Full Circle

Despite Iceland’s image as a leader in green technologies, per capita household waste has been steadily trending upwards in the country. In 2009, the average Icelandic household produced just above 400 kg [882 lbs] of waste annually. As of 2021, Icelandic households were producing 667 kg [1,470 lbs] of waste annually, compared to the EU […]

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To the Manor Born

The story of the Baron

of Hvítárvellir

A bright, mild, late-summer Sunday greeted the festive locals in the Borgarfjörður region of western Iceland who flocked from far and wide to take part in the Þjóðminningardagur, National Heritage Day, in early August 1898. The popular festival featured a variety of events, including traditional sporting competitions, poetry readings, speeches by noted Icelanders and, perhaps most remarkably, waltzes danced to mechanical music. To the loud, clanging machine-driven tune of a curious large wind-up music box called a calliope, couples young and old swayed and danced joyfully to Johann Strauss’ Radetzky’s March, a catchy waltz tune popular to this day. Other favourites included Hip Hip Hurrah March and Die süßen kleinen Mägdelein.

Before the global dominance of Edison’s audio recordings that came to be known as records, this fascinating machine allowed popular music to be played to crowds in the same way we think of 19th-century street organ grinders. The mechanical wonder was generously loaned to the festival by a somewhat mysterious and clearly wealthy foreigner who had recently moved to Hvítárvellir, a nearby farm located on the banks of the mighty Hvítá river: the Baron Charles Francois Xavier de Gauldrée-Boilleau.

A fresh new breeze

Hvítárvellir was one of the finest and most productive Icelandic farms at the turn of the century, with many fertile acres of pastureland, dozens of dairy cows, hundreds of sheep, and access to the plentiful salmon in the Hvítá river. The estate was sold to the baron for the modern equivalent of nearly one million US dollars, an unheard-of price even for such a renowned estate. Apparently, he made no attempt to negotiate the price. At the baron’s behest, the farm immediately underwent extensive and costly modifications. In a matter of months, a new wooden building was constructed as living quarters for the farmhands, which was a huge improvement over the turf and stone huts in which most of them had grown up. 

Among the modifications the baron introduced were a wide range of new machines that were imported and employed, including a mechanical mower, a hay baler, and an odd device that was meant to flatten the bumpy land by tearing up frost tussocks – a familiar geographic feature of Icelandic pastureland. Farmhands’ wages were paid in cash, which was a rarity in those days. The baron demanded to be acknowledged with proper respect at all times; in his presence male farmhands were expected to doff their caps while women were meant to curtsy. The baron insisted on personally approving every hire because he believed he could determine the applicant’s trustworthiness simply by looking deeply in their eyes.

Baron Charles Gauldree Boilleau was a fascinating man and his brief stay in Iceland left a mark on Icelandic history, so much so that in 2004, he was the subject of a historical novel by Þórarinn Eldjárn. The locals were surprised and delighted when the esteemed Baron Bolló, as the locals dubbed him, showed up unannounced at the festival’s reception tent, dressed in exquisite riding gear and casually smoking a Russian cigarette. He was accompanied by a good-looking young man in a suit and tie who he introduced as his cousin, Richard Lechner, whom the locals soon began referring to as the count for no other reason than he was associated with the baron. The foreign pair spoke together in German but made praiseworthy efforts to speak to the festival officials in Icelandic. The dashing foreigner with the lofty noble title asked if he might be permitted to partake in their festivities, which would be completely unprecedented and was immediately approved. Curiosity piqued as the baron registered for the annual horse race. 

A noble visitor

Foreigners, often wealthy Englishmen, were not unknown in West Iceland at the time but were generally considered eccentric if not arrogant, mostly keeping to themselves and ignoring the locals. That such a notable figure as a baron would deign to join the Icelanders in their local gala and even compete in a horse race was welcomed with giddy anticipation. 

His background and reasons for moving to Iceland were largely unknown, but the charming baron, who had become their neighbour just weeks before, had already garnered a reputation for being a progressive and cultured man of vision and conviction. He expertly mounted his beautiful stallion and trotted in perfect tact to the starting line, deftly demonstrating his riding prowess. Hundreds of dismayed onlookers watched as the baron was first to cross the finish line and became the horse race’s undisputed winner. While most cheered the victorious foreigner, some chagrined locals were understandably humiliated, grumbling that the wealthy foreigner must have fed his horse some special foreign fodder to defeat them so handily.

As Baron Gaudrée-Boilleau accepted his award for placing first in the horse race, speculation about just who this man was and where he came from was on everyone’s lips. He was thought to be French based on his name and general appearance, but he had come to Iceland from the Bavarian city of Munich and spoke flawless German with his so-called cousin, Richard. Letters addressed to him, however, came regularly from the United States, which led some to assume he must be American. According to the farmers who sold him Hvítárvellir farm, he spoke English with a distinctive upper-class accent, sounding like the British lords who sometimes fished the Hvítá river. It was rumoured that one time a young woman who had been working as a farm hand at Hvítárvellir walked up to him and impudently asked; “Who are you actually? And why did you come here?” The baron stared at her momentarily, then replied in clear and correct Icelandic: “Don’t you know it is rude to ask personal questions?” 

