Today it is six years since then-Prime Minister Geir Haarde* appeared before the Icelandic nation and delivered his “God bless Iceland” speech, in which he told us, in very circumspect language, that this country was completely screwed. It was a terrifying day. Everyone had their own reaction to the speech: some people wept, some [like me] were numb, some were furious.
I used this scene in my book Unraveled, in which I write about the meltdown as a backdrop to the unraveling of the relationship between my protagonist and her British ambassador husband. Here’s Fríða, and her specific reaction:
Geir Haarde was on the screen before her, looking grave, his skin pasty. “Gódir Íslendingar” – he began, “Good Icelanders. I have requested an opportunity to address you at this time, as the Icelandic nation is facing great difficulties. The world is currently a experiencing a serious financial crisis, so serious that its effect on the global banking system is catastrophic …”
Frida listened, her eyes glued to the screen. The Icelandic banks had not been exempt from this predicament, Geir was saying, and their situation was now very serious. They had expanded rapidly and were now many times larger than the national economy. A bailout was out of the question: “There is a real danger, good Icelanders, that the Icelandic economy would, if all took a turn for the worse, be sucked into a whirlpool along with the banks, and the result would be national bankruptcy.”
There it was. That word. But what did that mean, really? Apocalyptic images flashed through her mind: decaying buildings, people in rags, crying children, desolation, despair, hopelessness.
Now Geir seemed to be outlining some sort of plan to help save what could be saved, some sort of emergency law that would allow the government to go into the banks and take them over. And then what? What about the people, their savings, the normal functioning of society? What about the schools, the hospitals; what about imports: food, gas, medical supplies? What about people’s jobs?
Why the fuck can’t he talk about the things that matter?
The intensity of her feelings surprised her. She stared hard at the TV screen, as though she wanted to penetrate through Geir Haarde’s skull, through to his thoughts, to see if he was really telling the truth, to see what he was really thinking.
“God bless Iceland.”
The broadcast ended. Those last words hung in the air. God bless Iceland. Well, what the fuck was that supposed to mean? Angrily she flicked off the television and threw the remote control to one side. She got to her feet and walked into the next room, then back again. A film started playing in her head. She could see it now. Things would start running out in the shops. Fresh fruit and vegetables would go first. Then other food. People would start hoarding. In fact, they had probably started already. Soon the petrol would be gone, so no cars could drive. Things would start to break down, and no parts would be available to fix things. People would leave in droves. She and Damien would go back to the UK. Their money was safe – silently she thanked her stars for having transferred the proceeds from the sale of her mother’s flat out of Iceland a decade before. She had wanted to move it into that Icelandic bank they’d opened up in the UK – Icesave, they called it. It was an online venture, and despite existing only in cyberspace it had been a tremendous success. Iceland’s very own Landsbanki had stormed onto the UK market by offering the highest rates of interest at any given time. Their marketing campaign had consisted of idyllic pictures of the pure, pristine Icelandic landscapes, and regularly there had been reports in the news of all the millions of pounds that were pouring in. Frida had been filled with patriotic pride and had been this close to transferring her savings into it, but Damien had stopped her. He wasn’t buying the hype – those high interest rates came at a price, he said, and the price was higher risk. She’d been indignant; these were her countrymen, how dare he suggest that they did not abide by the highest standards. Icesave was a branch of Landsbanki, after all, and Landsbanki had been around since the 1800s. Indeed, it been Iceland’s central bank until the mid-twentieth century. A more solid banking institution was scarcely found in Europe. Damien reminded her that the bank had been privatized since then, and the owners were dubious – there was some talk about their ties to the Russian mafia, and one of them had been convicted in Iceland for fraud. “I don’t know why the Icelandic government would consent to sell to such shady characters,” Damien had remarked, at which Frida had ended the conversation, deeply offended. In the end, she had decided to do a bit more research, but other things had got in the way, and eventually she had forgotten about it.
Her cellphone rang, and she jumped. Scooping up the phone, she saw that it was Damien. Her heart started pounding. They hadn’t spoken since their last grisly encounter, and all that she now knew about him … could she keep it together enough to seem normal?
Yes, she could. Her voice was steady and clear. Years of rehearsal in saying the right thing had delivered results.
“Hello my dear. How are you?”
My dear. She felt sick. “I’ve been better.”
“Did you see Haarde’s address?”
She could hear people in the background. He wasn’t alone.
“And what did you think?”
“I don’t really know what to think.”
“We had an interpreter here.”
There was a brief silence, in which Frida registered his reproach.
“Oh. Good that you were able to find someone,” she said, keeping her voice even. “So what did you think?”
“He skirted the real issues very nicely.”
“You think there are things that he’s not saying?”
“Oh, of course. He was being deliberately vague. Surely you noticed that.”
That old derision again.
“Of course I noticed that,” she said, annoyed by the irritability in her own voice.
“There was one thing we weren’t quite clear about, though,” he continued after a brief pause. “Did he say anything about the government stepping in to guarantee deposits?”
“He said that deposits were safe.”
“Did he mention anything about foreign accounts?”
“I don’t think so. Why?”
“It’s important for us to know.”
Ah. So he had an ulterior motive for this phone call. He wasn’t just calling to see how she was. But then again, she should have known that.
“Didn’t the interpreter say?” she asked with deliberate sweetness in her voice.
“No. She wasn’t clear. And we wanted to double check. I have to go now, my dear. I fly in on the afternoon flight tomorrow.”
Frida ended the call and tossed the phone receiver onto the sofa like it was toxic.
He was coming back tomorrow. And everything had changed. Everything.
* After he was ousted from government, Geir Haarde was indicted for his part in the meltdown. He was cleared on three of four accounts, and received no punishment for the one on which he was convicted. Recently he was appointed Ambassador to the United States, the most coveted post in the foreign service.