In post-war Iceland, Ugla, a girl from the rural north, moves to Reykjavik to work in the household of a member of parliament where she slowly becomes aware of the problems that are plaguing the country. American politicians are trying to buy land in order to build a military base in preparation for an atomic war and the Icelandic government is willing to sell amid the protests of the people. To appease and distract, a discussion is held about bringing home the bones of one of Iceland’s most famous poets who is buried in Denmark.
Laxness wrote this in 1947 in response to the goings-on at the time. The general feeling in the populace seemed to be that Iceland, which had just gained independence, was already being sold again to the highest bidder. It is a truly biting political satire that pulls no punches, the tone is absolutely scathing, and everyone receives their just deserts. He mocks religion, politics, really the whole establishment by exposing their hypocrisy, their double standards, and especially the disconnect between the elites and everyone else, as well as the greed and opportunism that are the driving forces behind their actions.
Those in power are political centrists but what that really means is that they have no beliefs, no ideology, no heart. They love no one and nothing but themselves, not even their country, which makes it easy for them to sell it. To the right of them are the conservatives, patriots who are stuck in outdated beliefs and costums, and whose time has gone by without them noticing. On the other side of the spectrum are the communists who are depicted as clear-sighted when it comes to societal problems but lacking impetus and strategy to do anything about it, and are thus a laughable and impotent opponent. For Ugla, there is no easy and above all not a right choice to make for her future; she has to find her own way. Her character is truly impressive as she could easily have been a cliché, namely the country bumpkin whose perceived simplicity is condescendingly romanticized. This is not the case at all, she is a realistic and relatable protagonist. In contrast, and probably by design, others are more or less stock characters with little nuance and are mainly used to make a point.
This is a very good book but one that is held back a little by a lack of distance between the author and his subject matter. It is clear that Laxness was extremely aggravated by the events in Iceland during this time and it seems to me that this caused him to abandon any attempt at subtlety or nuance; his criticism is in parts so heavy-handed and blatant that it lessens the impact of his message. What fortunately brings some levity to the proceedings is the humour although in typical Nordic fashion, it is as dry as the desert and often rooted in the absurdities of human existence. The book is also very much a product of its time and circumstances because many allusions to real persons and events go over the heads of readers like me that are not intimately acquainted with Icelandic history. I only know the most rudimentary facts so I am sure that I missed a lot, and since I actually did feel rather lost sometimes, I would have appreciated a broader and defter approach. On the other hand, it probably was the author’s intention to examine the situation as it was and not in a more general or exemplary way.
Looking only at Iceland’s particular situation, Laxness depicted it as a country unmoored and adrift, a nation that had lost its heart. He urged his fellow countrymen to look to the sagas of old for guidance; not with false nostalgia but as a reminder of the values that should be the foundation of a healthy society. His plea, however, fell on deaf ears as the Icelandic government agreed to a contract with the US shortly after the book was published.