Only a few months earlier, to wide acclaim, the baron had made his first public appearance. It was a sunny evening in late May 1898, and a concert was held to inaugurate Reykjavík’s recently completed Iðnaðarhús, Craftsmen’s Hall, a relatively large wooden building that serves as a theatre, meeting place and concert hall. Iðnó, built on the banks of the city’s lake, Tjörnin, still stands to this day. The youthful baron proved to be an exceptionally talented cellist. He was also a proficient pianist and an accomplished composer. After promising his local acquaintance, the writer Benedikt Gröndal, to perform at the auspicious Reykjavík Music Association event to a packed audience of some 200 Icelanders, the baron had turned up with a 250-year-old Cappa di Saluzzo cello, an instrument which was completely unfamiliar to the average Icelander at the time. His masterful playing of the “knee-fiddle” or hnéfiðla, as it was reported in the following day’s newspapers, reportedly left music-deprived Icelanders astounded, calling for encore after encore. To the delight of the audience, the baron then improvised expertly with an a cappella singing group, which he clearly enjoyed. When asked by a fan whether he would be willing to perform regularly, he answered that he was actually giving up his music career, but he would be willing to play occasionally for charity. His new passion, he said, with a grin but without any touch of irony, was to become an Icelandic farmer.

Það er strok í honum – He’s a flighty one

Just why the baron chose to become a farmer in Iceland of all places was not clear to anyone. With all his impressive heritage and fine skills, he was used to a wealthy cosmopolitan lifestyle in America and Europe. Apart from studying music for years in Munich, the baron had been cruising frequently to London or New York or spending time in places such as Algiers when not at his family homes in Paris or on the Italian Riviera. Already fluent in seven languages, the baron managed to learn Icelandic with remarkable speed. He came from a privileged background: he was the son of a wealthy French diplomat and had been educated at expensive English boarding schools. His more practically-minded brothers in America were as worried about him as they were mystified, writing: “He was flying high after arriving in Iceland, which made us happy, as we had been following him between hope and fear. On the other hand, we knew very well how quickly things could change for our brother. We knew of his plan [to move to Iceland], but we didn’t take it too seriously. We had hoped that our patience would be rewarded, and that Charles would realise what a pipedream this was but hope that he would somehow find happiness and peace in this absurd place.”

Farming in Iceland was not an especially profitable endeavour even at the best of times. It requires extensive knowledge and hard-won skills, as well as a certain disposition. It was not long before his farmhands and neighbours began to notice the baron’s odd behaviour, demonstrating inexplicable apathy and irrational carelessness on many occasions. When purchasing a horse, he would avoid wasting time with troublesome negotiating and simply ask the seller to name his price. In the middle of important farm projects, which would consume his attention for weeks on end, he would suddenly lose all interest, mount his horse, and ride away without a word of explanation. At other times, the baron would capriciously summon his expensive imported private steamship, which was docked nearby, and order it to sail him to Reykjavík where he owned a comfortable home on Laugavegur. Local farmers commented that the baron was like an untamed horse that would bolt, running off at the slightest distraction. And that the baron was “likely not wholly sane.”

When he decided it would be pleasant to stay in a luxurious tent with all the amenities on a nearby lake, the baron called together the various local Icelandic farmers who owned it and offered them triple the estimated value. After three days of hunkering in his tent while it rained continuously, he abruptly rode back to Hvítárvellir, abandoning his latest acquisition, never to return. In the summer months, the baron would practise his marksmanship with a pistol by shooting at golden plovers. He insisted on eating grilled salmon and mashed potatoes nearly every day. When one of his servants was heavily pregnant, the baron was so repulsed that he fired her immediately. Whether out of shyness or arrogance – and despite his language abilities – when the baron was approached in public he would invariably pretend not to understand and simply walk away.

After a few months of drab living at Hvítárvellir through the autumn and winter of 1898, the baron was bored. He saw business opportunities everywhere, claiming Reykjavík could double or triple in size with the right investment. It was then that he decided to take ever-bigger risks with his remaining money, taking short-term high interest loans when necessary. Looking to drive progress and change, he financed the construction of a hugely expensive modern concrete barn which was to house 50 milk cows and provide higher-quality dairy products to the citizens of Reykjavík. The unfortunate project was destined for failure. Locals did not know what to make of the baron’s bold innovation and baulked at buying milk from what they considered a foreign company. The barn’s construction alone cost three times its budget and the cows produced much less than anticipated. By the summer’s end the baron became depressed and fell seriously ill. Unable to even hold a pen, he was bedridden for months. Before the end of 1899, he was forced to sell the barn, his precious steamship, and various other properties at a tremendous loss in order to pay off his rising debts. 

Upon his recovery, he dismissed the bankruptcy of his dairy project as regrettable but insignificant; there were far greater rewards to be had which would dwarf the year’s losses. The baron’s new plan was to create a huge fishing company with nearly a dozen ships and a modern harbour. The required financing would flow in, he was sure, because it was obvious that Iceland needed to compete with the European fleets that had been exploiting Icelandic fishing grounds since the Middle Ages. All it would take was for the Icelandic Parliament to approve the new fishing company’s charter; nothing but a trifle, surely. Flush with fresh loans from local Icelanders, the optimistic baron set off by ship to London to raise the rest of the capital. Interest in the innovative plan was high and the baron saw no chance of failure. When the Parliament broached the issue in the summer of 1900, however, opponents pointed out that the baron was no Icelander. Discussion went on for months, but the charter’s approval never gained a parliamentary majority. The baron’s fishing company, like so many of his business ventures, was stillborn.


