Christmas arrives no matter what. This year it arrived in Iceland amid heated debates about almost everything.
Underneath the magnificent northern lights one finds a nation that can at most agree on facts like the rotation of the Earth.
Even the church, which one might have expected to provide desperately needed guidance for a nation in turmoil, is under fire these days, not just for sexual misconduct like almost everywhere else, but for not being completely separated from the state. Christmas arrived, but will the Christmas spirit find its way?
The constant bickering, the overriding anger and confusion that now characterizes our moral and economic landscape, is invigorating and taxing all at once. Invigorating because it creates fertile ground for new ideas, new ways of looking at ourselves, possibly a new beginning. Taxing because it has shaken the very foundations of our society and filled our media with bad news for the last two years, something that ultimately affects one’s state of mind and renders everyone frustrated and suspicious of the neighbour. Anyone who drives by in an expensive car is a potential thief.
Creating an atmosphere of peace and harmony under these conditions is therefore a real challenge. Even the Icelandic Yule lads appear to have been contaminated by the apocalyptic “fall” of the Icelandic nation. Meat Hook, Sausage Sweeper and the other eleven beggars and thieves now look like perfect reflections of Icelandic opportunists, a painful depiction of the insular identity that we thought we had left behind.
Drastically increased class division, the heritage of the neoliberalism of the superficial boom years, has led to more serious social problems than my generation has faced so far. As the Lutheran minister Þórhallur Heimisson recently pointed out, it has engendered a layered society with an elite group that lives in plenty, while another group has to stand in line at the Red Cross in order to eke out a living. In the meantime, the middle class, usually a relatively secure class, is left feeling vulnerable, afraid of ending up in the food line too. All this creates tension that threatens to rip a small society apart. In fact, one feels a bit like Young Goodman Brown in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous story.
One night he leaves Faith, his young wife, on the doorstep and embarks on a trip into the dark forest where he finds the most pious people of the village participating in ill-advised worship. Was it just a bad dream? We don’t know, the narrator tells us, but Young Goodman Brown becomes “a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man” and his “dying hour was gloom”.
Luckily, all this is ample subject matter for Icelandic writers, who publish most of their books in the fall, in the so-called Christmas Book Flood. Two decades ago, everyone found Icelandic crime fiction rather unconvincing, as Iceland was thought to be one of the most peaceful and civilized countries in the world. Now several Icelandic authors have made a name for themselves around the world for crime novels. Other writers also benefit from our infamous landmark event, the crash, since it leaves all kinds of moral issues to deal with, not to mention the blaming game.
Actually, everything written in Iceland after the crash has to take the crash into account and everything written before the crash has taken on a new meaning.
It’s under these circumstances that we looked forward to the Christmas of 2010, wondering if it would bring the ceasefire that its messenger wished for. Now more than ever we need the fellowship of the scriptures, rather than the indifference of individualism; cooperation instead of competition, sharing instead of hoarding, trust instead of suspicion. We may have a way to go before we reach these goals, but at least we have learned a lesson, if a somewhat hard earned one: We should never have left young Faith on the doorstep and embarked on a hazardous trip into the jungle of greed.
Rúnar is an author and the president of The Icelandic Association of Translators and Interpreters.