An Icelandic Book Review: Independent People

Last night, just as the plan touched down at Louis Armstrong International, I finished the English translation of SJÁLFSTÆTT FÓLK, "Independent People," by Halldór Laxness, the only Icelander ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Given the rigors of law school and the bar, it took me somewhere around six months to finish the book.  But, in a way, I'm glad it took me a while.  It allowed me to savor and fully appreciate what I found to be a truly good book.

A number of reviews and synopses out there hang themselves on this peg: that Laxness was at one point a decided leftist with socialist and communist sympathies.  They view the work through that prism.  But I found that the book, with its myriad deft insights into and criticisms of human nature, skewered the left just as much as the right, even if a tad more subtly.  In his glorious descriptions of the efforts of the politician Ingolfur Arnarsson Jonsson's efforts to bring co-operative societies to the Icelandic countryside, Laxness is every bit as good as Ayn Rand revealing the vile underlying nature of Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead.  Laxness did, after all, later condemn Stalinism after witnessing some it firsthand in the USSR.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  What is this tale about?  It's the story of a poor Icelandic sheep farmer, Bjartur of Summerhouses.  He's a stubborn, unfortunate, but fiercely autonomous man, a sort of Job who decides he's not going to take it anymore.  But, although he almost never shows it (and is downright harsh at times), he retains a soft spot - his adopted daughter Asta, his little flower.

The story unfolds in the first two decades of the twentieth century on a hardscrabble sheep croft in the moors of Iceland.  I enjoyed the first three quarters of the book the most because they really, with the exception of a few key words, could have taken place at almost any point in the preceding two centuries.  The life of the rural Icelandic farmer was uncommonly harsh and unchanged until the World Wars brought transformation.  Bjartur's family inhabits a supposedly haunted valley and the plot unfolds in very close quarters.

The intimacy of the portrayal of traditional agricultural family life eked out on the edge of disaster brought Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth to mind on a number of occasions.  And, more importantly, I actually invested myself in the characters - little Nonni, the impossibly aged Hallbera, the annoyingly middle of the road Fell King, and the mean, miserly Bailiff Jon of Myri.  

Through it all, Bjartur curses, huffs, and rams his way along, pounding coffee, eating refuse fish, and taking tobacco.  But he has shadings to him - for all his bluster, there are times when he must concede on his program of utter independence.  It's a moving story, at times, because it is not easy, it is not fair.

Laxness also manages to weave in an in-depth look at the economic and political changes swirling in Iceland just after the turn of the century.  Some might find them a bit tedious, but he does a better job than, say, Joseph Conrad in Nostromo.  He doesn't beat you over the head with them.  And even if he does on occasion, it's because they drive the story along - sheep prices, for example, skyrocket during World War I, which leads to some interesting consequences.

Overall, within the austerity of the Icelandic landscape, Independent People is a rich, rooted story with enough grist to sit and talk about at length.  And at points, it's sheer beauty, a perfect distillation of the strange, wild, harsh, mystical aura that one gets when in Iceland.  More than most books I've reviewed or recommended in my time on the blog, I think you'll find some value in this one.  I think it deserves a higher place in the literary rankings.

* Last summer, I visited Halldor's house,  Gljúfrastein in Mosfellssveit, just outside Reykjavik.  Clearly, he had gotten over his bout of socialism.