Sunday, December 6, 2009

Independent People by Halldor Laxness

Laxness, an Icelandic author, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955 for his ability to create epic tales. This is certainly one of them. It’s the story of Bjartur, an Icelandic sheep farmer who is set like a mountain in his ways. He stubbornly bears the loss of family members, attacks on his sheep, political corruption and the changing world around him, set on his goal to live independently and build his home and farm, Summerhouse.
“Yes, it was a good man indeed who could stand immovable as a rock in these times, when everything around him, including money and views of life, was afloat and swirling in perpetual change; when the strongest boundary walls between men and things in time and place were being washed away; when the impossible was becoming possible and even the wishes of those who had never dared to make a wish were being fulfilled.”

The most interesting conflict though, better than Bjartur’s conflict with the world, is his stubborn feud with his equally strong-willed daughter, Asta Solilja. The pig-headed way in which Bjartur disowns his daughter and refuses to make amends makes you hate him, but in the end, as he is weighted down by debt and loneliness and finally begins to admit regrets, it’s hard not to feel for Bjartur. For his entire life, he has been principled to a fault, but principled nonetheless. It is then, as he looks over Summerhouse, ruined by poor financing and poor construction, that he writes:
“For what are riches and houses and power
If in that house blooms no lovely flower?”

Independent People is a book that at times feels like it is being endured, much as Bjartur endurs the harsh northern winters. While there are moments of action, sharp conflict and shocking surprise, much of the novel is concerned with the various diseases that infect the sheep, descriptions of the weather and landscape, the politics of socialism and the poems that Bjartur enjoys writing and reciting. It’s rewarding in the end, but is a slog to get through. It has been compared to Tolstoy. The story at times also reminded me of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, though I would be quicker to recommend that book. As frustrating as it is at times, by recommending Independent People to someone, I’d worry that they might return and throw the book at me.

1 comment:

  1. Márquez is a huge Laxness fan. A good choice for a first Laxness novel is "The Fish Can Sing", much lighter and very enjoyable. Laxness' work is often quite dense, much of it is not really suitable for the casual reader, although it will reward the persistent. A little background in Icelandic culture is also helpful.