Laxness: Björn of Leirur

There were no psychiatrists in Shakespear’s day but he didn’t need one to create Iago. He didn’t need one to create Hamlet. Or King Lear. He simply needed to observe the people around him. He understood motive and desire and how it drove people to act in evil or self-destructive or foolish ways.
That’s what sets out a great writer from a mediocre writer. The ability to observe, to notice the tiniest details of how someone acts and to understand the meaning of those actions. It might be no more than the crooking of a finger, a glance, a turn of the head but it will tell the reader or the audience the inner mind of the character. Browning, in an act of genius, wrote “My Last Duchess” and within the confines of a poem created a portrait, not only of an innocent victim, but a portrait of evil in the person of the Duke. In no place does he say the Duke is evil. All is indirection.
In Paradise Reclaimed, Laxness creates a picture of the sociopath, Björn of Leirur. Laxness needs no course in psychiatry. He observes and records and gives us a devastating picture of both an innocent victim and a portrait of evil.
We begin with his foil and, perhaps, with his fool, Steinar of Steinahliðar. The farmer, Steinar, is so scrupulous about his property that he would never see damage or deterioration of any kind, indoors or out, without making haste to repair it.“ He is held up as an example of how a farmer should be. Through generations, the family has built up a farm worth twelve hundreds. Given the hardships of cold summers, hard winters, the regular fall of rock onto the fields, the diseases of both the people and the cattle, this is a major accomplishment.
Steinar is not rich. With the income from  his sheep  he is able to buy rye-meal and barley and other necessary items from the trading store at Eyrarbakki. Some old ewes are slaughtered for meat. The family does not wear Danish shoes. Shoes are made at home. In years when times are hard, Steinar spends the winters working on a fish boat. This was no little thing for the drownings of the fishermen are many, the work brutal. The fishermen live lives of extreme hardship.   
When Björn of Leirur, the repository of evil, appears, he comes with sheriff Benediktsson who is both his patron-collaborater and competitor. Björn has courted the sheriff from his arrival, even currying his favour by giving him horses, cattle and land. It is obvious from the description that they represent how society works in Iceland. The wealthy, ambitious farmers forming corrupt bonds with government officials.
Björn has gone to the major trading station at Eyrarbakki for training, then to Copenhagen to work for the Danish merchants. The Danes still control Iceland. When he returns to Iceland, he is appointed as the clerk to the sheriff at Hof. He receives some derelict crofts, joins them together, marries a woman because she is wealthy. With his land and her money, he has advanced in life and when the book begins, he is travelling the country as an agent for the Scots. Iceland is so poor that actual currency is seldom seen. Payment is often made in wadmal or butter. The Scots traders have gold and can afford to pay cash for ponies and sheep. As their agent, Björn is able to pay gold, silver and copper coins for shipment to Scotland. Björn also buys up wrecked ships. Any time someone runs into financial difficulty, he is there to take over the distressed property.There are many distressed properties because most small farmers have no savings. Their lives and their families lives depend on the weather, on the growth of the grass, on how much grass they can harvest to feed their cattle. No grains grow in Iceland. It is a country with one crop.
When Björn and the sheriff arrive at Steinahliðar, Björn gives Steinar´s children each a silver coin. His innocent gift presages the later coins that he will give to Steinar´s daughter.
There is here, right at the beginning, a foreshadowing of what is to come as the Sherrif says that Björn has had sex with , “all the better-class housewives and farmer´s daughters over in the west
Time passes and Steinar‘s daughter, little Steina, is confirmed. Religious confirmation in Iceland was and still is a major event. It is regarded as a significant passage. In both Independent People and in Paradise Reclaimed, confirmation signals to the men in the story that a girl is sexually ready.
The King of Denmark comes to Iceland to give the people a constitution. Steinar is too unimportant to be asked to the festivities but, inexplicably, decided not only to go to the outdoor reception for the king but to take him a gift of a white horse. This is no ordinary white  horse. He is the kind of horse that a farmer might have in his herd once in ten or twenty years. Both Björn and the sheriff have tried to buy the horse but Steinar has turned them down. Steinar loves his daughter and son and they love this horse with all their hearts. Steinar knows this but takes the white to Thingvalla and gives the horse to the king. The king, in return, invites Steinar to visit him in Denmark. Steinar returns home and, master craftsman that he is, he conceives of another gift for the king. He is going to build an intricate cabinet full of secret compartments. However, wood is a precious commodity and nothing he has will allow him to create the cabinet.
He goes to Björn of Leirur who is genial, kisses him (kissing as a way of greeting between Icelandic men was normal) and asks him what he wants. Steinar says he needs mahogany. Björn has recently salvaged a ship with a lot of mahogany. Steinar accepts a gift of some mahogany and, as if in an afterthought, Björn says to Steinar, “Listen, my dear chap, since you happen to live on the main track, would you not let me graze my colts on your pastures for a night or two if I should  happen to be driving them down this summer for shipment to the English?”