A tragic end

It was a cold winter evening in 1901, between Christmas and New Year’s, in London. On a regional passenger train from southeast London to Victoria Station, the normally uneventful journey was interrupted by the crack of a lone gunshot. The piercing report resonated in the confines of the narrow train carriage and briefly, a nervous silence ensued. The train’s two conductors, who had been checking tickets, quickly made their way toward the apparent origin of the shooting: the only first-class cabin with closed curtains. 

As the conductors cautiously opened the cabin door, their eyes were drawn to an irregular dark stain on the wall, just above an empty seat. Then, they caught sight of a well-dressed young man sprawled unnaturally on the floor, a dark, sleek pool of blood surrounding his head. He wore a gentleman’s high-collared white shirt with an ornate cravat and an elegant waistcoat. They stared wide-eyed at the gaping wound in the man’s head and the blood soaking his wavy brown hair. An antique revolver lay on the floor next to his lifeless hand, the last traces of gun smoke still drifting lazily from the single barrel. 

Speculation among the train’s passengers spread like leaves in a storm. Some suspected an armed robbery, perhaps gone terribly wrong, while others considered the possibility of a deliberate murder. Rumours abounded. Was it a crime of passion, a jealous lover’s revenge? 

Clad in tall dark-blue helmets and matching wool tunics adorned with brass buttons, a small contingent of London police arrived on the scene. Upon the detective’s first examination, there was little doubt that the young man in the blood-sodden, bespoke suit had taken his life, most likely in a moment of despair. A note of requests in the event of his death appeared to confirm that the fatal incident was no accident. The cartes de visite in his elegant but otherwise empty porte-monnaie identified him and his local address in Anerley, Southeast London as Baron Charles Francois Xavier De Gauldrée-Boilleau. The coroner’s brief forensic examination officially registered the death: “…killed himself whilst temporarily insane, shock and haemorrhage due to inflicting bullet wound to head from a revolver.” Due to the letter left in his coat, the police had no trouble in determining that the unfortunate man’s next of kin was a younger brother who apparently resided in the American city of Baltimore. The following day he was duly informed of his older brother’s tragic death via transatlantic telegram. 

In the end, Baron Charles Gauldrée-Boilleau died penniless on an English train by his own hand. His many business ventures were certainly progressive and innovative. Had he chosen to live in a more modern country such as America or France, he might well have been much more successful. Icelanders were quite simply unreceptive to the forward-thinking ideas that the baron was so eager to establish, in part due to the fact that he was assumed by some prejudiced Icelanders to be just another untrustworthy, money-grubbing foreigner. His stay in Iceland was brief, only a couple of years at the turn of the 20th century, but the concrete barn that he built still stands and today houses a convenience store. He left an indelible mark on the emerging city of Reykjavík and in belated recognition of his achievements, charming Barónstígur street in Reykjavík was named in his honour. 


A 19th Century Nobleman in the undeveloped and Isolated Far North

Iceland was a primitive, underdeveloped society at the turn of the 20th century. Although Iceland had been granted home rule in 1874, it was still very much under the control of the Danish Crown, and full independence was decades away. Reykjavik was little more than a foul-smelling fishing village lacking public sanitation, a proper harbour and paved roads. Fewer than 80,000 people lived in the entire country. Vistarbandið, or bonded labour in the manner of serfdom, was not completely abolished in Iceland until 1900. Due to this profoundly unfair tradition, landless farm hands were legally prevented from leaving the farms where they were employed without the permission of the owner, consigning some 25% of the population to abuse and drudgery and with little chance of a better life. As bad as conditions were for men, women typically earned 1/3 to 1/2 of their male counterparts’ wages. Poor infrastructure and impoverished living conditions were grudgingly accepted as facts of life, but increasing awareness of the world beyond Iceland beckoned; nearly a quarter of the beleaguered population had abandoned the meagre farms and migrated to North America starting in the mid-19th century, leaving much of the country depopulated. It is generally considered that the emigres’ departure probably prevented mass starvation.

The Quiet Game

FICTION The Quiet Game by Halla Þórlaug Óskarsdóttir I have twice been asked to stop screaming, both times in a hospital. The first time, my mom was dying. The second, my daughter was being born.  Both instances are shrouded in fog, like I was in some other world. The first time, it was my brother, […]

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Full Haus

There are many theories as to what fosters creativity and innovation in society: education, inspiration, even suffering. Yet from SoHo to Montmartre, there’s one simple ingredient that never fails to foster creative communities: affordable rent. The new hafnar.haus creative hub in downtown Reykjavík is providing just that – as well as a vision to unite […]

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Júníus Meyvant – The Wonderer

Júníus Meyvant is always impersonating other people, and all the people he impersonates are always yelling. His father when he, Júníus, was learning to play the guitar: “Could you play something else!?” His grandfather, on the eve of his 90th birthday, when told he needed to evacuate his home because of an eruption: “I’m not going anywhere!” He, Júníus, when […]

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Sounding Smart

artificial intelligence iceland

SOUNDING SMART What if artificial intelligence isn’t the death of human creativity but a tool to take it even further? SOUNDING SMART “In Iceland, you’re able to establish collaborations with people in three or four hours. You can just call someone in computer science or biology and say, ‘Hey, would you be up for a […]

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Pedro: In Private

Congratulations on receiving the Icelandic Literary Award! That must have been fun?”

“Is this question a part of the interview?”

“Would you answer it differently if this were off the record?”

“Well, yes. I’m still learning how to navigate all of this. You know, getting used to the fact that what you say in interviews then gets published somewhere.”

