Feb 19 2007

Mad as Hell – Interview with Andri Snær Magnason

Iceland Review

andri snaer 

Icelandic author Andri Snaer Magnason was recently awarded for his book Draumalandid (“Dreamland”), which harshly criticizes the government’s policy on heavy industry. Read IR’s Ed Weinman’s interview with Magnason on why he is so angry about this policy and why he decided to write a book about it.

With anger echoing Peter Finch’s character Howard Beale in Sidney Lumet’s classic film Network, novelist Andri Snaer Magnason is not only raging against Icelandic politicians, but also taking on the aluminum giant Alcoa. He’s mad as hell. And he’s not going to take it anymore.

Edward Weinman: You’re a novelist. Why write Dreamland: Self-help for a Terrified Nation, a critical look at the government’s policy of relying on heavy industry for economic growth?

Andri Snaer Magnason: Ninety percent of Iceland’s geothermal areas and glacial rivers are under the scope of the government to be harnessed for aluminum smelters. There’s a belief that Icelandic society cannot grow or flourish without becoming the biggest aluminum smelter in the world. The type of brainwashing taking place around these issues – that’s why I wrote the book.

EW: What type of brainwashing?

ASM: The government has glorified these companies; glorified aluminum as the metal of the future. They ask, “If we don’t smelt aluminum, how can we fly in an airplane?” Well, the aluminum in US landfills from beer and soda cans could renew the US commercial air fleet four times over. The media and the government also tell us that we’ll have an economic breakdown without smelters. But if we raise another smelter the breakdown will be postponed. So they act like they are postponing a crisis.

EW: Why is the book so popular?

ASM: I managed to take the arguments taking place among the underground anarchists, and the anti-globalization movement, and put them into a normal person’s words. I’ve brought up information in the book that the media have not informed us of.

EW: What have the media failed to cover in the debate over environmental protection versus utilization of resources?

ASM: The politicians and media are ignorant to what these aluminum companies are. If you play chess, you study what type of chess player you are going against – his moves, his background, how he has made checkmate. In Iceland, we have decided not to study Alcoa’s background.

EW: What do Icelanders need to know about Alcoa?

ASM: How Alcoa makes business deals; how they’ve left cities in the US after having industrialized and then moved on. How Alcoa makes long-term energy deals. Basic business stuff that we should be aware of. They also have a gigantic environmental lobby pushing projects that are bigger than Iceland’s entire infrastructure.

EW: Is Iceland becoming a subsidiary of the Alcoa Company?

ASM: If Alcoa follows its plan for future smelters here, Iceland will become the A in Alcoa.

EW: If Icelanders are indeed opposed to smelters, why re-elect the same government that championed the Kárahnjúkar dam project in the first place?

ASM: People are having a tough time choosing a party. Only the Left Green Party has really spoken out against the smelters.

EW: Yet the Left Green Party lost a seat during the last parliamentary election.

ASM: I think people haven’t understood the debate. It’s complicated. It’s been tough to follow in the media. That’s why my book has been so popular.

EW: Iceland’s Prime Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson is one of the biggest proponents of luring heavy industry to Iceland to create jobs and fuel the economy, especially in the rural areas. Any message you’d like to send to the Prime Minister?

ASM: The book is the message. I can’t say it in one word. I can promise economic growth with a smelter. And then we need the smelters to get bigger or else the companies will leave. And if they leave, workers will lose jobs. So we should expand them and build more smelters. They blackmail us. The politicians are addicted to the promise of growth to get re-elected. The workers are addicted to it. The contractors are addicted to it. We get hooked on aluminum.

EW: You said in a recent interview that people should stop following the news. Can you explain?

ASM: It’s more that they should know that the news is not enough, and read more books. I think the news has failed. Three minutes devoted to an issue is not enough time. The concept of the news is that you get tangled up in some type of sequence but you never get the full picture.

EW: You’ve written novels, children’s books, poetry and plays. Is your next project going to be activist or literary?

ASM: I’m not quite sure. It depends on my mood. I didn’t mean to write this book in the first place. It was just to be a small case study but it became some kind of critical, political journalism.

Published in Iceland Review 44.02. Interview by Edward Weinman, Photo by Páll Stefánsson.

Update:This interview must have been done before June 2006. Halldór Ásgrímsson, refered to above as Prime Minister resigned in June 2006 due to the shambles the Icelandic economy had got into thanks to his heavy industry policy.