Independent People for Christmas

Halldor Laxness was a problem for Iceland. First, he was a genius and geniuses are always a problem. They don’t see the world the way we see it. If they did, they wouldn’t be geniuses. They would just be telling us things we already knew because they would be seeing everything just like us. Most of us like to be told what we already believe. It makes us feel smart. It also makes us feel comfortable. There is no person more intelligent than the person who agrees with our opinions. Laxness had his own opinions.
Second, Laxness was a problem because he became a Catholic. Lots of people have never forgiven him for that. After all, making Iceland Lutheran took some doing. It required chopping off the head of the last Catholic bishop of Iceland. And here Laxness was, all these years later, going off to the Abbey St. Maurice in Luxembourg. He even got baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church. Third, having offended a vast number of people in Iceland by living in an abbey and praying to God to change Icelanders back to being Catholics, he became a Socialist. A Socialist! A Communist. An enemy of capitalism. If he were alive today, he’d be writing a novel satirizing the New Viking capitalists. I expect there are a number of Icelanders who think to themselves, good thing he’s safely dead.
Of course, a lot of people still haven’t forgiven him for winning the Nobel Prize. He satirized the farmers both big and small. He described their conversations about tapeworms and the various home cures. He pointed out the foolishness of the wife of the Bailiff at Myri with her comments about loving the joys of country life. Laxness says about her “She loved the peasants more than anything else in life, and never missed any opportunity of convincing them of the value of the country idyll or of the delight implicit in living and dying on a farm.” Being rich, she said “Rich people are never happy…but poor people are happy practically without exception.” Laxness later gives us a scene of Rosa’s death (Rosa is the first wife of Bjartur, the main character of Independent People), alone, in childbirth and scene after scene putting the lie to everything the Bailiff’s wife has to say about the wonderful life of the peasants. This woman must rank, surely, with Mrs. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, for stupidity and self-delusion. Like Mrs. Bennet, she’s hilariously ridiculous and since she represents a self-important segment of Icelandic society, there are people who don’t appreciate the portrait.
A lot of people were offended by Independent People. They recognized themselves and their relatives in the portraits. They would much rather that the book had been a failure. The winning of the Nobel Prize put the ruling class in a difficult position. On the one hand they couldn’t help but be impressed and proud, on the other, their criticism was gagged. It’s pretty hard to say, “I despise his book. The author is a traitor to the nation by showing us in this light but I’m proud of his winning the Nobel prize. However, I wish someone who made us look wonderful had won.”  There are still people today who take umbrage over Laxness’s portrayal of Icelanders and, in particular, of people they recognize as being based on members of their families.
The truth is, however, that Iceland was the poorest country in Europe. It was backward. It was beset with a political and agricultural system that kept the country from moving ahead with the rest of Europe. Bjartur’s fierce battle for independence at all costs, his pig-headed stubbornness, does present a clear view of Iceland at the time it is set. It also helps a reader understand why it was possible for the country to end up today in its current financial mess and why there are now such fierce demonstrations against what has happened. The same small group of family elites still rule Iceland. They might no longer refer to themselves as the goði , but the same attitude of their superiority, their right to make decisions for the peasants, the same belief that they are entitled to take what they want, still prevails.
I was once told that some of the fishermen in Gimli, Manitoba, my hometown, complained about one of the fish buyers, not because he stole from them by cheating them on weights, by saying fish was rotten when it wasn’t, that he’d got a smaller price for their fish than he actually had, but that he stole too  much. That he was stealing was taken for granted.  Of course he was stealing. In Iceland, the Danes had stolen and the Icelanders who worked for them had stolen. It was a way of life. That’s how the system worked. Why wouldn’t a fish buyer with a bit of money and a bit of social position in Canada steal from people he considered inferior to himself? He believed itt was his right.
I don’t want to make this book sound too serious. It does deal with serious issues but it is also a satire, it is hilariously funny at times, it’s insightful. For example, when Bjartur takes his daughter, Asta Sollilja to town for the first time and goes to buy her a book of poems for her education, the book has been out of print for thirty years. When he creates verses of his own, they are so convoluted by the need for complicated form that they make no sense. Stuck in the past, unable to adapt, he brings disaster on himself and his family, yet, in his own way, Bjartur is both admirable and unforgettable.
For those of us with an Icelandic background, Independent People is essential reading because it makes clear what our ancestors were leaving when they chose to come to Ameríka. It also helps us to understand Iceland today. It’s a highly entertaining book with brilliant writing well served by the translation of J. A. Thompson and with an introduction by Brad Leithauser.
Giving a book at Christmas is a fine Icelandic custom. A book doesn’t have to be just released to be worth giving. Be proud of your Icelandic heritage. Think of Bjartur as a much loved but incredibly frustrating grandfather. Independent People is worth putting under the tree.