Despite author Pedro Gunnlaugur Garcia’s initial hesitation, we soldier on.

“I had been preparing for polite letters saying ‘not for us, try again later’.”

He ended up releasing the book under a new title, Málleysingjarnir (The Mutes). “My editor told me that the word ‘conference’ wasn’t sexy and that talking animals were too childish,” Pedro says.

In 2013, Pedro was working at IKEA, stocking shelves. He was turning 30 and he hadn’t really figured out what he was doing with his life. “I was trying to be a normal guy until I found out that it didn’t suit me,” Pedro says. “I had written when I was younger, poems and short stories and such but then I stopped. I wasn’t doing anything creative until I turned 30, and I felt that I’d been wasting my time on things that didn’t bring me any real pleasure and that I wasn’t using my talents.” I’m sure there are 29-year-olds out there who know the feeling. Unlike many others of that age, however, when the thought struck Pedro that he should write a book, he did. 

It took him four years, but in 2017, Pedro was awarded the Icelandic Literature Centre’s Grassroot grant for emerging writers for a manuscript he was going to call Ráðstefna talandi dýra (A Conference of Talking Animals). “And then publishers approached me, which was very unexpected,” Pedro continued in his distinctive self-deprecating, yet genuine tone. “But now I could choose between three publishers.” For an author wanting to get his first book out, it’s an enviable position, but it put Pedro in a weird spot. For the four years he was writing his novel, it had been his and his alone. “It got to grow in peace and become the weird thing that it was. I decided that since I was letting myself do this, why not take it all the way and don’t think at all about who was going to read this. I just wrote to amuse myself. And as a result, it’s a little self-indulgent at times, but it was liberating for me.” Now, it was time to let someone else read it, and even offer suggestions on how to edit it. “I was very shy about it. But it was a relief to get the grant because it made me think that it couldn’t be that bad.”

“I think I was a little too hesitant to kill my darlings, but my editor at Bjartur, Páll Valsson, also realised that the book was weird and strange and that the author was unusual and he very generously gave me plenty of space. He never tried to clip my wings or cut parts of the book like so many people have suggested after it was published. They say it’s uneven, but no one seems to agree on which parts should go.” 

Once the book was released from the safe space of his publishing house, he had to let even more people into what he originally conceived of as his private thoughts. “I was a little rattled when perfect strangers started reading it. Getting reviews in the papers, even seeing it in bookstores, that gave me nerves, which surprised me. I was writing for myself only, doing what I’d always wanted to do, and it had a private meaning for me.” 

“The book is pretty disgusting and weird, and it’s not for everyone.”

No fresh breeze

When the book was published in 2019, this unknown author with the decidedly foreign-sounding name was the dark horse of the season. Pedro went back to his writing desk and three years later, he presented readers with his book Lungu (Lungs). It was another hit, nominated for the Icelandic Literary Prize. “I wasn’t expecting it, frankly. I’d considered it a victory to be nominated, I felt like that meant that I’d made an impact.” This January, it was announced that he’d won. “This might be me sharing too much again, but I had sort of an anxiety attack. I had to lie down on the floor. I was going through some stuff in my life, personally as well as professionally, and it felt like too much.” The contrast between the solitary and personal act of writing and the public event of receiving an award, with all the attention that comes with it, came as a shock. “You spend three years sitting in a corner somewhere, and then you reap what you´ve sown. And don’t get me wrong, I love the reaping, it’s such a privilege to receive this much attention and be this successful. But it has some unforeseen consequences.When I received an award, people who had unfriended me on social media now all of a sudden are my best friends again. So being recognised for your work is one thing, but it’s a whole different experience to receive that sort of stamp, and a statue given to you by the president on TV.” The transition into a public person is a strange and unusual experience for Pedro. “Not that people are crowding me in Bónus, asking for an autograph. I have a tendency to trauma-dump and overshare but I’m still a private person and I’m still learning how this works. ”

His second book took three years to complete. “I’ve never struggled with titles, and Lungs came to me long before the book did. Before I knew what it would be. Then I just had to shape the book around it, figure out why it was called that.”

“It’s my fifteen minutes of fame, and I suppose I have about fourteen more to go.”

"While I was researching for my first book, getting to know life and conditions in Romania, I met a woman who had the surname Lungu, written just like that. And I thought to myself what a great word that was, and how it would be a great book title."

Roots and fruits

While Málleysingjarnir was a story about a family, Lungu revolves around multiple generations. “From the beginning, I had a real strong certainty that I wanted to try my hand at this format. Both because many of my favourite novels are family stories, but this is a generational story. There was something that appealed to me, the chance to write so many different characters and so many different settings.” Pedro also had more private reasons for wanting to write about generational links. “During the writing process, I had a son, and I lost three grandparents around the same time.” For months, Pedro had been stuck in the preparatory stage of writing, creating schemes, mapping the themes he wanted to touch on, outlining characters, without ever getting the story off the ground. All of a sudden, he had a visceral understanding of these large concepts of life, death, and generations. Stories his grandparents had told him became the spark that ignited his story. “I remembered a story that my grandfather told me of his father, my great-grandfather. He was Portuguese and was in the Portuguese army at the start of the First World War. He was supposed to be shipped off to Flanders, in Belgium, but he wasn’t up for that. So, my grandfather told me, he swallowed a bunch of raw olives and went to the army doctor complaining of an upset stomach. He had an x-ray, and the doctor saw black shadows in the images and told him he has terminal cancer. So he got out of being sent away. Almost all the Portuguese sent to Flanders were killed in German gas attacks.” If not for the olives, there wouldn’t be a Pedro.

