By Gauti Kristmannsson, an associate professor of translation studies at the University of Iceland (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 16/10/08):
Icelanders have woken up in a new novel by Franz Kafka, where everybody is guilty by default. One by one, the mighty banks have been seized by the government, and Icelanders, aghast, have been told that each and every one of us owes millions of dollars — to whom, we don’t know. The earnest faces of the politicians, of bankers and tycoons almost crying, give us the final touch of the surreal. The situation is comparable only with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the 9/11 attacks — something final and yet beyond one’s individual grasp has happened.
This time, however, instead of looking on we are in the middle of it. The first 500 bankers have lost their jobs in one go; many others are waiting for the double blow of unemployment and losing their house as their mortgage payments soar. When the Reykjavik stock exchange reopened on Tuesday after three days of suspended trading, its index, dominated by bankrupt financial institutions, had lost 75 percent of its value.
Suddenly, there are lines in the bank for foreign currencies, and there is a limit on how much we can get — overseas banks are refusing to accept our freefalling currency, the krona. One of my students, studying in Spain, can’t get money from Iceland for her rent. Importers and exporters can’t get currency to conduct business. Icelandic tourists abroad have problems getting cash from A.T.M.’s. The British government has applied terrorist laws to freeze the assets of an Icelandic bank; the list goes on as if it were a script for the nightmare of globalization.
We thought we had friends, in Europe and in the United States. They were sought in the hour of need and found to be busy with their own problems; only the Scandinavians were prepared to extend a helping hand, and then, all of a sudden, Russia — somehow the world has changed. The disappointment with our old “friends” is great and people ask, did we really behave any worse than the others?
People joke about going back to the ’70s, when there were restrictions on how much currency one could take abroad and the government devalued the krona regularly to reduce spending on foreign luxuries. It wasn’t all that bad then, they say, apart from the bellbottoms and high-heeled shoes for men, perhaps.
But the jokes are not funny, for we did join the party in the 1990s, we did pour money into our apartments, houses, cars, gadgets, stocks; the money was borrowed, too. After an era of deprivation, we were eager to enjoy the newfound freedoms of capitalism and credit cards. We believed everything would add up; certainly the free-market enthusiasts told us so time and again. And most of us could pay our mortgages and credit cards, at least until last week.
Now that we don’t know if we can, the shock is so strong that neither anger nor sorrow have really taken hold. We thought Iceland was an independent country that could take care of itself without the help of Russia or the International Monetary Fund, that our currency amounted to something, that we could own companies and banks all over the world. We thought we could enjoy our beautiful country and clean air in the backyard of the aluminum smelter.
In many ways, we uncritically accepted the capitalist system, which now appears to have been a gigantic casino without an owner. We did in the end believe that we could get “money for nothing” and now we face the fact that we will get nothing for our money.
What to do, nobody knows, least of all the politicians, bankers, tycoons; but then again, I heard that a new edition of “The Communist Manifesto” will be published here this autumn. Coincidence, of course, but like everything else, unreal. Kafka’s Iceland probably has an ending different from anything that we can possibly imagine.