Ísland, by Eliot Weinberger
In Jacket 4. Photographs by Stefan Weinberger
Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Iceland has created the most perfect society on earth, one from which the rest of the world has nothing to learn. For its unlikely Utopia is the happy accident of a history and a geography that cannot be duplicated, or even emulated, elsewhere.
Outside of the South Pacific, no ethnic group so small has their own entirely independent nation-state. There are only 268,000 Icelanders, of whom 150,000 live in and around Reykjavík, the capital. The second-largest city, Akureyri, known for its arts scene and night life -- their Barcelona -- has 14,000. In the rest of the country there are few people, and the treeless wilderness of volcanoes, waterfalls, strange rock formations, steaming lava fields, geysers, glaciers, and icebergs seems like the ends of the earth, as though one were crossing into Tibet and found the sea.
Nearly all the roads are sparsely travelled and unpaved, yet this is a modern Scandinavian country where everything works, and where the state protects its citizens from birth to death. There is universal education and no unemployment, no poverty and no conspicuous wealth. Per capita book consumption and production is by far the highest in the world. They live longer than almost anyone else. There is no pollution: the entire country is geothermally heated...
... One travels through Iceland with The Visitor's Key, an extraordinary guidebook that follows every road in the country step by step, as though one were walking with the Keeper of Memories. Iceland has few notable buildings, museums or monuments. What it has are hills and rivers and rocks, and each has a story the book recalls. Here was a stone bridge which collapsed behind an escaping convicted murderer, proving his innocence. Here lived a boy whose magical powers were such, he could wither grass. Here a man died of exposure in a snowstorm, not knowing he was a few yards from his house. It is said that two chests of silver are hidden somewhere on this hill. In this hot spring, a famous outlaw boiled his meat. A man was buried here because the horses carrying his body refused to take another step. Here a man who stole more sheep than he needed was slain by a 12-year-old boy.
[More in Jacket 4.]
Photo below: Writer Eliot Weinberger and photographer Stefan Weinberger, New York, 1998. Photo copyright © John Tranter 1998.