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The Atom Station: An Icelandic Satire and More

Updated on September 29, 2018
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Richard F. Fleck is author of two dozen books, his latest being Desert Rims to Mountains High and Thoreau & Muir Among the Native Americans.

The Atom Station

Halldor Laxness, Icelandic winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955, published a marvelous satirical novel about Iceland during the Cold War. The Atom Station (Atom Stodin), published in 1948, is not only a strong political satire of Iceland's being pressured by America to have an atomic base near Reykjavik, but is also a fine piece of social criticism, art criticism and religious satire.

Atom Station is a Cold War Satire

But foremost The Atom Station is a forceful satire on both American and Icelandic politics during the Cold War. When U.S. pressures Iceland's prime minister to grant permission to have a nuclear base at Keflavik, the prime minister (called Oli in the novel) is easily convinced to grant permission. Why? Because he wanted to show Joseph Stalin how tough a guy he is! America, or at least American politicians, come across as absolute war mongers who would not hesitate to drop the atomic bomb again shortly after using two atomic bombs to defeat Japan during World War II. In fact, everything about America, in the novel, is violent simply because it fosters violence through lax gun laws. American local news is dominated with murders, robbery and mass violence.

The novel's protagonist is a simple maiden from northern Iceland named Ugla who is a servant for a well-to-do Icelandic family who hob nobs with the prime minister. She observes Oli when he is drunk and swears by God that he will give America the space it needs for an atom station. He believes that the West is bound to defeat the evil East. But, as Ugla notes, when Oli is sober, he tricks Icelanders into believing that he will never allow an atom station to be built on his nation's soil, especially since it was only last year (1947) that Iceland gained its independence from Denmark. Oli is, of course, lying through his teeth.

Protagonist has a bitter view of society

Ugla is quite a natural philosopher since she has a bird's eye view of upper class Iceland. She laments that the one thing that rich people desire more than caring for their children is to "kill" poor children through cutting all beneficial programs that help the poor. Once Ugla knows that she has become pregnant she asks, "Why can we not have a society which is just as expedient for my children as it is for yours?"

The family she works for possesses many expressively realistic paintings hanging on their walls. But Ugla, of a farm background, wonders why paintings that realistically depict farms with barns and cows are incapable of giving the viewer the smell of cow manure. In fact, she wonders just what is meant by realistic art?

Importance of Nature as opposed to layered society

As a farm girl, she believes strongly in the god of Nature. In fact, when a new Lutheran church was being built in her more than beautiful northern valley, it was very disturbing to her to hear the sound of pounding nails into the wooden frame of the church. This ungodly noise completely disrupted the peaceful notes of the golden plover perched by an icy, glacial stream. For her the trinity preached by the church was less recognizable than the trinity found in Icelandic Nature: the ptarmigan of the subarctic tundra, the bright evening star, and the glowing green mountain slope where sheep graze.

The novel ends with the natural death of the prime minister who had pushed for the atom station. It is ironic that this novel foreshadows Iceland's granting permission for an American Air Force base at Keflavik that lasted from 1951 to 2006 when it was ordered to be closed. Iceland did get in return its ultra modern international airport at Keflavik thirty miles from Reykjavik.

Mr. Laxness got in trouble with the U.S. Government after the publication of this novel and was denied entry into U.S.


Have you ever read an Icelandic novel?

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© 2012 Richard Francis Fleck


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