors doesn’t stop there. Not only are all the geothermal plants in Iceland publically owned, Iceland exports engineers to help other countries develop this clean, cheap and renewable source of power. Even though I learned that American oil lobby is blocking the development of geothermal energy in places as ideally suited to it as Hawaii, I left this light and airy showroom for sustainability buzzing with a rare rush of hope for the human race. I was also a happy novelist: the exhibition’s map of high-potential geothermal regions included Mesopotamia, so my plan to include this energy source in Is-Land’s portfolio was sound.
No account of a trip to Iceland would be complete without a mention of the Sagas. Saga, an Old Norse word, literally means ‘something said’, and the Sagas are a collection of over 40 prose tales from Iceland’s early centuries that have both oral and written provenance. Encompassing history and myth, tales of Kings, elves, saints, dragons, Viking voyagers and formidable women, they survive in vellum manuscripts on show in Reykjavik and in an unbroken tradition of memorization: Icelanders still regale each other with renditions of the Sagas in Reykjavik bars and timbered village halls. In Hvolsvöllur Njala Museum guides the visitor through the brutal twists and turns of Njal’s Saga, a family feud which culminates in the massacre of three generations in an arson attack on a farm. Having already given Is-Land a strong oral culture of storytelling, I am reading the Sagas for their compelling rhythms, unsentimental attitude to human violence, and complex moral vision, in which Christian and pagan values vie for supremacy without either completely dominating the narrator’s world view.
In Iceland I also noted more recent, local tales of independent women: Sigríður Tómasdóttir, who campaigned to save the stunning Gullfoss waterfalls, the nineteenth-century sea captain Þuríður Einarsdóttir of Stokkseyri, who went to court to successfully defend her right to wear fishermen’s clothing on her boat, and her contemporary Margaret the Outlaw, a highwaywoman with the strength of two men. Margaret robbed travellers until she met her match in a stout farmer who refused to give up his satchel. On his death bed he confessed that he had wrestled with her on a lonely hill until she knocked him down and was about to smash his head in with a rock. He’d lunged for her throat and bitten deep into her windpipe, hanging on until she died. There are no vampires in my novel, but I can still feel that macabre image burrowing down into my unconscious, and am intrigued to see if it emerges in the writing of Astra.
Speaking of which . . . after spending my last krónur on bottles of Reyka vodka and Brennavin at Iceland’s award-winning airport-cum-national art gallery, a little sadly, it is now time for me to hang up my travel blogger’s cap and concentrate on getting a first draft of the book done over the summer. Thanks to everyone who’s followed my adventures and commented on the site, or Facebook. You’ve helped me feel that the novel might have something significant to say – and also fed my new-found enthusiasm for blogging. I’m sure I’ll be popping up again shortly with news, reviews or maybe, if I can balance my own budget, a photograph or two of my desk inside a lonely Icelandic writing cabin . . .