Ten percent of the Icelandic population travelled to France to watch their team play a quarter-final match against the host nation at the 2016 European Football Championship. The fairytale ended there, but they’ll undoubtedly be back on the international stage because Iceland is a remarkable country with a remarkable populace.
My first acquaintanceship with Icelanders was when working on the History of Nordic Women’s Literature, and they were strong, argumentative women – it wasn’t a good idea to get into too much of a disagreement with them. At the time we were working together on the project, I had never been to Iceland, but when I finally travelled there, I realised that their self-assurance was not merely grasped from thin air. Their pride, confidence and self-assertiveness were justifiable and completely explicable.
Not only do the 330,000 Icelanders organise their national community, they can also hold their own within the international community – not just on the football pitch, but on many stages. And they are well aware that they have to travel out into the world in order to acquire new skills and expand their competence and knowledge base.
If you ask an Icelander what he or she does for a living, you will often get a lengthy answer because many people have two or three jobs. This is necessary in order to cover all the functions that keep the wheels of their society turning.
I have been particularly impressed by Iceland’s remarkable approach to literary tradition. In proportion to number of inhabitants, Icelanders read and write more than any other nationality. Works of fiction are afforded high status; every year readers look forward to publication of the new Christmas novel, which everyone reads and discusses.
There are two enormous multi-storey bookshops in Reykjavik, besides a number of – from a Danish perspective – more conventional-sized stores. We have no equivalent market in Denmark, and you have to go to London or New York to see anything comparable.
At the very front of the shop, just inside the door, there are piles of the most contemporary of Icelandic literature alongside sagas in a variety of Icelandic versions and in English translation. Saga literature is not only available in the bookshops, it is an active ingredient of daily life, and people constantly allude to the bygone heroes when fathoming and explaining present-day phenomena.
Historical awareness is also manifest in the fact that most Icelanders can trace their own heritage back to the first settlers in the late ninth century.
The first settlements have been plotted on a map; the collective memory reaches more than 1,000 years back into the past, retold by generation upon generation, and mindfulness of tradition is a contributory factor to Iceland being a nation of storytellers.
When the illustrious Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was elected President of Iceland in 1980, she was the first female democratically elected constitutional Head of State in the world. She remained in the job for sixteen years, and when re-elected in 1988 she received more than 90% of the votes cast. Humanist, feminist, she had studied literature, language and theatre at four European universities.
Add to this the unique natural environment, with hot springs, geysers, active volcanoes and the extraordinary experience of being able to stand astride two major tectonic plates.
The skillful exploitation of water energy and the extent of personal enterprise can but impress. At one point it seemed as if Icelanders were about to buy up the entire world, but when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in 2008 the three big Icelandic banks crashed too.
That could have been the end of the fairytale, but a new chapter opened when the Icelanders chose their own way forward. Unlike all other affected countries, the government took over the banks, let them go bankrupt and then started to clear up the financial mess.
When the prime minister and his wife became caught up in the ‘Panama Papers’ tax haven scandal, citizens gathered outside the parliament building and protested – in an echo of the ‘Kitchenware Revolution’ after the financial crash of 2008 – by banging on pots and pans until the prime minister resigned.
Before the crisis, 90% of Icelandic men took the paternity leave allowed by the most equal system of parental leave in the world. Following the onset of the crisis, this fell to 70%. But Iceland is well on the way to recovery, so the proportion of men taking paternity leave will undoubtedly rise again.
And then we have what is perhaps the most startling statistic: in Iceland men live nearly as long as women; the average life expectancy of 81 years is the highest in the world, and the infant mortality rate is the lowest in Europe.
I haven’t been to Iceland since 2008, but witnessing the recent Icelandic euphoria during the European Football Championship makes me really want to visit the country again.
Translation: G. Kynoch