Independent People: An Epic, by Halldór Laxness.
Translated by J.A. Thompson, introduction by Brad Leithauser. New York: Vintage, 1997. Originally published 1946.
I began this book over a year ago, and after many fits and starts just couldn't get into it. I took it to Iceland with us, and reading it there allowed the book to grab ahold of me. Independent People is quintessential Laxness. It evokes an era of Icelandic history that is past, and brings that era to life with grace and power. Visiting the area where the story takes place, in the south near Vik, it was very easy to imagine the people who eked out a living there a hundred years ago.
The story features an irascible sheep farmer, Bjartur of Summerhouses. He is short-sighted when it comes to the people around him, yet has a strong and unyielding vision regarding his place in the world--his place as a man who owns land and sheep, a man who is dependent upon no one. Unfortunately this vision is battered time and time again by circumstance. Iceland at the beginning of the twentieth century is a hard, unforgiving land, and social equity is not on close terms with the poor. Despite the tragic undertones inherent in the plot, the characters are drawn with great originality and humor in true Laxness fashion.
Bjartur is fearlessly direct in his dealings with the people who make up his world, whether they be rich or poor, honest or shams. Bjartur is "determined to meet everything with equanimity." The Bailiff, who is a man of much stature in the community, responds to Bjartur's plain language by saying, "Yes, old boy...you always would have your little joke, wouldn't you?" Yet Bjartur doesn't dissemble or trifle with others; he shows very little evidence of humor. He is single-sighted in his pursuit of maintaining his independence and caring for his beloved sheep, and when he sacrifices everything--including his family-- in pursuit of these goals it is hard not to despise him. It is a credit to Laxness' skill that he draws Bjartur so finely that you can't hate him as you want to, because you understand him. Most authors buy your allegiance to their characters by allowing them to change, to become more as you might want them to be. Not so Bjartur! One is never disappointed by seeing him be less than true to his nature.
Delicate, tiny mosses grow in Icelandic lava, if you look closely. You will find some little beauty in Bjartur as well, beauty that is colorful, varied, subtle.
Has Halldor Laxness written a book that is less than perfect? How beautiful is his language? Try this:
It was the shortest day. The sky grew overcast during the morning, with low clouds, snow-charged and threatening, hanging half-way up the mountain slopes. No wondrous gleam lit soul or landscape; there was only a little midday no sooner come than gone, yet how much darkness was needed to wrap it round!