Iceland, History, Moving Forward

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 A scholar of the Icelandic Presidency swiftly became a Presidential front-runner. ILLUSTRATION BY JASU HU

This article had me in the first sentence, naming Iceland and mentioning historian together. Seth educated himself, with the help of a great university and its incredible historical archives on Iceland, to be a historian of the bachelor variety.  What he learned from those archives and some well structured thinking have served him well since then in Costa Rica.

In his next posting, in Baja California Sur (Mexico), I expect the foundation in history, combined with these last two years of applied practice, will be even more valuable. You will hopefully start hearing about that this week, but meanwhile have a read about current events in Iceland:


How a scholar of the nation’s Presidency swiftly became its Presidential front-runner.


When I heard that the historian Guðni Jóhannesson was running for President of Iceland—not only running but entering the final weeks of the campaign as the clear favorite—I was intently curious to be present when and if he won.

I had met Guðni a year or so earlier, when he delighted a busload of nervous novelists on a literary retreat in Iceland, during an all-day tour of local landmarks that took place on the coldest, windiest, foggiest day an Icelandic April could offer, with the bus neatly enveloped in milk. Guðni, serving as tour guide, mike in hand, kept his cool and his good humor throughout. “Here are the great parliamentary fields of the Thingvellir,” he said at one point, referring to Iceland’s famous early-medieval parliament, and gestured straight-faced toward a wall of white cloud. More impressive, he lightly detailed all the ways in which the myths of the monuments were and were not in accord with the facts of history, providing a detached view of what might be called Icelandic Exceptionalism, while still thinking it exceptional. I liked to tell people in New York that our tour guide was now running for President, though the truth is that he never would have been on the bus had his wife, the Canadian writer Eliza Reid, not been running the literary seminar—but, then, he was on the bus, he did have the mike, and he was giving a guided tour.

I should add that, having married into a Canadian-Icelandic family (about a fifth of Iceland’s population decamped for Manitoba around a century ago, keeping their culture and their national pride intact), I wasn’t entirely unhappy to hear Icelandic exceptionalism debunked, if gently. I had long ago come to accept Icelandic particularities—the cooing voices, the long-winded family histories, the constant coffee consumption—but I’d also had the prideful bits drummed in (world’s oldest democracy, most literate nation, most successful welfare state) for so long that I could stand them being a little upended. Iceland, to be sure, is a country for which many Americans and English and Canadians have an outsized affection, not unlike that which some of the wizards in Tolkien, himself an Icelandic fanatic, have for the Shire. While recognizably part of our own Western world, the country is so islanded, so unlike anyplace we know in landscape and language, that it is possible to feel protective of it in ways that Icelanders themselves sometimes find encumbering.

In thinking about Iceland, one is always whipsawed between two facts. On the one hand, there’s the tiny scale of the place. There are only three hundred thousand-plus people in the country, and a Presidential election, even though it gets a huge, Nordic-style turnout, will still top out at about two hundred and forty thousand voters, about one-third the number in a single congressional district in New York City. One might read that, as a proportion of the population, more Icelanders died in the Second World War than Americans did, which means two hundred and thirty, most of them in seafaring accidents. “Icelanders suffer from ecstatic numerical aphasia” is the way that Heiða Helgadóttir, a prominent alternative politician, put it one morning, over milky coffee, the country’s vin ordinaire. “We are convinced that we come from a country of at least two or three million, and nothing dissuades us.” On the other hand, Iceland is an honest-to-God country, not a principality, like Monaco, or a fragment fallen off a larger one, like Montenegro. It has a language and a history and a culture entirely its own, it fields competitive teams in international football tournaments, and it can claim about as many famous artists—Björk, Sigur Rós—as its far larger Nordic peers…

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