And that’s how his book begins. “Then I wrote at a maniacal pace, writing tens of thousands of words in a matter of months. ” He wrote the second half on a computer. Momentum took over and characters and story lines came rushing to him. “But the olive story, it was the lightning, the big bang out of which the story leapt.” 

”I’ve rewritten parts to be more gentle on my characters.”

Magic realism and sci-fi

Pedro’s books have been popular with readers and critics alike, praised for their colourful characters, fantastical elements, and vivid storytelling. For many, it’s the maximalism of the story that feels fresh. “I don’t know if it’s in opposition to trends that have been going on, very polished texts with no redundancies. This book just keeps on layering on more stuff. I’ve wondered about it afterwards, if it may be insecurity, not ambition that drives that. I feel like I have to provide so much in order for it to be presentable.”

While he’s grateful for the praise, he’s hesitant to accept some parts of it. “Sometimes I think, if I had a completely Icelandic-sounding name, would people be talking about ‘freshness?’ I think it colours people’s perception that I don’t have a Nordic name and they automatically make connections to South American writers, magic realism. While I admit it’s certainly an influence, I was also influenced by so many other things that people never pick up on. Magic realism is mostly used when referring to Isabel Allende and my namesake Gabriel García Márquez. But fantasy can be found all over the world. I’m not sure how new and fresh my stuff would be considered if I was called something like Jón Emil.” It may be simplistic to throw around the term magic realism for any generational story with fantastical elements but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any connection. “Both  [García Márquez’] One Hundred Years of Solitude and [Allende’s] The House of Spirits are generational stories, I won’t deny that influence. But there are other generational stories such as The Sound and the Fury [by William Faulkner], another favourite book of mine. There’s something about a generational story that captures the root of complexes and neuroses.” 

Parts of Lungu are set in the future, and I mention that elements of sci-fi have been creeping into more and more Icelandic novels recently, particularly with the younger generation of authors. “I think it’s not a premeditated decision to tackle futuristic stories,  just like I didn’t really decide to write a family story. But there’s something in the air, a feeling that we’re about to step into a world that’s radically different. That elements of this new world have been introduced already without us noticing them and that they will expand and change our worldview. Fríða Ísberg tackles the social aspects of it [in The Mark] while I’m exploring biotechnology. There’s a call to face the future and think about what it could look like.”

For the first few years of his life, Pedro grew up in Portugal but moved to Iceland when his parents divorced, before he started school. He’s currently taken on a new challenge. “Translating from Portuguese is a personal challenge since I was so little when I left Portugal, when my parents divorced, so my grasp of the language has never been perfect. I’ve always thought that was a shame, especially since so many people consider that nationality so essential to my character.”

“Also, it’s a book that will go to bookstores and people will read it, hopefully, so that’s something to think about.”

A lonely lighthouse guard  

Both of Pedro’s books centre on family in different ways, but at the heart of them is communication, or perhaps the lack thereof. Pedro admits that that stems from his own life. “That’s 100% me working on my neuroses,” he admits. “The book was written during an incredibly bad period of my life. I went through a breakup with the mother of my child and even though we’ve eventually settled into a good coparenting team, there was so much pain that surrounded it. There are chapters in the book that hurt so much I have trouble reading them to this day. Then the pandemic began, sort of at the same time. So I went through that at a time when we’re cutting back on social communication, almost like going into isolation at the worst possible time.” 

Pouring details from himself and his life into his characters may have been painful, but in a way, the editing process was a healing experience. “I’ve kept manuscripts and returned to them later and found that I’m being too harsh on some people and that the story is too one-sided. Then I’ve had to go back, even add some chapters to find balance.” While he incorporates his own struggles into the text, his books are far from being a transcript of a therapy session. “There’s a primal power in pain, but when it solidifies, it benefits the text to come back to it with more balance and reshape it,” Pedro muses.

When praised for his storytelling abilities, Pedro again finds that his own character is dissonant with his public persona. “Now that my books have been published, people tell me I’m a storyteller. That’s news to me, I’m not known to entertain a crowd with my stories.” I’ve sometimes needed to ask myself afterwards if that is the way I feel about the world.” 

His first book was a little more grotesque and had a healthy dose of Weltschmerz, something his readers noticed. For his second book, Pedro was more aware of the fact that he would eventually present his writing to an audience. “I think in some way, my second book was born out of a wish to reach more people. And I was often close to flattening the whole story out. I was so nervous that it wasn’t good enough that I had someone read it and edit it over and over again.” After multiple revisions, the story was filled with general appeal. It was also becoming bland. “I’d streamlined it so much that it was starting to lose its character. I put the manuscript aside, and when I returned to it, I flipped through the pages and thought that it could have been written by anyone. It was so universal that it had no personality.” He went back a few drafts and revived some of the weird chapters, the ones that weren’t essential to forwarding the plot, but gave it some colour. “There needs to be some unevenness, some perversion, so that the character shines through.”

I ask him if he’s being defined against his will, but he won’t go that far. “I don’t hate it when Auður Jónsdóttir writes that I remind her of storytellers such as Günter Grass and Gabriel García Márquez,” he laughs. “I mean, sure, I’d like to be considered that kind of storyteller.“

“So, you’re going to keep on writing, right, what’s next?”

