Not quite Scandinavians: the Icelanders
So, Magnus is an Icelander. But what are Icelanders really like?
Now that is a dangerous question. Dangerous because we are in the territory of playing with stereotypes.
The Problem with Stereotypes
I first came across the notion of stereotype at school studying history. I think I had suggested that the first world war started because Germans liked invading people. I was admonished, quite rightly, and told that ‘stereotypes’ had no place in history. You couldn’t say that Italians were excitable, the French didn’t queue, the Americans were loud or that the Germans liked invading people. It was bad history, it was often plain wrong and it was morally dubious. All true.
And yet. It is hard to suggest that the unification of Germany or even the origins of the first world war can be analysed without some understanding of the development of Prussian militarism.
I believe there are certain traits that are more prevalent in Iceland than elsewhere, and I think it is the job of a novelist to capture these. But a writer has to be careful. For many of the most obvious characteristics, there are less obvious, opposing trends lying just beneath the surface. Which makes it all the more interesting.
Some of what follows is based on my own observation. Much of it comes from Icelanders themselves speaking about their own country, especially some of those I have met in London, whose removal from home gives them some clarity. Many of these characteristics will be examined in future posts.
Most of the character of Icelanders derives from their geography and history, which I have already touched upon: dark cold winters, summer days of interminable length, poverty, rubbish weather, the struggle to grow food, a small society and centuries of dominance by a foreign absentee government.
Work hard and don’t hang about
Icelanders work hard, and they work quickly. I have already mentioned how most of them have several different jobs. Historically, there was a lot to get done during the short summer on the farm, and many daylight hours to do it in. If you didn’t work all those hours, you starved in the winter. They are not good planners and they are not good timekeepers. If they say they will do something, they do it right away or not at all.
An example. When I emailed Pétur and asked him if he knew any policemen in Reykjavík I could talk to, I expected a response in a couple of days giving me the contact details of a friend’s husband who was a cop. What I received was an email ten minutes later saying that the chief of the Reykjavík Metropolitan Police was expecting my call. Immediately. The police chief gave me a great contact whom I have met several times.
Another example. Crimefest is an enjoyable literary festival for crime fiction which takes place in Bristol every May. In May 2013, a bunch of Icelandic crime writers were having a beer, and thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a similar international crime festival in Reykjavík? Classic authors’ chat in the bar. Except that in November that same year Iceland Noir held its first festival in Reykjavík, with top crime writers from all over the world showing up. I can’t imagine a major literary festival being set up so quickly in any other country.
Speed helps in other ways. Icelanders take search and rescue seriously: there are 99 units with 3,500 volunteers. They have plenty of toys: snowmobiles, boats, super-jeeps with massive tyres, horses, even parachutes. They have always been willing to drop everything and set out in rough seas to help a ship in distress, or to rush up a mountain through a blizzard to look for a lost neighbour, or these days a lost tourist. This all plays to Icelanders’ strengths: tough, brave, resourceful, quick to react, eager to play with man-toys.
They are ready to respond to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or flash floods at a moment’s notice. They have found their niche in world disasters: they get there first. The Icelanders only have a small global emergency unit, but they pride themselves on being the first international response on the scene in places like Haiti.
I have mentioned that literature has always been important in Icelandic culture, and so too is art, music and sport. With a hard-working population, willing to put in the extra hours, some of it is very good. Reykjavík’s bookshops are big, and groaning with books written by a small population.
The city is teeming with art, some of it good, some of it bad, most of it quirky. Early in the evenings on Fridays and Saturdays the streets of downtown Reykjavík are full of bearded men unloading the musical equipment of dozens of groups ready to play their heart out.
Per-capita record breakers
The Icelanders love per-capita comparisons, but the national achievements really are impressive for a place with a population similar to Coventry or Buffalo. World-class musicians include Björk, Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men. Iceland’s opera singers, artists and designers spread across the globe. Dramas about sheep win international film awards. The football team reached the semi-finals of the 2016 Euros, and in Halldór Laxness Iceland had a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. After this victory, Icelanders crowed that they had the highest number of Nobel laureates per capita until they found out a guy from the Faroe Islands had won a Nobel Prize for medicine in 1903.
I sometimes think that there is a department at the University of Iceland devoted to calculating per-capita statistics. These supposedly include: the most peaceful country, the highest internet usage, the greatest levels of gender equality, the highest literacy ratio, the most rules for writing poetry, the most Coca Cola consumption, the most musicians, the most authors and the highest sales of the computer game Championship Manager.
They also eat a lot of Cheerios and Cocoa Puffs, but I don’t have the global statistics on those to hand.
There is something about the way Icelanders go about things that is effective, beyond just hard work. Like the great disrupters of Silicon Valley, they move fast and break things. They are optimists; when something goes wrong, they try something else. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t, but hey, thetta reddast.
Photo by Katatonia82 via Shutterstock