One True Note, Laxness

 The Fish Can Sing (Vintage, 2008)

A genius of a book. A brilliant book. A book that grabbed my heart. 
How could I, coming from Gimli, with some Icelandic genes and a lot of Icelandic history and culture, not have read this book before now? It makes one wonder about the waving of flags and toasts to Iceland and speeches and Viking helmets and all that and just how meaningful it is when someone like me hasn’t read The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness.
How many North Americans of Icelandic descent have read The Fish Can Sing? Raise your hands. I think I’m going to ask this question at next year’s Islindingadagurinn. That way I won’t feel quite so guilty. Guilt likes company.
I have excuses. I lived in Iowa, Missouri, British Columbia. None are hotbeds of Icelandic culture. But I’ve never missed an Icelandic Festival and never turned down a piece of vinarterta. Surely, part of that experience should have included reading stories by Laxness. He’s the only Nobel prize writer we’ve got. It’s not like Laxness’s books aren’t available. Tergesen’s always has them on sale and you now can buy them on Amazon. They’re not expensive.
This is an easy book to read. For one thing, it is a happy book. It’s about a little boy without a father and whose mother, when she leaves for America, hands him to an elderly couple. The couple at Brekkukot treat him in every way as a beloved son.
The narrator is that boy grown-up. He explains that since he has no father, his last name is Hansson which means ”His-son.” There is no man’s name, Arni or Baldur or Ragnar so that he could be called Arnis-son, Baldurs-son, or Ragnars-son.
The couple who take on the role of both parents and grandparents but are neither, they’re not even married to each other do not just feed and clothe him but provide him with a set of moral values, with security, with an education and, finally, with an opportunity to rise in the world.
Brekkukot is just a fisherman’s cot but it also is a place of refuge. People who need a place to stay come there, sometimes staying for years on end. These visitors help to provide the boy, Alfgrimur, with an education. People come to get well, others to die. The property lies beside a graveyard and it is here that Alfgrimur hears singing and eventually sings over the graves of those who cannot afford to pay someone to sing for them.
Nearby lives an elderly woman, younger than the woman he calls grandmother, but nearly blind and deaf. She has a son who has become famous as a singer in Europe and who has the stage name Gardar Holm. Many people assume that Alfgrimur and Gardur Holm are related but the relationship is never defined. Gardur Holm takes an interest in Alfgrimur, buys him cakes, gives him money, counsels him.
The book is about fishing for lumpfish, about eating cream cakes, but it is mostly about poor Icelanders who are presented in a way that is dignified, that makes them human, that allows them to be proud in spite of their poverty. These are people who are honorable and, who, in spite of a lack of formal education, ask profound questions.
Alfgrimur gives us a picture of his grandfather, Bjorn of Brekkukot, that brings him to life. Here was a man who was never heard referring to anything contained in the sermons but wouldn’t accept even a Bible without paying for it. When a neighbour steals precious peat from him then, with a guilty conscience, brings it back, Bjorn invites him in for coffee, discusses what has been done and ends up giving the peat to the thief.
Bjorn would not have been out of place in New Iceland. I recognize him. As a child I knew rough fishermen, usually stolid and silent, strong, even hard but they, too, seeing someone with less than them would have given the thief wood from their woodpile.
This book is a delight because of the sympathetic descriptions of the people with all their oddities and foibles. However, it also raises serious questions about the purpose of life and the way it is lived. Bjorn ignores the marketplace. He does not lower his price when there are fish in abundance, nor does he raise his price when there is a scarcity of fish. To him, fish have a value whether they are abundant or scarce.
 Gardur Home is presented as a world famous operatic singer. He appears and disappears, always with rumours of his success swirling around his visits. Gradually, though, the façade that he presents is shattered. 
At a dinner in his honour that ironically is really about the success of the merchant who has provided the money for Gardur Holm to go to Europe and to have a singing career, the merchant says that “it isn’t enough that Icelandic fish should have Danish ribbons and bows, it has to have the ribbon of international fame. In a word, we have to prove to the rest of the world that ‘the fish can sing like a bird’. And that is why we who sell the fish have made great efforts to improve the cultural life of the nation”.
But Gardur Holm in talking to Alfagrimur tells him a story that reveals what his life has really been like. The grant of money is seldom much and it often doesn’t arrive. It is the story of artists yesterday, today and tomorrow. It is the story of artists in a society that values fish and profits or aluminum smelting and profits or banking schemes and profits over all else. 
The artist, as Gardur Holm describes him, is a poor wretch desperately clinging to the small gifts given by the merchants of fish. (or, if you wish, the Canada Council)
At the beginning of the book, the narrator says, “I think that our own standard had its origins in my grandfather’s conviction that the money which people consider theirs by right was unlawfully accumulated, or counterfeit, if it exceeded the average income of a working man; and therefore that all great wealth was inconsistent with common sense. I can remember him saying often that he would never accept more money than he had earned.
“But what does a man earn, people will ask? How much does a man deserve to get? “
This book was first published in 1957. How more relevant could it be to a society that has been told that greed is good? A society where bankers steal a good deal of people’s money and lose the rest through incompetence, where bonuses are obscene and retirement packages beyond all reason? Where a small percentage of the population takes more and more of society’s wealth?
The questions and objections being raised by the Occupy movement and others, even the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of England, are all here. For those who are prepared to fight for social justice, a picture of Halldor Laxness on their flag would not be amiss. 
This is a book to enjoy but it is also a book to ponder.
Put it under your Christmas tree. Time is running short but you can still get a copy for someone who wants to be proud of his Icelandic background.

Paradise Reclaimed

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.