“No, I might go out on a high note, now I can try doing something else. Or just straight back to stocking shelves at IKEA, what a way that would be to end this interview.” 

He laughs.

“My first two novels focused on families so maybe I’m done with that for a while.”

“Will your next one focus on a lonely lighthouse guard, then?”

“Well, you’re not too far off, really. But I don’t know exactly what it will turn out to be. I’m also thinking that I seem to have hit a formula that works. Should I keep doing books like this? A mix of Nordic melancholy and magic realism? Should I hold on to that or just do whatever feels right next time?” 

Velvet Terrorism

 

“Resistance is always a choice. And there are always new moments for resistance. It’s not just in the prisons, it’s in everyday life.”

UP IN ARMS

Visiting the exhibition Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia, you enter a dark room. You are pleasantly greeted by a man sitting at a fold-up table spread with pamphlets and copies of Maria Alyokhina’s 2017 prison memoir, Riot Days. To your right: a video of a woman in a baggy, black dress fills one wall, blonde hair curling messily out from beneath a red balaclava. Standing above a portrait of President Vladimir Putin, she carefully lifts her dress and pisses all over him.

This is the first-ever museum exhibition of Pussy Riot’s work, and it’s being held at Reykjavík’s Marshall House. Maria Alyokhina has been through much to be here. When, on February 24, 2022 President Vladimir Putin announced the beginning of a “special military operation” in Ukraine, Maria, a founding member of Pussy Riot, watched the announcement from a detention centre on the outskirts of Moscow. Less than a year later, she and fellow members of the feminist punk band and activist group have created a visual omnibus of their political actions, a comprehensive critique of Putin’s Russia, in Reykjavík.

Pussy Riot is in theory a punk band, but their best-known works are acts of political protest and performance art. They first came to prominence in 2012, when they performed Punk Prayer, a frantic 60-second sonic protest at the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, in which Maria and her companions exhorted the Virgin Mary to become a feminist. Indeed, the exhibition’s title, Velvet Terrorism, comes from Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s description of the protest. Several of the band’s members, including Maria (also known as Masha), served time in Siberian penal colonies for the performance. The charges: hooliganism and “religious hatred.”

“I think that art is basically asking the question: 

Do we want to live like this, or not?”

OUT FOR DELIVERY

“I was concerned that all of this visual material might die in the exhibit,” Masha tells me. “We didn’t want any frames on anything.” It’s never easy to incorporate the provocative, rebellious spirit of performance art into the sometimes-musty confines of art museums. In lieu of frames, glitter and brightly-coloured tape decorate the walls, evoking a teenage girl’s poster collage. Nothing here is permanent, the entire exhibition ready to be torn down about as quickly as it was put up.

Among the many images and videos of their diverse political actions, one stands out. Two women, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, are dressed in blue and white sarafans, a traditional Russian women’s costume, accessorised with fishnet stockings and black boots. The scene resembles idyllic depictions of maypole dances, except the streamers are replaced with yellow plastic police tape and the two women are tying up a faceless, masked policeman. Nadya stares at the camera.

After politely pacing among many such images, visitors are finally challenged by a prison guard. To get through to the end of the exhibit, you must surrender your shoelaces, belts, phones, and keys and place them all in a grey, plastic tray. Your personal belongings disappear through a slot in the wall. It’s unclear where they’ve gone.

You are ushered into a small room, shuffling to not trip over your now-loose shoes. In front of you: a closed door. Above: an intercom, broadcasting in Russian. On either side: institutionally grey-green walls. It doesn’t help that the door is rather heavy and stiff. It takes some time to realise that freedom is only a quick, violent push away.

Hanging on the opposite side of the door is a bright-green uniform complete with an insulated backpack, the kind used by online food ordering and delivery services. This is the uniform that Masha used to escape from Russia in April 2022.

“We transported the uniform all the way from Moscow,” Masha says. “It took two months and got here just two weeks before the start of the exhibition. We never really know what’s going to happen to us, so it’s better for it to be here.” Police surveillance is a daily reality for her and her friends (you can always tell Kremlin agents from their bad taste in footwear, she says). And since 2021, Masha has been picked up by authorities for various trumped-up charges, including violating COVID-19 quarantine. For the past two years, she has been under intermittent house arrest, but the decision to flee only came when the authorities announced that she was to serve the rest of her sentence in a penal colony. Having once served out a sentence in Siberia, she had no desire to return.

“Sometimes we need to go out on an errand or whatever, so I came up with this idea to buy the uniform,” Masha explains. “The political police, you know, are quite stupid. The lower-level guys will be tasked with just monitoring you entering and exiting your home, and they often don’t notice much else.” With the help of the delivery uniform and Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, Masha was able to make it to the Belorussian border, and ultimately to Iceland via Lithuania. Ragnar’s exact involvement is left unstated, one of many cul-de-sacs in our conversation for the protection and anonymity of her friends. 

Despite its dramatic nature, Masha is quite nonchalant about her disguised escape. “The most difficult thing,” she tells me, “is making the decision. Once you’ve made your decision, the rest is just practical.”

“Arrests can be fun.”

EARLY ACTIVISM

This decisiveness has defined Masha’s life from an early age. “I was quite a problematic child,” Masha says. This isn’t a surprise. “I changed schools a lot, I couldn’t get along with my teachers. The way they teach in Russia, it’s still Soviet-era patriotism.” It was shortly after completing secondary school that Masha truly became politically conscious. And it wasn’t contact with dissident students in Moscow or radical reading groups – but the destruction of a beloved forest – that led to the leap of faith.

