The context of this novel is that it was published in 1948, when Hiroshima was a fresh memory, and the old alliances of World War II were giving way to the new ones of the Cold War, in which Iceland became vitally important to the West's containment strategy towards the Soviet Union. By controlling the "GIUK Gap" (Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap), the West could keep the Soviet Northern and Baltic fleets out of the Atlantic.
Powerful Britain could be relied on to cover the gap from the Scotland to Iceland, but a NATO (read: American) naval base was needed in either Iceland or Greenland to cover the rest of the gap.
Iceland's existing infrastructure and comparatively more welcoming climate made it the far more attractive option.Thus, immense political and economic pressure fell on Icelandic leaders to agree to a base... the titular "Atom Station" (i.e. a platform from which an atomic war could be started). The Icelandic population, however, was not enthusiastic. For one thing, a NATO base was regarded as an assault on their sovereignty, and it was thought that it endangered the country by elevating it to a high-priority nuclear target. Furthermore, Iceland had attempted to remain neutral in World War II, but was invaded by Britain in 1940, and occupied throughout the war by British and Americans. The occupation was punctuated by a lot of friction between locals and the foreigners, so the prospect of a permanent American presence was decidedly unwelcome.The domestic politics of this controversy is the backdrop of the story, and a lot of reviews of this novel consider it to be political commentary.
Author Halldór Laxness- a self-identifying Communist at the time of the writing- had been a critic of the U.S. naval base in Keflavik, so it's probably fair to read the book bearing that in mind.But the Cold War has been over for twenty years, and the U.S. naval base in Keflavik was completely decomissioned in 2008, so I found myself drawn to some of the more enduring themes in this short, thoughtful novel. The story follows twenty-one year old Ugla (pronounced "Ooog-lah", according to the preface) from hard times in her small Northern village of Eystridalur to a maid position in the Reykjavík mansion of an Alþingi (i.e. Icelandic parliament) member, Dr. Arland. Through her eyes, traditional sensibilities are sharply contrasted with the cosmopolitan moores of Reykjavík.
traditional sod-roofing in rural Iceland
At first, I thought this was going to be a very clichéd set-up where the poor girl raised the with simple, unassuming wisdom of time-honored custom sees through the materialistic, shallow decadence of the city folk... sort of an Icelandic "Heidi", maybe. There is some of that, but it is balanced by persuasive counter points. The Arland kids run wild, get drunk, steal things, sleep around, and one of them ends up with an unwanted pregnancy. It's a disgrace, yet Ugla's memories and experience gradually reveal that no debauchery in the city is without a counterpart back in the North country.
At first, Ugla is repulsed at Reykjavíkers who seem to lack pride (i.e. self-respect), a sense of cultural heritage, and the convictions of a traditonal upbringing, but when she visits Eystridalur after a taste of the city, she sees how these very things, taken to an opposite extreme, hinder her village and keep it in a poverty which suddenly doesn't seem so noble.
There are a lot of interesting social class contrasts here too. The Arland family is spoiled and wasteful, but also cultured and sophisticated. They play Chopan and other refined foreign music on the piano, quote poetry and listen to jazz, but they don't even know any of Iceland's own glorious sagas- some of the oldest and most dramatic literature in all of Europe. Their eagerness to embrace all things foreign and cosmopolitan at the expense of their own cultural identity is tragic to her "true Nordic" values... yet she grudgingly admits that Chopan is beautiful, and is secretly jealous she can only play a few simple church tunes on the harmonium.
Apart from the topical issue of Iceland's role in NATO, The Atom Station examines more general themes about corruption and hypocrisy in a representative democracy. I haven't read Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day", but the vehicle of using a domestic servant's gradual disillusionment with [her] ruling-class employers makes it a natural comparison. The Atom Station was written over thirty years before Remains of the Day. I wonder whether it was one of Ishiguro's influences.
Overall, this was a very enjoyable read; a snapshot of a nation in transition, but also the more timeless story of "The Country Mouse and the City Mouse", set in fascinating and beautiful Iceland.