Setningarávarp á bókmenntahátíð

Setningarræða á Bókmenntahátíð
í Norræna húsinu 10. sept. 1995.

Virðulegir hátíðargestir!

Bókmenntahátíð er að hefjast í Norræna húsinu í fjórða sinn á tíu árum. Enn einu sinni koma hér saman bókmenntamenn, sem skara fram úr hver með sínum hætti. Hátíð eins og þessi minnir okkur Íslendinga ávallt á það, að tunga okkar er ágæti, sem aðeins fáir njóta. Þess vegna kýs ég að ávarpa ykkur á ensku.

It is indeed a great pleasure to welcome all of you here today. Of course I would prefer to address you in my mother tongue, but as I was saying in Icelandic just now, Icelandic is a rarity only enjoyed by few. We Icelanders are very well aware of this fact and as islanders surrounded by the Atlantic we often feel that our culture and language are like a small island in the world culture. One is bound to connect the word Atlantic with Great Britain and North America and therefore with the strong English speaking nations. We are indeed surrounded by the English language.

Our language has not changed from the time of the great Icelandic writers in the 11th to 14th centuries, and it is interesting to note that those were not insular writings but composed from an international viewpoint. Snorri Sturluson the author of Heimskringla and the Edda composed his great works as a contribution to the common heritage of all Scandinavia and thereby Europe. In my view this has been the aim of many of our best writers since then. They see their works as part of the world literature although they are written in a language only spoken by a quarter of a million people.

The Icelandic sagas and the Eddic poems, with its very special and distinctive stylistic traits, were part of the vast medieval literature of Europe and greatly influenced by foreign works of various kinds. Modern Icelandic literature receives constant impulses and inspiration from foreign works and foreign culture. This is not unique for Iceland as all of you are both making a contribution to the world culture while you are open to impulses from each other. Therefore you gather at a festival of this kind, and find it worth while to come here to stay for a few days.

We say that the cultural heritage of Iceland is first and foremost a culture of language, preserved in sagas and poems. As stated so well by one of our linguists, Baldur Sigurðsson: "We had nearly no architecture and painting because Icelanders for centuries lived in dark sod huts where wood rotted quickly. Brick houses in the country were only those built by the Danish authorities for their officials or those used as jails. Our technical culture was impoverished, and music and dance had nearly vanished when people began to think about national folklore at the end of last century. The core of Iceland's cultural and educational policy is therefore linked very closely to the language, its preservation and sustenance in all fields."

I think you have here in a nutshell a description of our cultural history through the centuries. It is only in the last decades that we see Icelanders performing and composing music, take up painting and acting and now also film making, opera singing and ballet dancing. In all those fields we have so far made excellent progress and as in our literature not been insular but wished to be measured at a world scale.

Some are of the opinion, that Icelanders are becoming with English as the most common second language. For many this is thought to be regretted. But is it really so? That can be argued. For my part I think that a good knowledge of a foreign language is not a threat to the mother tongue but rather a necessary key to broaden the horizon.

What worries me when thinking about small cultures in world wide context is how we can preserve them and at the same time make them relevant both inside and outside our small societies in the tough competition for our attention, especially through television. When we Icelanders stop to think, we realise that we hardly ever get the chance to see Icelandic lifestyle presented on Icelandic TV-screens except in the occasional movie. My attention has been drawn to the fact that Icelandic teenagers might never have seen an Icelander eating his breakfast on TV, going to school, taking a bus or dating a girl. They have on the other hand seen thousand American kids doing this. One may ask: Have we removed the mirrors from ourselves? Are we drifting away from ourselves?

While leaving this thought with you I want to stress that in modern Icelandic literature the mirror has not been removed. Many of our best young authors have in their works dealt with their own experience in our modern society. Einar Már Guðmundsson, who was awarded the Nordic Council Price of Literature this year, is one of those young authors and indeed we have every reason to be proud of him.

You have come here to take part in the fourth literature festival organised in the Nordic House. I am sure this event will be as successful as the former three. I wish you a good time here and that you may enhance literature for the good of us all.

Góðir áheyrendur. Um leið og ég óska ykkur allra heilla í starfi ykkar, hef ég þann heiður að segja fjórðu alþjóðlegu bókmenntahátíðina í Reykjavík setta.