Magazine article The Spectator

Ugla in Wonderland

Magazine article The Spectator

Ugla in Wonderland

Article excerpt

Ugla in Wonderland

THE ATOM STATION by Halldor Laxness, translated by Magnus Magnusson Harvill, L10.99, pp. 180, ISBN 1843430436

This novel is a bit of an oddity. To start with, the translator, Magnus Magnusson, is better known to most English readers than the Icelandic author, Halldor Laxness (1908-98), despite the fact that the latter won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. Then there is the question of timing: The Atom Station was first published in 1948; this translation originally appeared in 1961 and is now being rcpublishcd. According to the blurb, it is 'as relevant today as when it was written in 1948'. This is only partly true: a deeply cynical attitude towards politicians certainly has a contemporary ring to it, but the Cold War political landscape now seems very dated. And to this reader, at least, the novel has a slightly out-of-focus quality; I am not qualified to say if this is a fault of the translation (which reads fluently enough) or is due to the innate strangeness of Icelandic society. The dialogue is often stilted and the tone fluctuates uneasily between the naturalistic and the farcical. Yet Laxness is clearly an exceptional writer and I kept on reading.

The novel is both a political satire and a journey of self-discovery of a country girl from the north who comes to the capital to work as a maid in a rich politician's household. UgIa (which means owl) is a familiar figure in literature, an innocent who acts as a touchstone, reflecting or refracting the essential moral natures of those with whom she comes into contact, be they her suave employer and his pampered family, or the nihilistic artistic poseurs gathered around the 'Organist' who teaches her the harmonium, or the earnest young communists to whose meetings she gravitates. …

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