We should all read Laxness because his books answer many questions.
For example, I knew that a man needed to be worth the equivalent of four hundreds to marry but what are four hundreds? I would have asked Haraldur Bessason but he isn’t with us anymore. So I asked Laxness. He isn’t with us anymore either but his books are still with us and we can get answers to our questions by reading them.
In Paradise Reclaimed Laxness says that Steinar’s farm was worth twelve hundreds “whereby one hundred was the equivalent to the price of a cow.”
If you know about hundreds, then when Laxness says in Independent People that when the Bailiff of Myri’s wife married the Bailiff, “She had added a hundred hundreds of land to the estate as her dowry and had stocked this land afterwards on obtaining her inheritance.” She was the daughter of “a boat-owner in Vik”. Her family was so rich that when she married she brought with her as a dowry the equivalent of a hundred cows. When she got her inheritance, it was so large that she was able to stock all this land with cattle. The rich and politically connected families married each other. The Bailiff wasn’t going to marry some hired girl and the daughter of the boat builder wasn’t going to marry some crofter.
Bjartur, the protagonist of Independent People, had to work eighteen years to save the down payment on a terrible piece of land, a piece of land on which no one had been able to prosper . However, with making a down payment on this land, he is able to marry and so the novel begins not just with his purchase of the land from Myri but his marriage to Rosa, one of the female servants of Myri.
He is suspicious of the arranged marriage, the enthusiasm of the Bailiff’s wife for the marriage and he asks his new bride, Rosa, in a roundabout way if she is not already pregnant. It turns out that she is. The Bailiff’s son has made her pregnant and the Bailiff’s wife is using Bjartur to cover up what her son has done.
There is not much described of what went on at Myri, no flashbacks of Rosa in the hay with the Bailiff’s son, but in Paradise Reclaimed, we see the seduction of Steina. She’s a young, just confirmed, girl, naïve, living on her father’s farm. She has no experience outside the farm. Bjorn of Leirur, is worldly, older man with powerful political connections.
Steinar, the protagonist of Paradise Reclaimed, has inherited his farm from his father. He is not rich. However, he is very careful, treats his land and animals well. He is described as meticulous. He asks Bjorn of Leirur for some mahogany from a shipwreck. In return he says that Bjorn may use his homefield to feed his horses. In Iceland, where grass is the most precious commodity, this is a generous offer. Steinar then leaves for Denmark. In his absence, Bjorn abuses the offer and brings not one or two horses to feed on Steinar’s homefield but hundreds. A homefield and its cultivated grass is precious, necessary for survival. Bjorn’s horses destroy it. Bjorn also impregnates Steinar’s innocent daughter.
After Steina has had a son and visits Bjorn one late night to ask him what he knows about her father’ s fate, Bjorn discovers that she intends to leave for Utah to join the Mormons. Bjorn, who has denied that he was the father of her child, decides he wants to keep him in Iceland. That men like him get many young women pregnant and then declare that they are not responsible is clear from the sheriff’s reply. He says, “Yes, I’m branded as an idiot,” said the sheriff, “for not sending you all to jail where you belong.” He doesn’t just say “you” but “you all”.
The gulf between the peasants and the wealthy, well-connected farm families is made absolutely clear in that a few lines after the conversation about his illegitimate son, Bjorn and the sheriff begin to discuss “something that is worth spending words on”. That is a chance to buy a trawler from England, a steam ship that can catch as much fish “as all the seamen in fifty fishing stations in Iceland put together.”
Read Laxness. Really read Laxness. Don’t just skim his words. Ask yourself how what Bjorn of Leirur did to the trusting Steinar and his daughter, Steina, any different than what the bankers recently did to Iceland? They were trusted. They held important positions. They had strong political connections. They betrayed the trust of the people just as Bjorn of Leirur did. They destroyed people’s home fields.
The Bailiff’s wife in Independent People says, “Whenever a poor man married and set-up as a crofter in the dales, she , too, would marry in the spirit and kiss his footsteps. She therefore lent a large tent for Bjartur’s wedding, so that coffee could be drunk in the shelter and a speech made.” But she didn’t say that she was using him to cover up the indecency of her son who got Rosa pregnant.
And just a paragraph or so later, the narrator says, “Meanwhile the women folks, sitting inside were holding a whispered discussion about Steinka of Gilteig….She had had a baby the week before, you see, and several of the women had been running to volunteer their services in the croft…for all are eager to help when somebody has an illegitimate baby, or at least during the first week, while nobody knows who the father is.”
Laxness tells us what a hundred is. He describes Steina spreading butter with her thumb. He tells us many details of life at the time the books are about. He helps us envisage the past. That is part of his genius. His eye for detail. His understanding of his society. But he also describes Icelandic society in a way that helps make today in Iceland understandable. When we hear and read about people demonstrating, beating on drums, demanding justice, we only have to remind ourselves of the agent Bjorn of Leirur with his gold and silver coins, and we know why many people in Iceland are so angry.