Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Book 132, Iceland: "Independent People" by Halldór Laxness

And I've finally finished this book! Despite early declarations that I'd be opening my European journey with this Nobel Prize-winner's masterwork, I honestly had my doubts - tried reading the collected Viking poetry of the Poetic Edda, but realised pretty soon that its obscure references were just gonna make my head hurt.

Reason I tried switching over to that book was because I wasn't having such a great time with this one. Sure, my friend Dmitri loved it, and I rather liked the opening paragraph too, with its invocation of the curse of the cannibal witch Gunnvor who has cursed the land in collaboration with the demon Kolumkilli (who is, according to Wikipedia, actually Saint Columba).

But then we enter the real world, and there isn't a single character to empathise with. Bjartur of Summerhouses, our newly debt-free peasant farmer protagonist, is an absolute bull-headed asshole with his desire to be an Independent Person, spouting Icelandic poetry on the spot to show off his cleverness and refusing helping hands from anyone. Meanwhile, his new wife Rosa is always mooning around and doing nothing in her depression - sure, she's enduring horrible squalor and hardship in the dump of a farm she's stranded in, but she just lies there sleeping in instead of actually struggling. [SPOILER ALERT!!!] When she died in childbirth, I thought, well, good riddance. [SPOILERS END.]

It's only in Part Two that we start getting some likeable characters - Bjartur's second wife and kids and mother-in-law, who have to suffer under the affable tyranny of their pioneer dad who deprives them of schooling and meat and milk. There's a particularly moving dramatisation of his daughter Asta Sollija's sexual awakening, the shame and desire wrapped up in this, and her severely compromised liberation in the end. Not a comforting closure at all: everything's about the doom of striving to be independent under unfair capitalist structures, and the sheer stupidity of idealising the lives of oppressed peasants (which quite a few Icelandic writers did!).

There's also an awful lot of nationalism wrapped up in this - the whole story is set around the 1890s to the 1920s, at the very birth of the Icelandic independence movement. But economics forms the centre of the tale: debt bondage, the rise of cooperatives, the financial boom caused by demand for Icelandic mutton and wool during World War I, the bust and the labour strikes that came afterwards. Shades of the prosperity of the Cod Wars followed by the 2008 economic crisis - cycles of riches and poverty, loans and mortgages, comfort and cold.

So yeah, this is a pretty interesting book in terms of the info and ideas presented. But while the cover blurbs talk about writers loving it for its sardonic wit et cetera, I'm just not that much of a fan. It's just another rambling epic novel of the common man. So what?

I'm actually pretty disappointed, because there's so much else in lit that Iceland should have to offer - they say that one out of every five persons there has written a book. And the country's pretty trippy as well - visited back in 2005 with my sister, and I'd love to go back. Maybe I will when I'm doing my UK course.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: In foreign books there is a holy story which tells of a man who was fulfilled by sowing his enemy's field one night. Bjartur of Summerhouses' story is the story of a man who sowed his enemy's field all his life, day and night. Such is the story of the most independent man in the country. Moors; more moors. From the ravine there came an eerie echoing rumble as the headstone crashed its way down, and the bitch sprang to the brink and stood there barking wildly.

Next book: James Joyce's Ulysses, from Ireland.

No comments: