The Atom Station – Halldor Laxness – Book Review

The Atom Station by Halldor Laxness, copyright 1948.

Translated by: Magnus Magnusson

Publisher: Second Chance Press

Pages: 202

Source: Personal Collection – Purchased Used

Reason for Reading: Reputation of Author

Now that Canada Day has come and gone, and I have completely given up on all but the most personal of my reading goals, I am free, it would seem, to dig into whatever I darn well please. Thus, as I endeavour to get my reading and blogging life back on track, I find myself heading straight for the known goodies! My last experience with Halldor Laxness, one of Iceland’s most revered authors, was a huge success and I knew I could count of the Nobel Laureate to deliver once again.

Ugla is a country girl from Iceland’s rural north and has come to Reykjavik to work as a housekeeper for a Member of Parliament and learn to play the organ. The ways of the city are a far cry from the life she has known in a place where the folklore and historic sagas of Iceland are more gospel than the gospel itself. The family she serves certainly have some strange ways, but it is at her weekly organ lessons where Ugla discovers the truly peculiar side of Reykjavik. Her organist is a free thinker (perhaps a hippy before his time) who burns money, lives with his mother and keeps company more bizarre than himself. It is here that Ugla learns, from gods, poets and prostitutes, about the evils of Capitalism and the political turmoil that is sweeping urban Iceland. The people are up in arms because the Figures-Faking-Federation has plans to “sell the country,” build an atomic station in Keflavik and repatriate the remains of the Nation’s Darling. What’s a naive country girl to do?

If you are thinking that the story sounds a bit strange, that’s because it is. This is my second Laxness novel and it bears little resemblance to Independent People other than for its beautiful prose. Am I allowed to contribute the quality of the prose to the author or must I credit it to the translator? I’m a little confused on that point.

“Quite apart from how debased Nature becomes in a picture, nothing seems to me to express so much contempt for Nature as a painting of Nature…Certainly Nature is in front of us, and behind us; Nature is under and over us, yes, and in us; but most particularly it exists in time, always changing and always passing, never the same; and never in a rectangular frame.” The Atom Station, pages 42-43

While the prose in this story were equally as magnificent as they were in Independent People, they weren’t really what captured my attention in this work; what I appreciated the most was the history lesson. Those of you who are regular followers of Pink Sheep Cafe will know that I am a huge fan of Timothy Findley. I love the way he blends historical fact with an often satirical fiction. In this way, I found The Atom Station very reminiscent of Findley…well, Laxness came first, so I suppose it’s the other way around, but, either way, I love trying to pick out the fact and the fiction in these tongue-in-cheek, historical reads.

The part of this story that concerns the building of the atom station in Iceland is very much true; in 1946 the Government of Iceland granted the United States a 99 year lease on a piece of land at Keflavik where they constructed a military base. The exhumation and repatriation of the remains of Jonas Hallgrimsson, Iceland’s most revered poet (affectionately known as The Nation’s Darling) also has a foundation in fact. The retelling and slight contortion of these historical details are all done with a spirit of pert impertinence. This is best demonstrated in the story by the government’s “selling of the country” that Laxness uses to insinuate the perceived loss of sovereignty that would accompany the Americans’ presence.

Those who enjoy peculiar historical fiction that is reasonably plot centric will enjoy this book. If you are going to delve into The Atom Station, however, you will need to be prepared for not just its quirkiness, but for its equally heavy doses of philosophy and politics. Without question this was one of the most overtly Communist books I’ve read.

“But no one doubts that Communism will win, or at least I know of no one who doubts it – I can confide this to you because the hour is twelve midnight, and a man becomes loose-tongued then, if not downright frivolous. You, on the other hand, are not conditioned against Communism and you have no occasion to be afraid of it; so for that reason you can be a Communist if you like, it’s quite becoming for a healthy country girl from the north to be a Communist – more so, at least, than being a lady.” The Atom Station, page 113.

RATING: A Wool New Kind of Read

Check out these far better reviews at Laxness in Translation.


About Robbie

Hi there, my name is Robbie Burns (no,really, that’s my name…hold the haggis jokes please) and I would like to welcome you to the Pink Sheep Cafe. I started this blog as a means of discussing books and all things literary in light of my perpetual isolation. At the time I began writing, I was living in Split, Croatia. There wasn’t much here in the way of English book clubs and I couldn’t work, so I badly needed something to help me bide my time. My partner and I have since left Croatia and returned to Canada to live in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. When we first moved back here, my blog writing sort of fell by the wayside, but now I seem to be back on track. I try to read and review a little bit of everything here; I think everyone can find something to their liking here. I find myself tending more towards more literary reads these days, but I also enjoy a lot of YA and children’s fiction. One of my ongoing goals is to work my way through all of the Nobel Laureates. My two most favorite authors are Timothy Findley and Halldor Laxness.
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4 Responses to The Atom Station – Halldor Laxness – Book Review

  1. I loved Independent People, so I’m pleased to see that you enjoyed this one too. The premise doesn’t appeal to me as much, but I’m sure his amazing writing will make up for that. Thanks for letting me know that it is worth reading.

  2. amymckie says:

    I’ve heard a lot about this author but haven’t read any of his works yet. I think I’ll start with a different one, though this does sound good.

  3. Good review- especially in covering the political aspects of this novel. Could I include it in the Laxness in Translation site? If so, I’ll do all the formatting, etc., just email me a short bio for the “Contributors” page. Thanks for the link!

  4. Lesley Anita Burns says:

    Glad to read this blog Rob. The books sound like they will be an interesting read. Must write them down so I will remember to ask for them at the book store. Glad you are back.

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