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Writing the kreppa from the inside

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?

guc3b0ni-thGThJ: 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?

hrunidGThJ: 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.

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  • Don in Seattle June 8, 2009, 2:13 pm

    I’d find this a most informative book, so I hope it does get published in English.
    This is a story that needs to be told and understood thruout world.

    Not being familiar with the publishing process, is there anyway the book can be translated and then sold as a downloadable book via the internet?

  • Ljósmynd DE June 8, 2009, 6:11 pm

    I would be very interested to read this book translated into English. I think it has relevance beyond Iceland, even though many issues of the whole topic seem to be special to this country, which of course I expect to be best explained by Icelanders themselves.

    I remember many of those articles about Iceland, which were full of the mentioned stereotypes and cliches. But not everything written by foreigners is necessarily biased in this way. The recent analysis of the crisis by Robert Wade “Iceland as Icarus” seems to me quite to the point (at least as long as some insider explains its flaws).

    It’s obviously the season for a first round of kreppa-related books. I have just ordered one by Halldór Gudmundsson, which has been published recently and is available in German (“Wir sind alle Isländer”). It caters to the Iceland-as-the-canary-in-the-coal-mine aspect of the crisis, which is certainly a prerequisite to be successful outside Iceland.

  • Alexander E. June 8, 2009, 7:21 pm

    Alda.
    Don’t YOU want to translate the book? 😉
    This would be logical.

  • Alp June 8, 2009, 8:59 pm

    Gudni’s rsponse to the last question (Is HRUNIÐ going to come out in English?) is much as I saw it when the crisis was underway: I had left Iceland only a few months earlier. I was frequently irritated by the superficiality of some reporting. However, to be fair to the foreign journalists who descended on Reykjavik in droves last October, their editors and sub-editors back home probably had as much to do with copy remaining simple, with a bit of added colour, as any desire, or laziness, on their part to file the obvious. I am sure that the general editorial view would have been that readers/viewers/listeners who knew little about finance and even less about Iceland would simply not engage with esoteric reports.

    And while I don’t disagree with my friend Gudni’s analysis of what the crisis has done to Iceland’s image overseas (penultimate question), and have no wish to exaggerate the impact on perceptions, there’s no denying that as the kreppa was unfolding Iceland was the focus of world attention. And, unquestionably, the superficial reports and stereotyping have left lingering impressions of Iceland (not necessarily all negative) among some people, not least those who were affected by the financial turmoil. Many of whom knew very little, if anything, about Iceland before the financial crisis.

  • hildigunnur June 8, 2009, 9:09 pm

    Yeah, I think Alda would be an excellent translator for this book. Somebody should find an English or US publisher to pay for translation and publish, this book really has relevance elsewhere.

  • alda June 8, 2009, 9:12 pm

    Thanks, all, for the input.

    Don – of course any book can be made into an e-book, but at the end of the day it’s what the publisher wants to do.

    Alexander – ditto. To translate or not to translate is not up to me.

  • Jessica June 8, 2009, 11:07 pm

    I would suggest that this book be published in English (among other languages potentially) in order for it to be used as a textbook for business or finance courses at the university level. It would provide great case studies for ‘what not to do’ with banking!

  • North Horsies June 9, 2009, 1:39 am

    I second Alexanders idea — all in favor, say Jo!

    Don’t know who we should suggest this to — the publisher? Someone who stands to make mega- kronur off the sale of it to the non- Icelandic speaking world?

    But seriously, there’s such a need for a clear explanation of what went on- in the non-I. speaking world, to help us all have a better grasp of what’s ahead. So let’s get our favorite meteorologist on the job!

    Yrs

    Holly

  • Alexander E. June 9, 2009, 2:11 am

    “Alexander – ditto. To translate or not to translate is not up to me.”

    I understand. The summer is coming and you need an excuse to be outside. 🙂

    But seriously – it shouldn’t be a problem to convince Icelandic publisher to do English edition now (after first prints were wiped out). Unless Dr. Guðni is going to do it himself. But he already has the job and must give other a chance 😉

  • Lee June 9, 2009, 11:43 am

    Sounds very interesting. If it were released in English (ideally with an epilogue summarising what was revealed after January), then I’d order a copy. If the publisher isn’t interested but the author retained foreign exploitation rights, then maybe he should contact foreign publishers (surely a British publisher would be interested) or self-publish using one of the many companies on the Internet. Also, he may think that “most people aren’t paying a great deal of attention to us”, but I suspect he’s underestimating the foreign interest in such a book – I could easily imagine an English version being reviewed by The Economist, etc…

  • Nancy USA June 9, 2009, 11:13 pm

    Let me add my name to the list of people who would like to see this book published in English, with Alda Kalda as the translator. I think Iceland’s Kreppa (did I use that word correctly?) is a microcosm of what is happening in the rest of the world, and this is an important story.

  • Tasha July 16, 2009, 3:00 am

    Please translate it (if you don’t mind)! Dr. Jóhannesson came and spoke to my class and gave a very abbreviated version of his book. I’m not economically-minded at all so I really appreciated his historical telling of the events (and he’s pretty funny too!).

  • D_Boone July 20, 2009, 12:13 pm

    As an English speaking person who has visited Iceland several times in the last year I fully agree that the English news articles on Iceland’s Kreppa are often very shallow. In fact many appear to reflect the translated English articles written by the local press…. I get the feeling that the real back stories, widely known by the locals, are slow to emerge into English and often heavily censored. Is this the Icelandic way of controlling other countries perceptions? I suspect in part it is, but I also feel the locals don’t need a long background explanation, a few words or a reference to a family says it all. This robs the translated English articles of their real context. However, I am also surprised at how little progress has been made towards bringing to justice those whose actions primarily caused the crisis. This needs to change.