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The White Book

I’m reading such a great book right now – Hvíta bókin [The White Book] by Einar Már Guðmundsson.

Einar Már – one of Iceland’s foremost writers – has been one of the most vocal critics in this country since the economic collapse a year ago. He has given speeches [one of which I translated here] at demonstrations and citizens’ meetings, and written long articles in newspapers. The White Book is a compilation of those speeches and articles, amended and adapted to fit the book form. Einar Már has kindly given me permission to translate bits from the book to publish here, so as I find passages that I find particularly moving or inspiring I may just flip them over into English and post them. Kind of in commemoration of the first anniversary of the collapse [coming up this week].

The economic bubble that the Icelandic authorities failed to regulate was complete lunacy. This was repeatedly pointed out to them; not once, not twice – repeatedly. But instead of heeding advice the good ministers travelled overseas to act as PR officers for the banks. Along with the banks’ executives they headed off to foreign countries and held press conferences armed with Power Point presentations and bar graphs. One minister went to America, the other to the Nordic countries. Did Geir Haarde and Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir really believe that things would improve if they called press conferences? What sort of politics is that?

Oh, but of course those people are not responsible. There’s no way they could have seen it coming, they say. But they just didn’t listen to warnings. That’s where the responsibility lies, in that clear and obvious incompetence.

The notion that you could blather the situation up or down became a sort of religion. In fact the government hired one of the main blatherers to act as advisor – but he quit upon discovering that advising actually involves real work. We would also like to see the responsibility of the people in the [banks’] research divisions, who appear to have been systematically hired to lie to us. Take a look at the Frjáls verslun salary magazine to see what those people were earning. Hardly ever less than ISK 5 million a month! And for what? For lying? Also, take a look at how some people close to the government had their hands in the pie – and now those people want to investigate themselves! …

What were the heads of the research divisions, corporate divisions and I-don’t-know-what-else divisions getting paid seven million, eight million, ten million kronur a month for? If a publisher paid its poets that much, the publisher would instantly go bankrupt. And yet it seems to me that poems by many writers are infinitely more valuable than the bits of paper those people were pushing around. Do those people not have to take responsibility, work out some realistic wages for themselves, and then deliver the rest to pay off debts? Only in that way will we reach some kind of resolution in this society … but we’re not allowed to say that. This is Iceland today. People from the banks’ research departments appeared daily on television to tell us that everything was just fine, the value of our property was increasing day by day, and that this was the time to take a loan. And there were plenty of loans going around, including those immensely reasonable loans in foreign currencies that were so ridiculously cheap and carried such low interest rates. Of course this resulted in bottomless debt for young people and a completely distorted value system throughout our society. Certainly people are responsible for their own actions, but that sly and cunning system still played a leading role because it added deception and fed it to people, consciously and strategically.

If the public behaved like the government does, then we should now – when we are being submerged in the debts that rain down from the sky – just dump our bills straight into the garbage bin, and then call a press conference. What are the people who are now losing their homes, their jobs, supposed to do? Are they supposed to call a press conference? Do people not see the vast incompetence being played out here? But no – they hold no responsibility. Despite the fact that they were governing the country. It’s like saying: “I destroyed the house, but I’m not responsible because I didn’t realize I was destroying the house.” Would anyone buy that sort of argument? No – but that is the argument that is being fed to us.

[Hvíta bókin, pp. 26-27]

As far as I know The White Book is being considered for publication in English.

WE’VE HAD ALL SORTS OF WEATHER TODAY
Actually these last few days have been characterized by cloudbursts and strong winds – all very dramatic. Earlier today when EPI and I went for a walk around the golf course it was really windy and the waves crashing in were spectacular. Then just a minute ago the sun appeared, so strong that I had to get up and close the blinds so I could see the computer screen [even though the rays hit me from the side]. It’s a refreshing 8°C [46F]. Sunrise was at 7.23, sunset at 7.11.

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  • James September 27, 2009, 7:00 pm

    Sounds an interesting book.

    But he should have been careful mentioning “poems by many writers are infinitely more valuable than the bits of paper those people were pushing around” – an Icelandic bank could easily have started securitising Icelandic poems, recombining verses to create poetic derivatives, obtaining AAA literary ratings, and taking over Borders and Barnes & Noble…

  • hildigunnur September 27, 2009, 8:52 pm

    James, haha, just as well the thought didn’t occur to them…

  • Silvia Planchett September 27, 2009, 9:00 pm

    Bert Pachetta has a suggestion that he posted in Economic Disaster Area:

    Hey, let’s ask Ásgeir he has a Ph.D in “monetary economics” and perhaps he can explain it as well as he explained “The Icelandic Economic Miracle”

    http://www.kaupthing.is/lisalib/getfile.aspx?itemid=6944

  • alda September 27, 2009, 11:09 pm

    Silvia – thank you for that link! Priceless!

  • Nick September 28, 2009, 3:29 am

    Hi Alda
    Thought you may be interested in the following link (Hook Line and Sunk) http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/ that was shown on Australian TV last week.

  • Ljósmynd DE September 28, 2009, 7:07 am

    Thank you for the translation of this excerpt. I am eagerly awaiting the book becoming available in English.

