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The Atom Station
By Halldór Laxness
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1982 Halldór Laxness
All rights reserved.
"Shall I take in this soup?" I asked.
"Yes, in the name of Jesus," said the dull-eared housekeeper, one of the greatest female sinners of our time; she had a glossy picture of the Savior hanging up over the steel sink. The younger daughter of the house, a six-year-old tot named Thorgunn, but called Didi, never left her side, stared at her with the fear of God in her eyes (and sometimes with clasped hands), ate with her out in the kitchen, and slept with her at night; and from time to time the child would look censoriously, almost accusingly, at me, the new maid.
I summoned up some courage and went into the dining-room with the soup tureen. The family was not yet at table. The elder daughter, just newly confirmed, came in looking as fresh-coloured as cream except for her dark-painted lips and nails, adjusting with supple fingers her thick, blonde, cork-screw curls. I said Good evening, but she only looked at me distantly, sat down at the table, and went on scanning a fashion magazine.
Then the lady of the house came bustling in with brisk, short steps, bringing with her a chilly breath of perfume; not really a fat women, but plump and sleek and well satisfied, her bracelets jingling. She did not exactly look at me, but said as she seated herself, "Well then, my dear, have you learned to use the electric floor-polisher yet? That's our Dudu there" (pointing to her daughter), "and here comes my Bobo. And then we have a bigger one who's now in his first year at University—he's out enjoying himself tonight."
"How is an innocent girl from the north to memorize these barbarian names?" I heard someone say behind me; it was a tall, slim man with a Roman nose and a fine head, just starting to go grey at the temples. He took off his horn-rimmed spectacles and began to polish them; his smile, although unrestrained, was at the same time a little tired and absent. So this was the Member of Parliament for our constituency up in the north, the man in whose house I was now in service: Bui Arland, business magnate and Doctor of Philosophy.
When he has polished his spectacles and looked at me long enough he offered me his hand and said, "It was sweet of you to come all the way from the north to help us here in the south."
And by that time I had begun to get palpitations; and was sweating; and could not say a word, of course.
He murmured my name over to himself: "Ugla—owl," and then went on, "A learned bird; and her time is the night. But how is my old friend Fal of Eystridale with his herd of wild ponies? And the church? I hope we shall manage to squeeze some money out of this utterly heathenish Parliament next session so that the winds can sing psalms out there in the valley when everything is laid waste. But the wild ponies will have to look after themselves in their own godly way, for the German horse-dealers are now kaput."
How relieved I was that he should carry on talking, to give me space to pull myself together, for this was the first time that talking to a man had ever made me feel funny in the knees. I said that I was going to learn to play the church harmonium, and that this was the main reason why I had come south: "We do not want the valley to become waste."
I had not had time to take notice of the chubby, overgrown Bobo staring at me as I talked to his father while Madam ladled out the soup, until now he suddenly gave a roar of laughter, bulged his cheeks until they could hold no more air, and exploded. His sister stopped glancing at the English fashion magazine and also burst out laughing. In the open doorway to the kitchen behind me stood little angel-face, with no fear of God in her now, laughing and saying to her foster-mother in explanation of this unusual family hilarity, "She's going to learn to play the harmonium!"
Madam smiled to herself as she glanced towards them, but their father gestured at them with his left hand and shook his head and kept his eyes fixed on my face, all at the same time; but did not say a word, and started to take his soup.
It was not until I had become used to seeing the elder daughter seat herself at the grand piano and play Chopin at random as if nothing could be more natural, that I realized how ludicrous it was to hear a big, strapping north-country girl announce in a civilized home that she was going to learn to play the harmonium.
"That's just like you northerners, to start trying to talk to people," said the cook when I returned to the kitchen.
Rebellion stirred in me and I replied, "I am people."
My trunk had already been moved in, as well as my harmonium. I had bought the latter that same day with all the money I had ever earned in my life, and it has still not been enough. My room was on the attic floor, two stories up; I was allowed to practice whenever I had the time, except when there were visitors. My job was to keep the house clean, get the children off to school, help the cook-housekeeper, and serve at table. The house was much more perfect than the sort of gilt-bordered Christmas-card-Heaven that a crooked-nosed woman would sacrifice everything to attain in the next world: it was an all-electric house, with machines being plugged in and started up all day long; there was no such thing as a fire; heat came from hot-springs underground, and the glowing embers in the fireplace were made of glass.
When I took in the main course the laughter had subsided; the young girl had begun to talk to her father, and only the little fat one was gazing at me. Madam said that she and her husband were "going out," whatever that involved, and that Jona, the cook, was going to a meeting. "You are to look after the house and wait up for Bubu with something hot."
"Bu ... pardon?" I said.
"Yet another barbarian," said the master of the house. "Apparently from Tanganyika, or Kenya; or the land where they decorate their hair with rats' tails. That aside, the boy is called Arngrim."
"My husband isn't very chic," said Madam. "He would prefer to call the boy Grimsi. But modern times are chic. Everything has to be a la mode."