And Steinar, in all innocence, judging Björn as he would himself, says ‚You will always be welcome at Hliðar with your colts, night or day, bless you, my old friend.“ And Björn, liar and manipulator that he is, says, “It may well be that I´ll have a few drovers with me.“
And Steinar, foil or fool, replies, “You are all welcome at Hliðar for as long as you can find houseroom there. Good friends make the best guests.‘
Steinar, in all innocence or naivete, has made a bargain with the devil. He expects Björn, in spite of his reputation for both greed and womanizing, to behave within the bounds of good friendship. If he has heard that when you sup with the devil, you should use a long spoon, Steinar does not practice it. It may be that he, master builder, master craftsman, model farmer, since there is no evil in him, is not capable of recognizing the potential for evil in others.
He builds  his magic cabinet from mahogany. He goes to Denmark to give the king the cabinet and leaves his wife, daughter and son with the care of the farm. Under normal circumstances, they should be able to manage.
He is not gone long when Björn turns up one night in a rainstorm with two drovers. He tells Steinar´s wife about Steinar´s offer of grass and a place to stay. He has asked if he can bring a couple of colts to eat grass. Steinar has said that would be fine. To understand the betrayal that will take place, it is necessary to understand how precious is grass. Life depends on it. Every farm has a tún. That is an enclosed field that is manured. No animal is allowed into this tún. It is here that the best grass is grown, where hope for survival in the coming winter is placed.
Björn has said that he might have one or two drovers with him. Again, to Steinar´s wife, he says the same thing but instead of two drovers, ten fill up the living room. Having been given an inch, Björn takes a mile.
In Iceland, it was a common practice to have a room for guests. There were no inns. When people travelled, they often did so in dreadful weather. They sometimes stayed in tents but, more often, they stayed in churches or at farms. There were no roads and all travel and transport was by horse. Times when travellers would arrive, could not be predicted and farmers and their families, wakened in the middle of the night by people needing shelter would get up and provide food and a place to stay.
For a long time, it was common for the eldest daughter to help a traveller off with his clothes. Travellers were often cold, soaking wet and exhausted. Björn’s drovers don´t get the guest room. Björn does. Björn, following the old custom, asks that Steina help him get undressed. However, he immediately breaches the rules of both friendship and hospitality. This a girl who is around fourteen. She has never left the farm. She has no experience with any men, except a very shy, brief flirtation with a boy from a neighbouring farm. Björn pats Steina´s head and cheeks like he would that of a child but then runs  his hands over her breasts, stomach and buttocks. He then asks her to sleep at the foot of the bed.
In the morning, the family is startled “for Steinar’s hayfield and meadows were swarming with a greater horde of ponies than had ever been seen in these parts.” Where Björn had asked for pasturage for a couple of horses and Steinar had agreed, there were now 300 or 400 horses.
The home field in Iceland was the most precious piece of ground on a farm. It was fenced with a rock or turf fence, no animal was allowed on it, it was fertilized and, from it, the precious grass that would keep the stock through the winter was harvested. In Iceland there was only one crop. Grass. During the three months of the growing season, enough hay had to be harvested to keep the stock for nine months. If there was no hay or not enough hay, the animals died. When the animals died, the people died. That is what happens in a one crop agricultural economy.
Already during that first night the home-field had been trampled beyond repair.“ The family is doomed. The generations of carefully husbanding the ground, keeping the stone walls in repair, building up the flock of sheep and the herd of cows is destroyed. The act is not just irresponsible but wanton. Björn of Leirur knows full well the consequences of what he has done and he has done it without any conscience whatsoever.
He will compound that by getting Steina pregnant. Although she does not understand its significance, he gives her a gold coin for taking her virginity, then silver coins and, finally, copper coins. He is an older man. She is only about fourteen. She has lived nowhere but the farm and does not even understand how it is that she has become pregnant.
By this time, Steina has had a son and there is an investigation. Björn arranges for a young man in the district to say that he got her pregnant. In return for marrying her, Björn will give the couple a croft and stock and even some money. The sheriff says that “It’s no fun for any woman to get landed with one of Björn´s illegitimate children.” And we know that Steina is just one of many young girls whom Björn has made pregnant and, using his money and his influence, has arranged for them to be married to someone else.
During the investigation into who made her pregnant, Steina refuses to name or, doesn´t really understand, who the father is.
The destruction of the home field by Björn leaves the family destitute. They become welfare cases.  In Iceland, there is no worse fate. The family is separated. The grandmother and grandchild are sent by the parish council to one farm, the daughter to another, and the son to a third. This is not welfare as we know it. The family members go to the farmer who will take the smallest amount of money from the sysla (municipality) to keep them. They are auctioned off not to the highest bidder but the lowest.
The destruction that Björn has wrought is captured when the Mormon bishop, Þjóðrekur, returns to Iceland and goes to deliver a message and a packet of needles to Steinar´s wife. Steinar has travelled from Copenhagen to Utah, joined the Mormon´s and sent the message and needles but  they have taken years to arrive.
