In post-WWII Reykjavík, a mix of young anarchists, kind strangers, and squirming politicians welcome Ugla, a girl “from the country” into urban life. So runs the opening of Halldor Laxness’ 1948 novel, The Atom Station, a compelling satire of the Icelandic bourgeoisie and its politicians in the wake of their decision to allow America to build a nuclear base, or as the protesters sing, “sell the country”.
With much of his writing examining the nature of Icelandic identity, Halldór Laxness is viewed as one of the country’s most important writers. Born in 1902, he wrote prolifically throughout his life in a range of forms. Perhaps his most famous novel, Independent People (1934) is an epic retelling of Icelandic history and the powerful sway of the sagas in its depiction of rural life. Permeated also with a sense of hardship and distrust of materialism, it paved the way for the critical perspective of Ugla in The Atom Station. Initially blacklisted in America upon publication, the novel highlights a divide between tradition and potentially threatening modernity through the trace of an individual’s disillusionment.
However, Laxness’s writing doesn’t cling unfailingly to a sense of the old, important as it is. The best parts of The Atom Station are its flickers of friendship and feminism, and a balance of vividly imagined characters with satire and realism that characterises the best of Halldór Laxness.