Jun 1, 2009

The Atom Station

The Atom Station, by Halldór Laxness. Translated by Magnus Magnusson. Sag Harbor, N.Y.: Second Chance Press, 1982. Originally published as Atomstodin in 1948; first English translation 1961. 202 pgs.

I didn't save The Atom Station for last because I thought it would be my favorite Laxness. But I enjoyed reading it very much, and liked it more than I had expected. For one thing, the title put me off (with apologies to my nuclear scientist friend, Reed). I thought that the novel might be more about communism, or socialism, than about human nature, or love. What was I thinking? Laxness always writes about human nature, and love!

The story is narrated by Ugla, a young woman from a very rural area in the north. She is unschooled and unrefined, and she has come to Reykjavík to work as a maid in the home of The Member of Parliament, Dr. Bui Arland. The family is wealthy, the wife feels her social significance deeply, and they, like most government officials, are vociferously anti-communist. Ugla finds herself immersed in the class struggle, and falls in with a bunch of artsy, musician types who are very strange.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Ugla comes to the city with a peasant-like, non-judgmental view of the world. She is exposed to new people, new ideas and prejudices, and finds that life can be much more complex and confusing than she is used to. In the course of the story she discovers her potential.

Whether I was kissed or not kissed, a peson's mouth was a kiss, or at least half a kiss.

The novel is named for an "atom station" that world powers wish to situate in Iceland, raising the question of whether the country is about to be "sold." Ugla's allegiances are tested, as the political situation affects the people she works for, and the country as a whole. The atom station represents the power of self-destruction, while Ugla is drawn toward creation, creativity, humanity. She seems to embody an heroic ideal of the eternal mother. She is a physically large young woman, and is portrayed in a way that reminds me of monumental art. While the country may be sold, Ugla would sacrifice herself rather than sell herself.

The selling of Iceland resonates today, over fifty years following the publication of this book. The collapse of the banking system and the controversial aluminum smelter in eastern Iceland highlight themes that are not new. The conflicts that concern Ugla are universal. Here are words of Ugla's that we could live by today:

I was taught never to believe a single word that is written in the papers, and nothing except what is written in the Icelandic Sagas ...

Ugla also speaks words that clearly come straight from Halldór Laxness himself:

That is why I am not going to say how it happened or what it was, I can only tell you the external causes until it ceases to be a story.

Atom Station was written after Laxness had already firmly established himself as a formidable author, with Salka Valka, Independent People, and World Light already completed, among other major works. Happy Warriors and Fish Can Sing were to follow this work. Atom Station seems unique to me, somewhat of an anomaly, or perhaps experimental. John described this novel as "absurdist," and it does border on that. Laxness fans will recognize much in the book, and yet find it differently flavored as well. You won't want to miss it!

For now, it is over. There are no more Laxness books available in English translation for me to read. Some stories and plays, biographies and autobiographies, yes, but for now, no more books. I hope that this situation changes soon, for I am very sad.

On a more cheerful note, there are more reviews to read! Check out Batty's perspective, as well as my revised Laxness ranking. I can confidently proclaim, and I know our fellow Laxness fans agree, that any Laxness book is a good book, an exceptionally good book.


Professor Batty said...

Love the dust-jacket, I hadn't seen that one before.

For a political satire, it really did have a lot about love and the yearnings of a young woman. I wonder how much of Laxness' failed first marriage is reflected in the relationship between Bui and his wife?

I was surprised at how timeless it seemed on my second reading, I didn't sense that the first time.

Rose said...

Well, I do have second readings (and more) to look forward to, don't I.

And the jacket isn't mine ;-)
I've got this pb, which isn't terribly attractive.

Rose said...

...I think that's supposed to be a nuclear sub in the foreground...

Guy said...

Today I purchased "Ice Land" by Betsy Tobin. Did you read it?

Rose said...

Which copy did you get--I noticed that one edition has really lovely cover art that looks like woodcuts. No, I haven't read it. Let me know what you think!

Guy said...

I got the paperback edition.


I started to read it and I enjoy every minute.