When Þjóðrekur sees the farm, “The high walls of stone, most of them in a sorry state. The famous dikes that once had enclosed the home-field were also dilapidated, and in some places it was obvious that gaps had been deliberately torn in them to make access easier. The grass had been so cropped to the quick that nothing remained except a clump of marsh marigolds, and where the earth had been stripped clean of turf there was chickweed growing….The farm itself was derelict. The roof had been torn off and all the timber carted away. The tumbledown walls had been engulfed by dock-plants….An air of desolation breathed over the ruins.”
The family is in no better shape. Steinar’s wife is “now broken in health and unfit for outdoor work”. Steina works on a farm on one side of a river. On the other side all “now belonged to Leirur. Björn the agent bought up the crofts.” Steina is “worn out after a summer of drudgery, long days toiling in the rain with her rake far into the night.” At night, she can see the light on in the window of Björn´s house.
One night in the dark, she risks crossing the river to see Björn. When he realizes who she is, he cajoles her, tries to flatter her, promises to go away with her, but then leaves the room and, in awhile, an old woman comes and tells Steina to leave. Once again, Björn has proven to be a flatterer, a liar and a coward.
In the meantime, Bishop Þjóðrekur finds Steina´s brother. He gathers up the mother, daughter, son and grandson and says that he will lead them to Utah.
Björn, in an act that could have some redemption in it, doesn´t want his child to be taken away. He says that  he will raise him, educate him, make him a sheriff and a national poet. He says “Don’t think that I will let you fall into the clutches of the parish council again.” His promises are, as usual, empty and dishonest. He has had no compunction about the family falling into the parish council’s clutches before. He knows that the farmers usually made sure these paupers earned their keep. That they were often ill fed and ill treated. When someone became a pauper, they lost all their legal rights. They didn´t get them back until they repaid the municipality the amount of money spent on their keep. They seldom could earn enough money to pay back such debts and spent their lives living in wretched conditions.
Björn´s true values are made clear in a conversation with the sheriff. The sheriff says that parish councils not only are happy to see the paupers leave Iceland but are happy to have the chance to pay their fares to America to be rid of them. He knows that Björns wanting to keep his child in Iceland is a momentary whim so he turns the conversation to what he knows really matters to Björn, money.
He says, “And getting down to something that is worth spending words on–we have had an offer of a trawler in England, a big ship, my lad….After a year we would be ladling the gold from the sea.“
The sheriff wants Björn to put up the money for the purchase of a trawler and Björn replies that the Scots buyers of cattle, “are the kind of  people with whom I can do business, not the big boys in Reykjavik, and least of all with foreign bankers.“
However, in spite of his protestations, greed overcomes Björn. We find this out because Steinar, after his family has arrived in Utah (his wife has died on the journey), is sent back to Iceland. The trip from North America to Iceland was in two stages. From an East coast seaport to Scotland, from there on a second ship to Iceland. While he is in Scotland, he bumps into the sheriff who is “wearing an expensive fur coat and a tall tile hat of the same kind of fur; his moustache had been waxed and the ends turned upwards so that they stood erect like knitting needles.”
The sheriff tells Steinar that “I cleaned the old devil out of everything he had, in order to buy a trawler.” So Björn has been outsmarted, betrayed, by someone who better understands the somewhat wider world. The sheriff has come into possession of the ruined property at Hliðar and, on a whim, he gives it back to Steinar. When Steinar returns to Iceland and goes to his former farm, it is a ruin. However, instinctively, he starts to rebuild the walls.
In Björn of Leirur, Laxness gives us a portrayal of careless evil, of a man without a conscience, but he does much more than that. He provides us with a picture of a society in which men like Björn prosper and families like Steinar´s are ruined. It is obvious that Björn is not unique. The comments of the sheriff make that clear. It is equally clear that they ruin many of their fellow Icelanders.
Björn destroys Steinar´s home field casually, for nothing more than his own convenience. He does not care what the cost to Steinar´s family. He seduces and impregnates a young girl, one of many, according to the sheriff, simply to satisfy his lust. He´s married for money, not love and, so, fidelity has no claim on him.
If there is any justice meted out, it is Björn´s impoverishment by the sheriff who swindles him and moves to Scotland.
How prescient is Laxness. Paradise Reclaimed could be written today about the financial crash in Iceland. Those who caused it, some say no more than thirty or forty from the ruling family elite, cared not for the damage they did to their countrymen and women. Their reckless greed destroyed what others had built up over many years. They left the economy in the same ruins as Björn left Steinhliðar. They used the argument of the promise of the new age, the new technology, no longer of steam trawlers but of banking and the internet. 
Icelanders should have reread Paradise Reclaimed during the run up to the crash and listened to what Laxness had to tell them.
The bankers, like the sheriff, fled to the UK. Like the sheriff, they wear expensive clothes, stay in expensive places, eat expensive food while others do without their pensions, their savings, their investments.
Like Steinar starting to rebuild the walls of his farm, ordinary Icelanders have had to start rebuilding their lives.
Steinar´s family, his son, daughter, grandchild, find respite and solace among the Mormons in North America but it is the sociopathic personality of Björn of Leirur that has driven them there. Today, reports say that two families a week are emigrating from Iceland since the crash. Surely, they are akin to Steinar of Steinarhliðar and his family.

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.