    Ásgeir Jónsson obviously can easily explain everything. My favourite is the following article as a response to the devastating analysis of the Icelandic economy by Danske Bank in 2006:

    http://www.iceland.org/media/DKvidskipti/KBBankiDanish_fantasies.pdf

    After all, this is the site of the Icelandic government, matching the statement of
    Einar Már Guðmundsson about politicians as PR officers for the banks.

    I wonder, if Ásgeir had secretly already sketched out his book (“Why Iceland”) at this time.

    And the spin goes on like shown in the article provided by the Economic Disaster Area:

    http://www.economicdisasterarea.com/index.php/news/ossur-skarphedinssons-adress-at-the-un/

    It’s the address of Iceland’s MFA at the UN. Many boasting words about Iceland’s success in utilizing renewable energy. No mention of those resources being squandered and given away at bargain prices.

  • James September 28, 2009, 11:51 am

    Talking of translations… I heard that Iceland’s ministry of foreign affairs won’t translate the EU’s 368 page questionnaire into Icelandic because its estimated £50,000 translation cost would be too expensive. Perhaps that ministry should invite competitive bids from translators as, assuming it took 3 months effort, that cost is equivalent to a £200,000 salary; and release the result in electronic form only. Or perhaps public sector unions prevent the government from outsourcing such work…

  • kevin o'connor waterford Ireland September 28, 2009, 1:47 pm

    What Language is it in ? If its english then there would be no need as Icelanders seem to be more fluent in english than the native speakers of it Yanks,Canadians,Aussies.Kiwis,Brits,Irish etc. I myself am fluent in Icelandic once I discovered google translate icelandic and cut and paste bits of Icelandic into it and hey presto icelandish sort of !!!

  • Bromley86 September 28, 2009, 3:02 pm

    Most Useful Comment Award 2009 goes to Kevin.

    Thanks for the heads-up on Icelandic Google translation. I’d tried another machine translation, but it was useless. It didn’t even occur to me to try the Google one.

    The nice thing is once you translate a page from somewhere like MBL, all the links and subsequent pages translate. Of course, it might have been a little more useful if I’d discovered it before the change of editor 🙂 .

  • Thom September 28, 2009, 3:28 pm

    kevin o’connor

    I take offence to that. I know plenty of Icelanders, and if you are suggesting that they are more fluent in English than native speakers of English, well, you’re being silly. I am a commonwealth citizen and I am many times more fluent at English than probably every last person in Iceland who speaks Icelandic as their native/first tongue. I think maybe you hear from and read the writing of very educated people, but that’s hardly everyone. Yes, many are ‘fluent’ in English but they will almost never reach the level of idiomatic understanding of a native speaker.

    Also, many older people are not very fluent in English, because in those days I believe Danish was the important language to learn. Alda is this fluent in English because she was (as far as I am aware) raised in Canada in English. I am sure people would enjoy having the chance to read about the fate of their country in their own language. What kind of precedent does it set in the eyes of Icelanders if they are to join some very big international organisation and right off the bat have their native language marginalised by not receiving information in it?

  • James September 28, 2009, 3:36 pm

    Kevin: I just pasted the first couple of questions from the EU questionnaire ( http://evropa.utanrikisraduneyti.is/media/info/Questionnaire_-_ICELAND_(final).pdf ) into Google translate and below is the result. I don’t speak any Icelandic and it may be gibberish, but it does look impressive with its specialist letters, etc!

    “1. Vinsamlega gefðu stutta lýsingu á stjórnarskrá og stofnana ástand á Íslandi.
    2. Hvernig er framkvæmd stjórnarskráin samræmt? Hver eru aðilar þátt og eru viðkomandi færni sína í tengslum við framkvæmd á stjórnarskrá?”

  • alda September 28, 2009, 6:10 pm

    Thanks for the input, all.

    I have to agree with Thom. Most Icelanders are a lot less “fluent” in English than they think they are.

    And personally I don’t see the point of making a fuss about translating those questions – and I don’t see anyone else here doing so, either. Time is short, and translations cost money, which the government doesn’t have much of right now. And in any case, I don’t think those questions are crucial for everyone to understand – they’re part of the preliminary process and most people get the English versions. OTOH when it comes to the public voting on something in a referendum, THEN obviously we’ll need translations.

  • Bromley86 September 28, 2009, 6:24 pm

    Reverse translation of those two questions that James did comes up with:

    “1. Please provide a brief description of the constitutional and institutional situation in Iceland.
    2. How is implementation co-ordinated the Constitution? Who are the parties involved and the skills associated with the implementation of the constitution?”

    Compared to the original:

    “1. Please provide a brief description of the constitutional and institutional situation in Iceland.
    2. How is the implementation of the Constitution co-ordinated? Which are the bodies involved and which are their respective competences in relation to the implementation of the Constitution?”

    Pretty good. It won’t do the whole thing at once, so no one can try to claim that £50k 🙂 .

  • Ljósmynd DE September 28, 2009, 8:33 pm

    There is plenty of room for improvement about the Google translator from Icelandic into German or English. Sometimes, the results are pretty odd and funny. I find it particularly bizarre, that they translate first names. But at least it allows to get the gist of an Icelandic text. It’s like watching a formerly hidden world through a keyhole.

  • kevin o'connor waterford Ireland September 30, 2009, 4:25 pm

    @Thom yes you are right I was being silly !!