Fiction – paperback; The Harvill Press; 180 pages; 2004. Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson.
The Atom Station was first published in 1948 at a time of great political upheaval in Iceland. The American Military had been resident since 1941 (during World War Two) and was in the process of establishing a permanent military base at Keflavík in the south-west of Iceland. This was considered by many Icelanders to be incredibly controversial, not least because it would make the country a potential nuclear target at a time when the horror of Hiroshima was very much present in people’s minds.
This is important background detail for anyone wishing to tackle this novel.
It’s also important to realise that Iceland has rich — and very old — literary roots. The Icelanders’ Sagas from the Middle Ages are constantly name-checked — and helpfully footnoted — throughout The Atom Station.
This political and cultural history form the backbone of what is essentially a sharp, often witty and sometimes laborious, satire. The story is told through the eyes of a young peasant girl, Ugla, who moves to Reykjavík to take up the position of a house maid for a politician.
In this ever-busy household Ugla is exposed to a world very much foreign to her rural roots. Here she discovers socialism and falls in with a group that is campaigning for the establishment of a childcare nursery paid for by the state.
She also develops a strong feminist streak, later vowing that she wants to be regarded as a “person” and not a “woman”.
“What do you mean, a person?”
“Neither an unpaid bondwoman 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. A person amongst persons. I know it’s laughable, contemptible, disgraceful and revolutionary that a woman should not wish to be some sort of slave or harlot; but that’s the way I am made.”
“Don’t you want to get a husband?”
“I don’t want to get a slave, neither under one name nor another.”
Ironically, headstrong Ugla falls pregnant and returns to her country home. But having experienced a taste of city life, she is soon drawn back and becomes reacquainted with her past employer, whom, she later discovers has “sold” the country to the United States. I’m not sure what this book is trying to say: that the state is more powerful than the individual and hence there’s no use fighting it, or that capitalism, in the end, corrupts us all?
I’m sure that more highly attuned political minds than mine would have much to say about The Atom Station. But I found it impossible to like, although I tried to like it very much. I appreciate its worthy aims and its high ambitions and the fact it was borne from an important era in Iceland’s recent history, but I struggled with the narrative, which occasionally went off in strange tangents. Perhaps a proper understanding and familiarity with the sagas might have helped me with this.
I loved the character of Ugla, however. She was forthright, strong and had a questioning mind. But even she wasn’t enough to make me fall in love with this book in the same way that I fell in love with Iceland when I visited it several years ago…