Thursday, 19 March 2009

Importing the Future

As translator of Icelandic author Ólafur Gunnarsson's prescient novel Miljón Prósent Menn (Million Percent Men, 1978), a book which was written well over 30 years ago and foretells the business and banking "revolution" in Iceland which recently brought the country more or less to its knees, I was intrigued to read Michael Lewis's mammoth essay on the collapse of Iceland's economy in the recent issue of Vanity Fair. Unlike some other U.S. journalists who have covered the Icelandic financial crisis, Lewis has actually spent a reasonable amount of time in Iceland, and has got to know some of the characteristics of this nation, which stands out from the other Nordic countries in several notable aspects. Lewis makes some shrewd comments on Icelandic society and culture, especially with regard to the deep divide between men and women that is typical of them, and also has some surprisingly on-target aperçus on the subject of the national character:
Maybe because there are so few Icelanders in the world, we know next to nothing about them. We assume they are more or less Scandinavian—a gentle people who just want everyone to have the same amount of everything. They are not. They have a feral streak in them, like a horse that’s just pretending to be broken.


Eric Dickens said...

I've just read Michael Lewis' article on-screen, something I rarely do. But the long article was so intriguing that I read it at one sitting. I'm glad that David drew our attention to it. It is the best article I've read about the Icelandic financial crash that is both written in layman's terms, and involves the psychology of nation and gender - a strange combination, but very pertinent under the circumstances.

I'd forgotten the existence of the magazine "Vanity Fair", but this article certainly deals with vanity, and hubris.

I will now find out more about "Miljón Prósent Menn".

Eric Dickens said...

P.S. I couldn't get the link to Ólafur Gunnarsson and his novel "Milljón prósent menn" to work, but I found a brief description of him, in English, at:

David McDuff said...

Hi Eric, the MPM/Iceland Review link works OK on my system. Maybe you could try pasting in the URL directly?

David McDuff said...

The IR article says:

Image of Old Iceland: Million Percent Men by Ólafur Gunnarsson
Review by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir.

Million Percent Men by award-winning Icelandic novelist Ólafur Gunnarsson, originally published in 1978, was recently released in English in the translation of David McDuff.

The book tells the story of Engilbert, who, upon returning to Iceland from America, becomes a successful businessman, leading a luxurious life and being the envy of everyone in town.

Engilbert’s story is narrated by Ernir, his nephew, who looks up to and admires his uncle, and enjoys the many strange stories he tells of his experiences and achievements in America.

The story jumps back and forth in time, and has no real beginning or end. This style of writing is often confusing and after reading the book I wanted to reread it, to understand the story completely. It takes time to realize who the characters are—I think I was half-way through before I had them sorted out.

This kind of style might work for some, but I found it rather annoying. However, the story in itself is interesting and paints a fairly accurate and humorous picture of Icelandic society and how it developed from roughly 1930 to 1970.

Engilbert is a peculiar character, but somehow very Icelandic. Growing up in the first half of the 20th century, Engilbert is of a generation of people who had to work hard to make ends meet and didn’t take anything for granted.

But there were always people who didn’t care much for others and relied on their friends and family to get by, while at the same time taking credit for everything and acting grand. Engilbert is one of them.

In his youth, Engilbert has a rather reckless attitude to life. In his early teens, Engilbert discovers the influence of alcohol and likes it. He spends all of his money and more on getting drunk, and despite the growing pain of hangovers, never stops drinking.

Because of his behavior, and because of his reckless attitude and disrespect for others, Engilbert is fired from every job he finds, or rather, the jobs his father finds for him. Despite all his flaws, Engilbert is loved by his family where he always has a safe refuge, regardless of how drunk or hungover he is.

Finally, Engilbert finds a job he likes and where he is liked—in sales. He proves to be an excellent, persuasive salesman and becomes increasingly ambitious. He is even prepared to work day and night to achieve his goals (without giving up on drinking, though). Then, in search of the American dream, Engilbert travels to the New World and comes back transformed—a true capitalist businessman.

Engilbert is the representative of what is sometimes referred to as “old Iceland.” Even though he is greedy and arrogant, he also realizes that wealth can only be created with hard work and that a business should be built on solid foundations. In “new Iceland,” which has now come to an abrupt end with the economic crisis, the faith in the market was absolute and the belief was widely held that money could be made out of thin air.

Ernir, on the other hand, despite displaying complete respect and obedience towards his uncle, becomes a symbol for new times, for more socialist views. A good example of this is when Ernir asks for a summer job at his uncle’s and Engilbert immediately criticizes him for his long hippy hair, arguing that no honorable businessman would neglect cutting his hair regularly.

Ernir’s father Kjartan, Engilbert’s brother, is also an important character in the book. He is someone who stays in the shadows, who never questions his brother out loud, who does what he is asked of and always puts others before himself.

Kjartan is a loyal, honest and hard-working man, who doesn’t ask for much in life, has simple needs and simple pleasures. But as it turns out, he is his brother’s stronghold in life and he outsmarts him, he sees through his lies and schemes and knows that he is only wearing a mask.

In many ways, Million Percent Men reminds me of Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness’ The Fish Can Sing (1957)—which is an absolute must read. Julian Evans of the BBC also compares Gunnarsson to Laxness by saying, “At the very centre of a Laxness novel there is calm, but at the heart of a Gunnarsson novel a profoundly human turmoil.”

As for Gunnarsson’s Million Percent Men, it is an interesting and often funny read, but also a bit tiresome at times.

Eric Dickens said...

Thanks, David. Just out of interest, for those of us that cannot read Icelandic without masses of dictionary work, there are two news sites in English for general news on Iceland:


I "Tiny URL" longer links to avoid a long messy string of gobbledegook.

The Tiny URL way of shrinking URLs is at: