Jul 11, 2007

Paradise Reclaimed

Laxness, Halldór. Paradise Reclaimed. Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson, with an introduction by Jane Smiley. New York: Random House, 2002. (Originally published 1960) 304 pgs.

Another Laxness character that I want to SHAKE--hard! Steinar has some lovely qualities (generosity, naiveté, a simple faith in himself, trust in others, and a very wry sense of humor). But: he is singleminded and simpleminded, and his simple faith can lead to unforeseen consequences.

The beginning of the book details Steinar's journey to greet the King of Denmark, and to present him with his white pony Krapi, the finest horse in the country. The King of Denmark is visiting Iceland in order to celebrate the thousandth anniversary of The Settlement and to give the Icelanders their constitution. Many Icelanders seem not to be duly grateful for this honor. After all, "despite the fact that they were the most indigent nation in Europe, all traced their ancestry back to kings." When Steinar meets the King, this engaging dialogue ensues:

Sheriff Benediktsson spoke up..."I crave your Majesty's pardon that our farmers all speak like this," he said. "They cannot help it. The sagas are their lifeblood." King Kristian replied, "This has just about convinced me that most kings would find it does not pay to argue genealogies with farmers here in Iceland. "

"Perhaps too many Icelanders felt that the gift [of the constitution] merely represented something which was already theirs by right...". This sentiment is also expressed, eloquently and concisely, by the poor farmer Steinar himself when he first meets the king: "I wish to proffer you the thanks of my district for giving us what is already ours, namely, permission to walk upright here in Iceland." Still he chooses to give the King his most valued possession, harkening back to the sagas and Audun's similarly selfless gift of a bear to the King of Denmark some 800 years earlier.

Steinar's growing relationship with Mormons shows similar anomalies. His first contact with a Mormon is when he happens upon one who is preaching his faith at Þingvellir, and is about to get soundly trounced for it. When confronted the Mormon replies, "I always stop when people are going to beat me up." Steinar befriends this Mormon, and their growing relationship dictates the action of the novel. When Steinar leaves his hapless and helpless family to visit Denmark, and subsequently leaves for Utah to seek out what the Mormons have found there, the reader is left crying "why, why?" Why leave your family to the lecherous and ill-intentioned landowner, Björn of Leirur; why give away your most valued possession, the pony Krapi that your children love so; why follow a whim with no thought for the future?

Laxness creates interesting, albeit frustrating characters, and his prose sings. How about this description: "she shut her eyes and threw herself headlong into the surf-topped ocean of laughter, where she was tossed from wave-top to wave-top until sorrow washed her ashore again and she opened her eyes."

I never regret reading Laxness, but I love many of his other books more than Paradise Reclaimed.


Professor Batty said...

I have to admit that was a tough one for me as well. Are you having any luck procuring Salka? Perhaps a certain ersatz professor could be persuaded to lend out his copy?

Rose said...

That would be so great, PB! I would take extra good care of your book, and return it like a good librarian should. By the way, be on the lookout for a really exciting blog entry...as soon as I can get a few minutes online! (Currently we're "borrowing" bandwidth from my Dad's neighbor who isn't too security conscious).