Indriði G. Þorsteinsson: Norðan við stríð (North of War)
On 10 May 1940, a British force landed on Iceland. Its purpose was to forestall a German invasion (in fact, no invasion was planned) and it was carried out without the knowledge or approval of the Icelandic authorities. The Icelandic government protested but, when promised compensation and jobs, accepted the inevitable, though officially maintaining their neutrality. This novel is about the invasion and occupation.
The novel is set in an unnamed town but it is, in fact, Akureyri. The British troops were ill-equipped and ill-prepared but still had some information about the situation. They immediately arrested the German minister, who managed to hide his radio so successfully that it was not found till the building was being rebuilt after the war. Other Germans were also arrested. Jon Falkon, the local estate agent, who had spent some years in the United States, was called upon to be an interpreter for the troops, which he did. Unfortunately, the morning of the troops’ arrival, an old woman living with him – it is not clear if it is his mother or mother-in-law – has died but he seems to put this behind him. He will go on to profit handsomely from the occupation, selling much of the land on which the British wish to build their airfield and opening a fish and chip shop for the troops, which is highly successful, till it is burned to the ground. Though he makes a lot of money, which he virtually gives away to Vopni Danielsson, the cobbler who wants to build a factory to make shoes out of catfish skin, he is not happy with his money or his life. His wife, like many of the women of the town, has a fling with a British soldier.
The general approach of the novel is to show the profound impact the British presence had on the time. As mentioned above, many of the women prefer the British soldiers to their own men. Imba of the Forge thinks that they are better looking and better behaved than the Icelandic men. But it is not only in sexual matters that things change. Prior to the British arrival, there had been much unemployment. Those men that worked were often fishermen or farmers but, once the British arrived and needed men to help them build the airfield, many of the men work there. They work long hours but do get paid quite well. However, the result is that other areas suffer. Jon of Grenvik sells his cow – he has no more use for it – while Gudmund (who will later be called Gvendur) the Sleigh no longer delivers milk and the price of milk goes up. In some cases, the women take over the jobs done by the men. Antonia Sigurdson has a henhouse built and does well selling eggs. However, she is worried about theft so she has the henhouse built in her garden to the annoyance of the Manfred sisters, her neighbours.
There is a war going on, though we see very little of. We do hear about the fall of France but not much else outside. However, as the airfield is taking a long time to build, three seaplanes are used, piloted by Norwegians. They do see German observer planes and manage to shoot one down but clearly there will be more German activity. There is also opposition to the occupation. The editor of the local newspaper is an avowed Communist and very anti-British. He criticises many of the activities of the British. When the British hold a dance and invite many of the Icelandic women, he gets hold of an invitation list and publishes the names of the Icelandic women who attended, to the annoyance of the Manfred sisters who were on the invitation list but did not attend.
This is a very enjoyable little book, telling of a relatively unknown episode of the war. Till the end, not a great deal happens but the impact on the Icelandic community is clearly profound and Þorsteinsson clearly feels that the impact was not all positive, even if it did bring some employment and money. However, Þorsteinsson takes a somewhat light-hearted, almost joking approach, mocking the foibles of both the British and his fellow-countrymen. It is his only book available in English and well worth reading, if you can get hold of a copy.
First published 1971 by Almenna bókafélagið
First published in English 1981 by Iceland Review