Life in Iceland
Nasty, brutish and short
May 27th 2010
From The Economist print edition
Wasteland With Words: A Social History of Iceland. By Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson. Reaktion Books; 288 pages; $39.95 and £25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
Filthy, damp, cold and exhausting, living in Iceland for most of the past millennium had one redeeming feature: that the long dark winter evenings gave people the chance to read a lot and tell stories. That combination of cultural depth and material backwardness is the central message of Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson’s social history of one of Europe’s smallest and remotest countries.
Given its 300,000 population (about the size of New Orleans), Iceland produces a lot of news. Its volcanoes and banks have blown up with dreadful consequences for locals and outsiders alike. Alone in Europe, it husbands its fish stocks properly. It used to be horribly expensive to visit. Now its hauntingly barren landscape is a bargain holiday destination. This book, drawing on Icelanders’ astonishingly detailed diaries and letters in past centuries, gives the outsider a rare glimpse into the past lives of an extraordinary people.
The story is not wholly pleasant. Even readers with strong stomachs will find them tested. The book opens with an account of a man who rips his own testicles off with a cord after a tantrum involving allegations of infidelity. The pressure-cooker of emotions induced by isolation (the road round the island was completed only in 1974) dispel any stereotypes of Nordic stolidity. The dank squalor of the turf-built hovels in which most Icelanders lived is described with disconcerting relish, along with the suppurating sores, stoically borne, that resulted. Clothes were boiled in urine occasionally, but were otherwise worn without washing.
Life lightened up in the 19th century when mechanisation allowed Icelanders to make some money from fish. In 1940 British and then American forces occupied the island to safeguard it from Nazi Germany. That broke the country’s isolation for ever. The author regards with distaste the pell-mell enthusiasm for globalisation, and casino capitalism that marked the last decade. He is particularly scathing about the bogus boom-year talk of the virtues of the Icelandic national character (innovative, resourceful, etc). Thrift and hard work, not showing off and speculation would have been more accurate, he says.
Books on Icelandic social history are rare. So it is a pity that this one has so many odd omissions. The author barely mentions the greatest tragedy in Icelandic history, the colossal volcanic eruption of 1783 which cut the island’s population by a fifth, to just 40,000 people. He writes a lot about childhood (and child labour) but rather little about sex (which helps while away those dark winter evenings). In particular, he says almost nothing about the country’s fascinating national cuisine. Iceland is a country where raw puffin hearts, pickled rams’ testicles and putrefying shark flesh are all regularly eaten. It may be that, as an Icelander himself, Mr Magnusson does not find such dishes particularly exotic. His readers, especially the unsqueamish ones, would be hungry to know more.