“I read that the state was going to clear Utrish Nature Reserve for an oligarch’s mansion,” she explains. Located on the Abrau peninsula along the Black Sea, only a narrow strait separates Utrish from Crimea. Which at that time was still Ukrainian. Utrish Nature Reserve is also the only part of Russia to have a Mediterranean climate: a little slice of paradise. “It’s a very unique place that should be protected,” Masha says. “I hitchhiked there after finishing school. At the time, I didn’t know anything about activism. I wrote to some organisations like Greenpeace and WWF and asked what I could do. And then I just picked up my backpack and went.” 

She started to collect signatures to save the nature reserve from development, and when she returned to Moscow, she wrote again to Greenpeace and WWF asking what more she could do. From there, things started to snowball: she organised small demonstrations, filmed political actions, and collaborated with others. It was also during this time, as a student at Moscow State University, that Masha met Nadya. Together, they would become two of Pussy Riot’s founding members.

 

PUNK POETRY

Masha’s problems with authority continued at university. “I was studying literature, and all of my professors were writers and poets. They knew what was going on, why were they not in the streets?” While some in the ivory tower agonise over the relationship between art and political commitment, for Pussy Riot’s project, the interconnectedness of the two is quite simply axiomatic. Art and activism at the same time.

For Masha, “punk isn’t a genre of music. It’s a way of life.” And this “way of life” isn’t merely an aesthetic identity. It has to do with asking the authorities difficult questions, being willing to come into real confrontation with the state. This is something that Masha is deeply familiar with, having spent a total of two years of her life in prison, and about the same amount of time under house arrest. “I think art has a responsibility to change the norm,” she explains. “So many things that are normal now, that we take for granted, are still very new. It was totally impossible to imagine gay pride within some people’s lifetimes. You could end up in a mental hospital. Some people had to sacrifice themselves to change the norm. I think that art is basically asking the question: Do we want to live like this, or not?”

Since those early days of activism, Masha and her companions have toured and lectured throughout the world, led major demonstrations, and, of course, made themselves enemy number one in Putin’s Russia.

FACE OF RESISTANCE

A common motif in Pussy Riot’s visual vocabulary is the moment of arrest. This moment, the frequent conclusion to many of their actions, could be seen as an integral part of the performance, the standing ovation to a virtuoso protest. 

In one such image, from a demonstration of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Cossacks in fur-lined ushankas lash Masha and her companions with heavy horse whips. There is a curious detachment, as if neither party particularly wants to be here. The action takes place in the passive voice; there is whipping being done. Masha and her friends stand there stoically disassociated from the blows, while the Cossacks, half-bored, wait for 5:00 PM to roll around, like the rest of us. In other images, Masha’s face is illuminated by a saintly calm. Looking at the camera as hulking, armed guards take her away, she resembles nothing so much as the Pietà.

“Of course, it’s stupid to resist these large men with guns,” Masha says. The saintly appearance is, in a very practical sense, a signal to these violent men that she’s no longer resisting. But her calm passivity in these images also casts absurdity on the proceedings, men in special forces gear surrounding the diminutive Masha. “Even these men are just working a job,” Masha says. “There are definitely some true sadists who enjoy the full extent of their power, but they’re not the majority. The majority are tired. They want to go home to their wife and kids. And just like everyone else, they’re not being paid enough for what they do.” In some of these images, however, the attentive viewer might catch something else: the shadow of a smile. “Arrests,” after all, “can be fun.”

And Masha’s defiance extends well beyond the moment of her arrest. “The penal colonies [often referred to as ‘the zone’], are still the same as in the Soviet Union,” Masha says. Prisoners live on strictly regimented schedules, sewing military uniforms for slave wages. During her time in the penal colony, where she was subjected to a total of five months of solitary confinement, Masha maintained contact with human rights observers. Through learning her rights and hunger striking, she even successfully mounted a campaign to reform conditions from the inside. “I started to defend myself,” Masha remembers. “I asked for a copy of the prison regulations. Many don’t know this, but they have to give you the regulations if you ask for them. I started to read the regulations and I found out it was them breaking the law, not me.” 

But it wasn’t easy. During all of this, guards would sometimes break script, asking her why she didn’t make life easy for herself. Why she always had to take the hard way. But, as Masha tells me: “Resistance is always a choice. And there are always new moments for resistance. It’s not just in the prisons, it’s in everyday life. I knew that if I submitted in prison, even when I regained my freedom, I wouldn’t be free.”

 

THIS WAY: WAR

Over the last year, pedestrians in downtown Reykjavík may have noticed some new graffiti in several locations. Over a field of blue, an arrow points east. War: 3,963 km. Beside the arrow, a black bomb crashes through a house.

An island on the edge of the Arctic Circle, Iceland has always been on the periphery of world history. But it is Iceland’s marginality that has often thrust it into the centre of things as well. Its Mid-Atlantic disposition made it an important shipping lane during the Second World War. It was likewise considered a sufficiently central, yet neutral, location for the famous nuclear disarmament talks between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986. Iceland’s peculiar position has also made it home to high-profile asylum seekers and political refugees over the years, most famously the controversial chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer, who called Iceland his home from 2005 until his death in 2008.

