Boyd Tonkin: It's not so quiet - how the tiny giant Iceland manages to make itself heard

The week in books

It felt like a very Reykjavik moment. In the city hall that perches over the waters of the Tjörnin pond Jón Gnarr, the Icelandic capital's wackily alternative mayor, had just closed his welcome for guests at the Reykjavik literary festival - and the concurrent international PEN congress - with a stirring call to "Free Pussy Riot! Free Liu Xiaobo!" (the jailed Chinese dissident).

Gnarr, by the way, is a genuine comedian (not the amateur political variety) who on his Facebook page solicits verdicts on his tenure with a nod to The Clash: "Should I stay or should I go?" I caught a flash of blue dress at the corner of my eye and turned round to find, yes, the planet's starriest Icelander: Björk Gudmundsdóttir.

In a country of just 320,000 people (but which managed to publish 842 new books last year) everything – and indeed everyone – comes together at some point. Take Björk herself. Novelist and poet Sjón – who heads Reykjavik's Unesco "City of Literature" project – first met her when she was 16, and he 19. "Punk happened to my generation," he recalls when we talk in Alvar Aalto's elegant Nordic House. "I never saw any difference between what my friends in the New Wave bands were doing and what we [the young writers] did".

As for Björk, the future Sugarcube "became an official eighth member of our little Surrealist group". Later, "when the moment came that she wanted a song with an epic and romantic feel, she called me". The result was "Isobel" on her breakthrough album Post. Sjón still "almost exclusively" writes lyrics for his old friend (most recently, three tracks on Biophilia). "It's a great privilege to have her travelling the world and bringing my work to a global audience."

Icelandic words do travel far. From the 13th century, the epic feuds and loves of the Sagas took root in the wider world's imagination. Sjón says that he became "addicted to folk stories" aged eight, and still feels – in visionary historical novels such as The Blue Fox and From the Mouth of the Whale – "constantly engaged in a dialogue with older texts".

In a ruggedly lovely island of empty spaces and harsh lives, the storyteller's words never lost their near-occult force. As writer Jón Kalman Stefánsson explained to me, "To be an Icelander is to talk. The language is what makes us Icelanders." His own fiction has channelled the moods of an exposed place and people for whom "nature and weather is everything" into a trilogy of viscerally poetic novels inspired by the fisherfolk of the West Fjords (Heaven and Hell and The Sorrow of Angels have appeared in English).

How refreshing to visit a nation that bothers to nurture its indigenous writers. Iceland (like Norway) even boasts a stipend system to support authors with individual works. It's not a grant, Sjón insists, but an investment: "It really gave me the opportunity to develop as an author." Of course, Iceland also yielded to the temptations of reckless globalisation. Its madly greedy banks collapsed after 2008 and brought the entire country to its knees. Then the value of culture soon reasserted itself. "Immediately after the crash," reports Sjón, "the number of books borrowed from libraries skyrocketed. Book sales rose." The meltdown confirmed "that we were no good at business". But the living word thrived.

From JRR Tolkien (who mined the language and the sagas) to WH Auden and Simon Armitage, this half-alien edge of the world has enchanted the British literary mind. The tale I took home from Reykjavik – where, from Douglas Coupland to James Fenton and Kiran Desai, a worldwide span of voices also spoke –concerned the value of small-country thinking. You must never close the borders of imagination. Sjón affirms that modern Icelandic culture always draws inspiration from outside and that the work of the 1955 Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness "would have been unthinkable without Surrealism". But still you cherish what you, uniquely and distinctively, possess. More populous states too might profit from that outlook. Instead, our literary chieftains just lick the American boot.

US agents take over the Booker. Time for mutiny

Like Antonia Fraser, I agreed to join the new "e-council" that will advise the judges of the biennial Man Booker International Prize on suitable future candidates. Lady Antonia has now quit on the grounds that we were asked to help without being told of the imminent rule-change that would open up the annual Man Booker to US writers and so alter the entire ecology of both awards. Her annoyance is justified; I too feel deceived. But I'm going to stick around to plague the US agents who appear to run the Booker. It should be fun.

Honour for a shattered memorial

Biennial and open to all forms, the Warwick Prize for Writing (worth £25,000) goes its own sweet way. This week its singular path led to poet Alice Oswald and Memorial: her shattered - and shattering - mash-up of fragments from Homer's Iliad into an eerily monumental elegy for the easily-forgotten dead that all wars deposit like autumn leaves: "Thousands of names thousands of leaves/ When you remember them remember this/ Dead bodies are their lineage/ Which matter no more than leaves" (her version of a famous simile from Book VI of the Iliad).

Oswald's "oral ceremony" of mourning and remembrance has more to say about our mood of dread and doubt about military sacrifice - a mood that a few weeks ago swayed Parliament on Syria, and so for good or ill changed history – than a shelf of routine chronicles of the First World War. If you haven't, read it.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee