The first comprehensive book about Iceland’s economic meltdown came out here in Iceland last Thursday [June 5]. It’s entitled HRUNIÐ [THE COLLAPSE] and is a formidable piece of work. The list of sources alone numbers 1,459 and the book is eminently readable, even as events are reported with a cool, almost chilling, accuracy. Its author is Dr. Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, historian and professor at Reykjavík University, who has a number of books to his credit, including a groundbreaking work on wiretapping by Icelandic authorities during the Cold War. So enthusiastic was the response to HRUNIÐ that it nearly exhausted its first printing of 3,000 copies on the first day and two major bookstores sold out completely. A second printing is already underway. Guðni sat down with IWR to chat about the book.
IWR: You started writing HRUNIÐ when the actual collapse was still happening. How hard was it to have an overview of the project when everything you were writing about was still going on?
GThJ: It was pretty hard. However, I decided right away on the framework of the book, which made it easier. It had to be written fast and I couldn’t let myself pass any final judgments on any of the events.The narrative spans the period from mid-September 2008 until the end of January 2009, when the government collapsed. I had to write it more or less as a chronicle of events, day by day and sometimes hour by hour. The book doesn’t go into much analysis of why things happened. I don’t think that’s timely – there are so many things that still need to come to light. The deeper analysis will need to be made at a later date.
IWR: Having delved into the chronicle of events, do you think the public got an accurate account of what really happened?
GThJ: I think that those who made an effort to follow what was going on got a pretty accurate account of what was going on at the time. I don’t give much weight to conspiracy theories. However, the deeper causes of the problems within the banks are coming to light now. There was a lot of dubious activity there that is now being exposed. Also, I know that the rift between the two coalition parties in government was much deeper than the public or the media got to see. The government was basically on life support from October 2008 onwards. But it’s understandable that they didn’t want to pull the plug on the coalition in the midst of a crisis. At the time, all options were bad options – it was a question of finding the one that was the least bad.
IWR: What sources did you primarily use?
GThJ: I used the media: newspapers, radio and TV interviews, programs like Kastljós and Ísland í dag, because they usually conducted lengthy interviews with the main players. I also used the Internet a lot, read blogs and looked at Facebook – especially during the protests, because Facebook was used to rally people to the demonstrations and protests. I also read blog comments. I read the most popular websites: mbl.is, Eyjan, Vísir, RÚV … and The Iceland Weather Report. In January, when the protests were happening, I read Dagblaðið NEI. The Internet actually played a large role in my research for this book. It’s a whole new dimension for historians and will be instrumental in changing our work practices in the future.
IWR: Did anything come as a surprise to you while writing?
GThJ: I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to access sources. Even people in senior positions were prepared to meet with me for a chat. I also got good access to written documents: memorandums and so on, and Ingibjörg Sólrún [Gísladóttir, then-leader of the Social Democratic Alliance] let me have access to emails and SMS messages in her possession.
IWR: I read a blog post the other day, in which the author was writing about the collective grieving process that the Icelandic nation needs to go through, and how HRUNIÐ makes a vital contribution to that process. Do you agree?
GThJ: I don’t know. I suspect that’s a very individual thing. Maybe this book will help people and if so, then great. For me, personally, writing the book wasn’t part of any such process. I don’t feel like I have a lot of grief to process because I wasn’t hard-hit by the kreppa. I don’t have a huge mortgage and I don’t have any loans in foreign currencies and I didn’t have any money invested in stocks. My wife and I are both still working. That said, I have family members who lost a great deal, and I know a lot of people are suffering.
IWR: Do you think our reputation as a nation has suffered?
GThJ: I think we Icelanders tend to overestimate our importance in the rest of the world. Before the collapse we believed everyone thought we were so great, so smart and cool and whatever. Now we believe everyone thinks we’re idiots. I think the truth lies somewhere in between. The fact is that we’re a tiny nation and most people aren’t paying a great deal of attention to us.
IWR: Is HRUNIÐ going to come out in English?
GThJ: As far as I know, there are no plans for that. But I think it has relevance. I know there is a handful of books about the collapse set to come out in English and with all due respect for foreign journalists, they are really handicapped when writing about this sort of thing because they don’t speak Icelandic. They may be really good at gathering information, but they just can’t capture what really happened here. There were a lot of articles written by foreign journalists last fall and winter, and they were basically all in this “fire and ice reporting” style. They would make references to the “barren landscape” driving in from the airport, the Blue Lagoon, the Hotel 101, the elf bullshit; they’d make the round of the pubs and bars; before they came they’d know who they were going to talk to: one or two cabinet ministers, a couple of MPs, one or two writers, a couple of media people, a former banker, and someone who was in dire straits because of the kreppa. They certainly weren’t bad reporters and in many cases they were better than their Icelandic counterparts, but somehow their articles all ended up sounding the same. So a book in English by someone who was there on the inside would probably not be a bad addition to the flora.