Thursday January 7th, 2010

A Man of Means


(Photo above, of sheep in Iceland, 2006, by Helga Kvam)

Independent People by Halldór Laxness
Vintage, 512 pp., $16.00

The Iceland described by Halldór Laxness in his 1946 epic novel Independent People offers no lushness beyond the occasional buttercup. Even in summertime, families survive on dried, salted refuse fish or sour blood pudding. Wheat pancakes are a luxury reserved for guests. Coffee is a blessing, its bitter heat the only relief for sheep farmers who spend most of their days working alone in endless rain or snow. Fat, in the food or on the hungry Icelanders themselves, is almost unimaginable.
“Last night I dreamed I was back at Rauthsmyri,” says Rosa, wife of Bjartur, one of those farmers. Speaking of the nobleman’s dairy where she used to work, she remembers, “from one pipe ran skimmed milk and from the other ran cream, just like when you work a separator. And I dreamed I put my mouth to the cream pipe. […] In the daytime too I’m always thinking about milk. When I’m busy in the meadows raking, I think about milk. And meat.”
Rosa’s craving for something sweet, something rich on the bare moors, becomes so overpowering that one windy, rattling night, while Bjartur is gone, she has paranoid fantasies that the demon Kolumkilli has come to her family’s plot of land. In a scene of domestic gruesomeness that rivals anything in Gothic literature, she slaughters the sheep her husband left her for company, using a scythe blade to hack toward the spine until the animal’s “voluptuous spasm” is over. She calms enough to sleep, returning in the morning to feast on the innards before hiding the rest of the carcass: “the fat-salty tang of sueted gullet, the luscious meaty heart of the young animal, the tender, delicately fibred flesh of the kidneys with their peculiar flavor, and the thick slices of liver sausage dripping with fat from the pot.” It’s the most sensuous prose in the book, and the happiest moment of Rosa’s short married life.
This satiety leads directly to her death: when Bjartur goes to look for the sheep she says has run away, she dies while giving birth alone in their hut, and her husband almost dies as well when he tries to catch a reindeer bare-handed, earning himself a trip across the half-frozen Glacier River and a days-long trek through a blizzard. Feast can be as dangerous as famine in Independent People.
Bjartur, the central character and the archetypal “independent person,” makes Beowulf and other epic heroes look downright tender. Obstinate and rude beyond imagining, he forces his starving family and himself to work 16-hour days while writing epic verse (with perfect internal and end rhymes) in his head. His only allowance is a four-minute nap in the fields after lunchtime. Convinced that capitalism, self-imposed deprivation, and back-breaking work can pull him out of debt and poverty, Bjartur declines all offers of help from neighbors, even killing the cow given to his second wife, Finna, as a gift, because it eats too much hay. When offered the opportunity to enter a farmers’ cooperative, which might allow him to get out from under the local merchant’s thumb, he refuses with insults and threats. In Bjartur’s world, kings are villains, reverends are useless milquetoasts, and a good dog is worth a lot more than a good wife. 
By the end of the book, Rosa and Finna are dead, several of Bjartur’s children have starved or gone mad, and he loses everything when the merchant he favored over the cooperative goes out of business. His efforts to build a house during the boom years of the First World War land him in so much debt that he loses the farm he worked 30 years to buy. In his defense, the collective couldn’t have saved him; the wealthy are aided by new agricultural loans and financial schemes, but the poor suffer on as always, especially once the financial flush of the war ends and shabby Icelandic sheep become less valuable than the skins of the foxes that prey on them. “Human life isn’t long enough for a peasant to become a man of means.”
Laxness was a radical and a Marxist in his later years, but Independent People resists neat political summation, rising above party lines to make broader points about community and human relationships. His fiction lacks the ideological bluntness of, say, Ayn Rand’s, and he is surprisingly funny even in the face of horror: One spring morning, Bjartur comes across the mangled body of his oldest son, who walked out of the house in a snowstorm months previous, and instead of grieving or burying the body, he throws his right glove at the skeleton and walks away, “for it is considered discourteous to leave a corpse one has found without first doing it some small service.”
More importantly, the story has an apolitical heart in the character of Asta Sollilja, Bjartur’s daughter—of sorts. Asta is Rosa’s illegitimate daughter by the local nobleman’s son, but Bjartur’s sole tenderness is directed at her. He calls her “the flower in his life.” She is unsophisticated and not very pretty—her left cheek is thought to be somehow cursed—but she’s interested in people, and craves love with an inarticulate ache, hungry for more of the melancholy ballads and stories that occasionally come her way. When an aristocratic young man begs for permission to hunt and fish on Bjartur’s land, roughing it in finer gear than the farmer’s children have ever seen, Asta dreams about him and wants to tell him the only fairy tale she knows, which she has memorized: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”
Between these two—stoic, blustery hero and wistful teenage girl—lies the real conflict of the novel. Bjartur’s drive for genuine independence, in which no person matters as much as freedom, is condemned by Asta’s need for his love.
Independent People is lyrical, set against spare, elf-ridden moors, and scattered with snatches of verse that presumably come from the youngest of Bjartur’s children, Nonni, who was told once by his mother that he would “sing for the whole world.” Nonni leaves Iceland for America while still a child—the kind who sees the dishes coming alive at night and speaking to each other—and it is possible that the narrator’s voice is meant to be read as his, which gives the novel a tone that’s more commiserating than outraged, even when dealing with blatant injustice.  
It’s through Nonni’s eyes that we see what Laxness is really after. Nonni comes upon Asta sobbing on a hill, newly pregnant and in despair: “This was the first time that he had ever looked into the labyrinth of the human soul. He was very far from understanding what he saw. But what was of more value, he felt and suffered with her. In years that were yet to come he relived this memory in song, in the most beautiful song the world has known. For the understanding of the soul’s defenselessness, of the conflict between the two poles, is not the source of the greatest song. The source of the greatest song is sympathy. Sympathy with Asta Sollilja on earth.” 

Xarissa Holdaway is a writer and editor living in Arlington, VA. She blogs here.

Mentioned in this review:

Independent People