Culture & Conversation

From clown to mayor

Reykjavik mayor Jon  Gnarr in pants, not a dress

Reykjavik mayor Jon Gnarr in pants, not a dress

How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, by Jón Gnarr, Melville House

If Rob Ford is a politician who strove to be mayor and won but who then became an international late-night clown, Jón Gnarr is the antithesis, a clown who ran as a joke but then shockingly won the mayoralty of Reykjavik.

In 2008, Gnarr founded the Best Party. Much like the Rhinoceros party, it was more of an ironic commentary on the ideological failure of all parties, particularly pro-business ones. The party advocated more fun for citizens, promising a polar bear in the Reykjavik zoo, Disneyland at the airport, and free towels in all swimming pools. It promised to fight corruption by “indulging in it publicly.” A satirical rock video launched it all.

In this book, the author recounts his story, including his beginnings as an irreverent, non-conformist comedic actor. The book begins glibly with descriptions of the Icelandic character. It then delves into the catastrophic 2008-2009 banking collapse which shook the country and pushed voters to take a chance on the Best Party.

The narrative segues into his unexpected climb in the polls and his narrow victory which, of course, brought intense media scrutiny and criticism from opponents. His schedule is filled with work: serious meetings, functions, and lots of report reading. He immediately laments the difficult life of an elected politician and its effects on his health, family life (he has four children), and on his fun-seeking personality. Much of the book reads like a justification for his antics, something for which many conservative politicians and journalists have taken him to task.

Controversial to conservatives but endearing to progressives is Gnarr’s full support for gay and transgender rights. Several times during official functions, and not just during the Pride Parade, he dressed up as a woman. His real tolerance for diversity and playful attitude towards gender come out naturally when he describes how, after being devastated by his mother’s death in 2010, he found comfort in putting on her nail polish and lipstick, including a few times at public meetings.

 Only at the end of the book do a few initiatives he is really proud of come to the fore. A committed pacifist, he took concrete steps to demilitarize Iceland: he attempted to stop the refuelling of navy boats and military aircraft —some carrying alleged terrorism prisoners — in Reykjavik. Since Reykjavik has a reputation as the place that hosted the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev détente summit and Yoko Ono’s yearly tribute to herself and John Lennon, he wrote letters to heads of states and fellow mayors encouraging more peace and disarmament events.

I was disappointed that Gnarr is silent on environmental concerns and that he is agnostic about a number of economic and political issues. He does praise democracy at the end of the book, but only after making fun of it and pointing out how difficult he and most people find it. At the end, he advocates for direct digital democracy: social media discussion, budget simulators, open data and politicians actually answering questions from the public. It does not offer much in the way of economic or urban planning advice, only a philosophical rumination on the life of a politician in these digital-media-driven times of shrinking ideology.

As for myself, a city councillor dealing with Montréal’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy and despair-inducing financial situation, not to mention three children, I felt he had some advice that wasn’t necessarily useful. To reduce stress, it may be helpful to lighten up politics with a bit of humour and to admit to the inherent limits of any one political personality, but this was not necessarily a game plan for assured political success. While not very challenging or rewarding, this book is a quick and mildly amusing read that most digital-age politicos will feel at home with.

Peter McQueen is a Montreal City Councillor for NDG.  While Gnarr was upsetting the political establishment in Reykjavik in 2009, McQueen upset the Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Union Montreal machine by winning against the odds.  An avid cyclist, he is interested in environmental, urban planning and community development issues.

-photo: Aleksandar Radulovic, Flkr Commons

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