Her husband said, "You are from the north, from that unforgettable valley of Eystridale, the daughter of Wild-ponies Fal who is building a church: will you not please re-christen the children for me?"
I would rather be chopped up into a hundred thousand million pieces than be called Gunsa," said the elder daughter.
"Her name, in fact, is Gudny," said her father. "But they cannot get by with less than Africa at its very darkest—bu-bu, du-du, bo-bo, di-di ..." At that, the woman looked hard at her husband and said, "Is that the way you're going to talk to the maid?" And to me: "Clear the dishes and take them into the kitchen, my girl."
NOT AFRAID OF HER
But I was not afraid of her at all, nor was I when I went in to her bedroom with her polished silver shoes (my own pumps had been bought in the village of Krok). She was sitting very scantily clad before a large mirror with another mirror at an angle behind her, painting her toenails and humming. Undressed, she was fatter than I had thought, but nowhere flabby.
When I had laid down her shoes and was on my way out again she stopped humming, saw me behind her in the mirror, and said, with her back towards me, "How old are you, by the way?" I told her—twenty-one.
"Are you quite uneducated?" she asked.
"Yes," I replied.
"And never been away from home before?"
"I had a year at girls' college in the north."
She turned round on the seat and looked directly at me. "At girls' college?" she echoed. "What did you learn there?"
"Oh, nothing, more or less," I said.
She looked at me and said, "You have a faint education look about you. An educated girl never has an education look. I cannot stand an education look on women. It's Communism. Look at me, I passed my University entrance, but I don't show it. Girls should be feminine. May I see your hair, my dear?"
I went over to her and she examined my hair, and I asked if she thought I had a wig, or perhaps lice.
She cleared her throat elegantly and said as she pushed me from her, "Remember where you are."
I was going to leave the room without a word, but she took pity on me and said, to console me, "You have strong hair. But it's a dirty yellow, it would wash better."
I told her the truth, that I had washed it the day before yesterday, before I left home.
"In cow's urine?" she asked.
"Soft-soap," I replied.
She said, "You could wash it better, I say."
When I was half-way out of the door she called me back again and said, "What opinions do you hold?"
"Opinions? Me? None."
"All right, my girl, that's fine," she said. "And not one of those who wallow in books, I hope?"
"I have lain awake many a night with a book."
"God in Heaven help you," said the woman, and looked at me aghast. "What were you reading?"
"In the country, everything is read," I said, "beginning with the Icelandic Sagas; and then everything."
"But not the Communist paper?" she said.
"We read whatever papers we can get for nothing out in the country," I replied.
"Take care not to become a Communist," said Madam. "I knew a lower-class girl once who read everything and became a Communist; she landed up in one of those cells."
"I'm going to be an organist," I said.
"Yes, you certainly come from the depths of the country," said the woman. "Off you go now, my dear."
No, I was not in the least afraid of her, even though she was closely related to the Government and I the daughter of old Fal in the north who was trying to build a roof over God's head but whose ponies went roofless all the year round; and she made of porcelain, I of clay.CHAPTER 2
This house—and our farm
The cook said she had been in many faiths, but had at last found haven in the one which preached the true Christianity. This faith had been discovered in Smaland and was financed by the Swedes, but had emigrated across the Atlantic and was now called after an American city with a long name which I cannot remember. She wanted me to come with her to a meeting. She said she had never received full forgiveness for her sins until she joined this Smaland-American group.
"What sins?" I asked.
"I was a simply terrible person," she said. "But the Reverend Domselius says that I can hop after two years."
According to the Smaland-American faith people started hopping, as it were, when they became holy. But sins so burdened this big-boned woman that she had difficulty in rising off the ground. When I said that I had no sins she looked at me with pity and dismay but offered to pray for me nevertheless and claimed that this would help, for she reckoned that the god of the Smaland-American group paid special regard to her and followed her advice. She had been forbidden to take the child with her to evening meetings, but before she went out she would drag the poor thing out of bed and make her kneel on the floor for a long time in her spotted nightdress, hands clasped under her chin, and recite terrible litanies to Jesus, confessing to countless crimes and beseeching the Saviour not to take vengeance on her, until finally the tears were streaming down the child's cheeks.
