In The Fish Can Sing, Halldor Laxness presents through the narrator Álfgrímur, the economics of Björn of Brekkukot and, thus, his own economic philosophy.
Björn is a lumpfisherman. He lives on a small piece of land and, with his fishing, supports himself, the woman who shares the house with him and the child, Álfgrímur. He does not go far from shore seeking cod, nor does he fish the rivers for salmon. He doesn’t seek to maximize his catch nor as the modern term goes, monetize it. He does not dream of having a larger boat, of having many hired men instead of one or two, or increasing his profits. He does not have the ambitions of a modern day banker or businessman.
Björn is interesting precisely because, while he is created as a fully realized character in the novel, he also represents a set of ethical principles, particularly with regard to money and how it is earned.
On the first page, as one of those simple details that might be dismissed as only being about back story or setting, Álfgrímur tells us that “on the exact spot where Gudmundur Gudmunsen (the son of old Jon Gudmundsson, the owner of Gudmunsen’s Store) eventually built himself a fine mansion house—on this patch of ground there once stood a little turf-and-stone cottage”. With no ado, no sign posts but in a quiet contrast, the conflict between values the reader will see throughout the novel is set. The values are represented by the cottage versus Gudmunsen’s store. There is a little fillip added with Gudmunsen’s Store being spelled the Danish way so that we are gently nudged to understand that these values will be Danish values, learned in Denmark as opposed to the values of the authentic Icelandic farmer.
It is also significant that it is the simple Icelandic peasant cottage that has been replaced by the mansion built from profits made by the Gudmunsen’s store. In another of Laxness’s novels, Christianity Under Glacier, the house of Godman Singman has been built on church property, overshadowing the neglected church building. In both cases, the amassing of money has overtaken Icelandic values, both secular and Christian.
It is, of course, not just Laxness that makes this distinction. Charles Lock, in The Home of the Eddas (1879), makes a similar point. He went to Iceland in 1875 and spent twelve months there. He says, “Circumstances compelled me for the most part to shun the principal cheapsteads, such as Reykjavik and Aukeryri, where the life of the people are half Danish, half Icelandic, and threw me among the pure-blooded bondar and peasant classes.”
Álfgrímur, the narrator in The Fish Can Sing, tells the reader that “The rest of the town’s inhabitants were cottagers who went out to the fishing and sometimes owned a small share in a cow or had a few sheep.” This is the large amount of the population who live in opposition to and are exploited by the well-to-do farmers who are aligned with the Danish overlords.
In the spring when Björn went lumpfishing, he sold his fish from a wheelbarrow. He boils fish liver for the oil, makes do with what produce the family can manage to produce. We’ve been told that the cot has peat pits as a preliminary to Álfgrímur recounting an anecdote about a man comimg to Brekkukot with a sack over his shoulder. The sack contains peat that he has stolen from Brekkukot. Fuel in Iceland is always in short supply. It is carefully husbanded. The thief’s crime, in a place where there is so little fuel that it is often hard to find enough to cook food, is serious. Björn has already given this neighbour peat. Now, Björn asks the thief in to discuss what it is that he has done. He tells him his actions are wicked, but after coffee, he gives the neighbour the peat.
One is reminded of the scene in Les Miserables when the police bring Jean Valjean’s back to the home of the bishop who befriended him. Jean has returned this kindness by stealing of some silver candle sticks. The bishop says Jean didn’t steal them, that he had been given them.
For a period of time, Laxness became a Catholic, then a Communist. Both outraged both his countrymen and people of Icelandic descent in North America. The question is when Björn forgives the peat thief and gives him the sack of peat is Laxness, through Björn, acting as Catholic or Communist? Álfgrímur would doubt both for he says that his grandfather was “a man of orthodox beliefs” but not one to cite scripture or to ask God to do anything. Any forgiveness that was given came from Björn. He also did not forgive in the name of the state, particularly a state that adhered to a philosophy that denied individualism and Björn forgives as an individual.
Early in the book when the principles upon which it will be based are being created, Álfgrímur describes the standards by which life was lived at Brekkukot. He 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.”
Shortly thereafter, Álfgrímur says that his grandfather believed “that the right price for a lumpfish, for instance, was the price that prevented a fisherman from piling up more money than he needed for the necessities of life.”
These are simple beliefs and are obviously not believed in a society where someone can say out loud “Greed is good.” and not become an automatic laughing stock. Björn of Brekkukot, today would see that it is the Danish traders’ belief that the price of lumpfish should rise and fall with supply and demand that has triumphed, that economic values dominate all other values, including the values of democracy. This belief in the right to make money prevailing over all other values carried Iceland not just to the brink of collapse but to collapse itself. It is only by open revolt against such avaricious, materialistic principles by the banging of pots and pans outside of Parliament, the repeated public demonstrations, the actual physical rebellion of Icelandic society that has driven out the bankers. It is those people who had values more in line with Björn of Brekkukot who finally rebelled against the values of Gudmunsen’s store, against the values of another Björn, this one, Björn of Leirur, in Paradise Reclaimed.
It is, of course, precisely these values of Björn of Brekkukot that made Laxness the object of investigation by the FBI and the enemy of many in the Icelandic North American community for what is the opportunity of North America but the opportunity to make money? And what is the person who would question that right but the enemy?
Who in North America today defends those who are the equivalent of people who sometimes own a small share in a cow, or have a few sheep or own a small rowing boat? The political struggle in the Congress and the Senate, in the Canadian Parliament, is among the privileged as to who gets the greater percentage of the spoils, not between the defenders of ordinary people and the privileged one percent.
In spite of the growing disparity in wealth in North America between the privileged few and the larger society, there still exist those who believe as does Björn of Brekkukot. Just the other day a relative of mine, offered a sum for some old books said no, the price was too much and she named a lower price and said this is what they are worth. The books, like lumpfish, had a price unrelated to what the market might pay at any given moment. And I, in one of my short stories, many years ago, wrote of a fictional character based on my father who when offered fishing equipment by a friend who was a terrible drunk, always bought it but, when fishing season came around again, always sold it back at the price he had paid and of the disaster created when the equipment was bought by a lawyer from the city who saw only an opportunity to make a quick profit. The values of Halldor Laxness, of Björn of Brekkukot is what creates a decent society. This is the fabric of a society where human failure is recognized as inevitable and not exploited. This is a society where forgiveness is more important than punishment.
Laxness would in his own way preach that society is not governed by tooth and claw, that it is not a collection of predator and bloody meal, of exploiter and exploited. Or, at least, that it does not have to be. How subversive is that?
During the time Denmark ruled Iceland, the Icelandic employees of the Danish merchants treated their fellow Icelanders abominably; they passed on Danish contempt. It was a lesson rubbed into the very grain of Icelandic society and was still in the grain in 2008. It is what allowed the bankers to disregard the welfare of everyone in the country except their own welfare. You can only enrich yourself while destroying your family, neighbours and society if you hold them in utter contempt. You can only get away with doing it in a society that has been brain-washed to believe that the values of Gudmundsen’s store and Björn of Leirur are the only values that matter.
It is time, even past time, that Icelanders began to read Laxness again and listen to what he had to tell them. Then they might answer the question, who is right, Björn of Brekkukot or Björm of Leirur along with his disciples, the bankers of America and the EU?