It makes sense, then, that Pussy Riot’s first-ever exhibition took place at the Marshall House. The house, built in the post-war years of development under the Marshall Plan, was originally a fishmeal factory. The Marshall Plan’s goal was to develop post-war Europe, especially Germany, to keep it within the American sphere of influence. Today, the Marshall House is home to Kling og Bang, i8 Gallery, and several other spaces for contemporary art. Iceland, so far away from it all at first glance, is not so insular after all. “War,” Masha says, “is always closer than it looks.”

“War is always closer than it looks.”

Power Player

Diljá Pétursdóttir iceland eurovision

One of Diljá’s favourite Eurovision Song Contest performances ever is fellow-Icelander Yohanna’s song, Is It True, from 2009. Yohanna’s performance, the furthest Iceland has ever made it in Eurovision alongside Selma’s 1999 performance, is still a major moment for Diljá. “I thought it was just so catchy,” Diljá says. “She was so pretty and she was wearing this blue dress with a blue dolphin in the background. I just loved the song and she sang so beautifully.” Ever since, Diljá’s dreamt of representing Iceland in the contest. This May, that dream is coming true as Iceland will be represented in the 67th annual Eurovision Song Contest by Diljá performing her energetic ballad, aptly named Power (co-written by Pálmi Ragnar Ásgeirsson). 

diljá pétursdóttir iceland eurovision
Mummi Lú

Since those early days of watching Yohanna perform, Diljá has already participated in several major song competitions, including Ísland Got Talent and Idol in Sweden. “It was fun and I’m really happy that I did it, but it really didn’t go anywhere,” she says about her time in Sweden. “But I think I overdosed on anxiety in Sweden because I haven’t felt any since then!” 

“I’ve got an athlete’s mindset.”

For someone who’s spent most of her life performing, Diljá has had her share of struggles with anxiety. “I always had huge anxiety problems related to school and competing in singing,” she explains. “I couldn’t handle taking tests. And it was the same with performing. I got so anxious. But I did it because I knew I have to be able to do something like this.” It may not come as a surprise, then, that Diljá’s Eurovision song concerns overcoming feelings like these. “You hold no p-p-p-power over me,” she belts in the chorus.

diljá pétursdóttir iceland eurovision
Mummi Lú

“I think before Idol I took everything a little too seriously,” Diljá says. “Like, I thought it was going to be the end of the world if I missed a single note! If I did something embarrassing, I thought it was just going to end me. But after Idol, it wouldn’t have mattered at all. It’s just supposed to be fun!” 

These days, instead of worrying about her performance, Diljá likes to have some healthy rituals before she goes on stage. A former physiotherapy student at the University of Iceland and a self-professed crossfit addict, health is the guiding light in her life. Before singing, she likes to do some push-ups and stretches to warm up. As she puts it: “I’ve got an athlete’s mindset.” Viewers of this year’s song competition even got to see Diljá do some callisthenics on-air, and her stage presence is nothing if not athletic.

“We’re going to use the opportunity to make it a lot bigger than we ever could in Iceland.”

diljá pétursdóttir iceland eurovision
Golli

Diljá also says there are big things in store for her at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, which will be held in Liverpool. According to her, the expectations have gotten a lot higher since she watched Yohanna perform many years ago. In March, fans of Eurovision in Iceland tuned in to watch Söngvakeppnin, Iceland’s competition to select its Eurovision representative. It’s a sizeable TV event but decidedly more humble than in, say, Sweden.

“There’s such a huge gap,” Diljá says. “Some countries’ selection contests are almost as big as Eurovision itself, like Melody Festival in Sweden. Söngvakeppnin is always getting better and better, but still, some countries have a big advantage.” Icelanders should, however, rest assured. The details of Diljá’s Liverpool performance are still under wraps, but as she says, “We’ll all be on the same field once we’re in Liverpool. We’re going to use the opportunity to make the performance a lot bigger than we ever could in Iceland.”

“At the end of the day, it’s the one week a year where everything is just supposed to be about music and it’s just supposed to be fun.”

diljá pétursdóttir iceland eurovision
Mummi Lú

Although Diljá’s got big plans for Liverpool, there’s a part of her that will miss experiencing Eurovision at home in Iceland. “I always watch it with my family,” Diljá tells me. “It’s a sacred holiday for me and my mom.” And Diljá is quite dedicated to this family tradition. “Two years ago, I was acting in a play, but it was going to be performed during Eurovision. And I just said, I’m sorry, I can’t do it! I have to watch Eurovision with my mom.” For Diljá, the ideal Eurovision experience includes getting cozy with her mom, some sparkling wine, and take-out pizza. “I never like going to these big Eurovision watch parties some people have,” she explains. “I’m here to listen to the songs! The show is on, we can always hang out after.”

Diljá isn’t going to jinx herself with any predictions, but she’s confident she’ll go far. “I know I’m not ranked super high internationally right now,” she admits. “But it’s all going to change when they see me in Liverpool. I think my chances are good. I know I’m headed to the finals, and that I’m going to shine there.” 

diljá pétursdóttir iceland eurovision
Mummi Lú

And if Diljá does become the first-ever Icelander to win Eurovision?

“I would go for a very long walk,” she laughs. “I’d probably need to be alone and ground myself because it would just be too much. I think there’s a good chance I’d just lose my mind if that would happen!”

Icelanders are famous – perhaps infamous – for taking Eurovision rather seriously. What, ultimately, does Diljá think that Eurovision is really about? “At the end of the day, it’s the one week a year where everything is just supposed to be about music and it’s just supposed to be fun,” Diljá says. “It’s so excessive. And I love it!”