All life fled from the house in the evening, and I was left alone in this new world which in a single day had made my previous life a dim memory—I am tempted to say a story in an old book. There were three public rooms, forming an L-shape together, crammed full of treasures. These thousand lovely objects seemed to have come there of their own accord, without any effort, in the way that livestock make for an unfenced meadow in the growing season. Here there was not one chair so cheap that it could be bought for our autumn milch cow; and all our sheep would not fetch nearly enough to seat this whole family at once. I am sure that the carpet in the big sitting-room cost more than our farm, even including all the buildings. We only owned one article of furniture, the sagging divan that my father bought in an auction some years ago, and only the one picture, a portrait of Picture-Grim, as we children used to call old Hallgrim Petursson in his pulpit surrounded by his holy pictures; and also, of course, the old harmonium, my dream, but that had been out of order unfortunately for as long as I could remember, because there was no stove in the room. The wild ponies were our only luxury. Why do those who labor never own anything? Or was I a Communist to ask such a question, the ugliest of all that is ugly, the only thing one had to take care to avoid? I fingered a note on the piano in the house—and what a paradise of tone if it was played in harmony! If there is any such thing as sin, then it is a sin not to be able to play a musical instrument; and yet I had told the old woman that I had no sins. But the worst was when I went into the master's study near the front door, nothing but books from floor to ceiling: no matter where my hand paused, I could not understand a word; if there is any such thing as crime, then it is a crime to be uneducated.
CORPSE IN THE NIGHT
Finally I went up to my room and played on my new harmonium the two or three tunes I knew from the north, as well as the tune that only those who know nothing know: it is played with crossed hands. I was disgusted at myself for being so uneducated, and took out one of those dreary educational books published by Mal og Menning which eventually, one hopes, would make something of anyone who could be bothered to read them.
Thus the evening passed, and the people began to straggle home one by one; first the cook from the Smaland-American absolution business, then the middle children, separately, and finally the master and mistress; soon everything was quiet. But the one I was waiting up for with hot food in the oven did not come and then it was three o'clock, with me wandering about the house to keep myself awake, until at last I dropped off in one of those deep armchairs downstairs. At about four o'clock the doorbell rang, and I went to the door heavy-eyed with sleep and opened it. There were two policemen standing there, carrying between them a horizontal figure. They bade me Good evening, formally, and asked if I lived there and whether they could just dump a small corpse into the hall.
"That depends," I replied. "Whose is the corpse?"
They said that I would find out soon enough, tossed the corpse on to the floor, saluted, said Good night as formally as they had made their greeting, started up their car, and were gone; and I closed the door.
The man lay on the floor, if you could call him a man; he was more or less just at the shaving stage, his hair still bright with childhood, and he had his father's head. His coat and new shoes were covered with mud, as was one of his cheeks, as if he had fallen asleep in a puddle or had been rolled through a swamp; and there was vomit down his front. What was I to do? When I bent over him I heard him breathe. In addition to the stink of vomit, he reeked of poison—tobacco and schnapps. Luckily I had sometimes seen men paralyzed by Black Death at public festivities out in the country, so I knew what was up, and decided to try to bundle him up to his room on my own rather than rouse such splendid and cultivated parents—and they the owners of this wonderful house, too, more perfect than Heaven. I shook him lightly but he only moaned a little, and his eyes did not open except for a thin glimpse of white between his eyelids. I soaked a sponge in cold water and wiped his face, and he was utterly innocent and utterly good and only sixteen, seventeen at the most, and his hand lay open. But he was absolutely dead, except that he breathed. His head lolled back helplessly when I tried to raise him up. Finally I picked him up and carried him in my arms to his room, all the way to his bed. His brother was asleep in the other bed and never stirred. I relieved him of his coat and took off his shoes and loosened his clothing here and there, but could not bring myself to undress a sixteen-year-old youth completely, even though he were dead. Instead, I went up to my room to sleep.
Excerpted from The Atom Station by Halldór Laxness. Copyright © 1982 Halldór Laxness. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
2 This house—and our farm,
3 The house behind the buildings,
5 At my organist's,
6 The mink farm,
7 At a cell-meeting,
8 He who dwells in the mountain-tops, and my father,
9 Bad news of the gods,
10 I am dismissed,
11 The children I acquired, and their souls,
12 The maiden Fruit-blood,
14 Oli Figure murdered,
15 Cold on New Year's Eve,
16 To Australia,
17 Girl at night,
18 Gentleman behind a house,
20 The country sold,
21 All that you ask for,
22 Spiritual visitors,
24 The square before dawn,
25 Before and after atomic war,
26 The house of wealth,
27 Immortal flowers,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Although the book jacket touts this as a 'black comedy', it's not much of a comedy. Other than a couple of farcical characters, this is really a coming-of-age story for a simple country girl, Ugla, in Iceland who travels to an urban area to be a servant for a wealthy and prominent family. It quickly introduces the typical plotlines: romantic interest in the head-of-household, a domineering matron, other house staff as older, more experienced, less likable foils to the main character. Fortunately, the author moves well beyond this nucleus when he drives Ugla, the main character, into the hands of a tiny set of larger-than-life associates outside the main stream. This clique includes a mishmash of vocal and silent, poetic and damned, alcoholic and spiritual. All this is happening during a nationalistic debate over Iceland's relationship with the United States and the opportunity to encourage a nuclear arms race or choose (poor) sovereignty by rejecting 'The Atom Station'. Ultimately, the native good sense in Ugla, mixed with a belabored return-of-sorts to her country home, provides the reader a resting place as she is drawn into a set of typical and dramatic outcomes of two very different love interests.