I have now read twenty Icelandic novels in a row, which may seem and, indeed, probably is mildly obsessive. However, I shall now be calling a break and returning to to other nationalities. I still have quite a few unread Icelandic novels in my collection so if ever I feel the urge to read another Icelandic novel I will not lack for choice. I must say that Iceland does seem to have quite a few good novelists for such a small country. Its current population is around 320,000. That is just over half the population of Wyoming, the US state with the smallest population and around the same size as the population of Northumberland which is part of what, English readers may recall, Lord Howell, Conservative Energy Minister, called the desolate north-east of England. In terms of area, Iceland is just a bit smaller than Kentucky, the 37th largest state, and only a little bit smaller than the whole of England.
What have I learned from this? Like many Northern Europeans, Icelanders can be very gloomy. Icelanders are still very much obsessed with their past. Of course, this is true of many other nationalities – the number of books about the US Civil War from US writers and the Spanish Civil War from Spanish writers and the two world wars from everyone are just a few examples of this. Iceland, however, has a fairly unusual situation, at least for a Western European country. It has gone from being almost entirely an agricultural and fishing economy to a modern economy in a relatively short space of time and this is key to the Icelandic novel and features heavily in it. You may well argue that a similar situation occurred in other European countries, such as Spain, but Spain did have some industry and, of course, was held back by its Civil War. Many Icelandic novels, and not just those set in the past, refer to the hard life suffered by farming and fishing families and also refer to the oppression that these people suffered from the occupying Danish, and the Icelandic officials and religious authorities as well as the later British and US occupations. In other words, like many countries, Iceland is its past as much as its present. I have not read any Icelandic novels dealing with the economic recession, though there are some. Alda Sigmundsdóttir’s Unraveled has been translated into English, while Guðmundur Óskarsson’s Bankster has been translated into German (but not English). I will be curious to see if there are more. Incidentally Michael Ridpath’s 66° North, the second in his Fire & Ice series, also features the Icelandic economic crisis.
Other themes of icelandic literature are, of course, the sagas. Many of the books I read mention them, if only in passing, though one or two give them more prominence. Another key issue is emigration. Clearly, many Icelanders have felt the need to go abroad to pursue education, career or their romantic life, even if abroad is only Denmark though, at least in the novels I read, Iceland remains in their thoughts. The landscape is always a key feature. Its bleakness appears in many of the novels but also the beauty of the sea, even if that beauty is often harsh. Finally, we cannot forget the weather. It can be cold and wet, often both, sometimes just one. Even in summer, it can be cold, wet and miserable and in winter it is certainly cold, if not wet. The weather is featured in many novels, as the people deal with the weather, struggle with it or simply just survive it. But don’t let that put you off. It is a beautiful country. But if you can’t go, there are a lot of interesting novels to read about it. Oh yes, and last and maybe least – butterflies. Several of the novels had butterflies making a very brief appearance. They were usually indicative of the fact that, even if the weather was miserable and likely to get more miserable, if there were butterflies around, there was still some hope, some life, some colour.