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the fish can sing

29 january 2016

The Fish Can Sing, Magnus Magnusson's translation of Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness' 1957 novel, is titled, in Icelandic, simply Brekkukotsannáll: the chronicle of things that happened at Brekkukot, a turn-of-the-20th-century farmstead located in what is now central Reykjavík.

Brekkukot is a mundane place, but the things that happened there are far from mundane and at times somewhat far from possible. Halldór Laxness never offers us a magical scene – in fact, some of the episodes in The Fish Can Sing pointedly unmask the prosaic underside of purported acts of magic – but the accumulation of offbeat and unlikely incidents and not-quite-there people makes for a decidedly magical-realist texture.

The Fish Can Sing is set in an Iceland turning modern. Though still a colony of Denmark, the nation is starting to urbanize and develop an independence movement. The city of Reykjavík is growing up around the much-reduced farmstead where our narrator's grandparents carry on traditional fishery and offer hospitality to eccentrics. Iceland's image in the new 20th century is condensed into a single, semi-mythical man, the opera singer Garðar Hólm. His fame is worldwide; his portraits are on every wall in Iceland.

Our narrator, Álfgrímur, is an orphan and putatively unrelated to Garðar Hólm, who is at best his foster-grandmother's cousin once removed. Yet everyone he meets assumes that Álfgrímur has a spiritual connection to Garðar Hólm. Or a closer connection; perhaps Álfgrímur is really Garðar Hólm's brother, or son, or (as the older singer himself suggests) the same person, moving through life in a sort of proleptic reincarnation of the older man.

Meanwhile, absurd events accumulate, askew characters take up residence in the "mid-loft" at Brekkukot, and Álfgrímur realizes that the world is changing and he can't look forward to seventy years of taking lumpfish out of the bay. He goes to school, and, fatefully, learns to play the harmonium and to sing. His life, and most Icelanders', revolves around the regular homecomings of Garðar Hólm from world tours of increasing splendor. Garðar Hólm is always about to give a recital for the quality of Reykjavík, is always supposed to be staying at the Governor's house or the Hôtel d'Islande or aboard a French warship in the harbor – and never shows up for his own recitals, and never seems to materialize except unbidden in country churchyards or rolled into the hay of his mother's barn-loft.

Sui generis novels like The Fish Can Sing suggest, moment by moment, other odd books that they may have influenced, or been influenced by, or that simply co-exist in a kind of global Zeitgeist that conditioned so much 20th-century literature. A boy growing up into a numinous world recalls Alan-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes. A homestead full of spirited and spiritual elders recalls generational classics of magical realism like Cien años de soledad or La casa de los espíritus. Insular in-jokes and tall tales recall Flann O'Brien. The early chapters of The Fish Can Sing, in particular, which center on the farmstead, recall Þórbergur Þórðarson's The Stones Speak (1956), translated by Julian Meldon D'Arcy in 2012; Þórbergur's book is a memoir, and from the far southeast of Iceland, but also stresses that there's a thin layer of the real over the magical fabric of Icelandic life.

But such resemblances are fleeting, and ultimately The Fish Can Sing turns out not quite to be like anything you've ever read before. At times, it seems to spin into feyness or esoteric satire. (That's when it resembles the only other book by Halldór Laxness I've tried to read, the baffling World Light, which I had to abandon halfway through despite glimmers of interest in its allusive fog.) The women in The Fish Can Sing can become depersonalized sexual objects, as so often happens in male Bildungsromane – or perhaps happens in such books simply because young men are idiots and depersonalize women in a sexual way. At times one is afraid that Laxness will literally lose the plot. But the driving "through-line," no matter how digressive the novel becomes, is always Álfgrímur's desire to know exactly what is up with Garðar Hólm. The novel is only 250 pages long and never digresses for many of them, and its ending is much tighter and more lyrically inevitable than that of many a postmodern classic.

Laxness, Halldór. The Fish Can Sing. [Brekkukotsannáll, 1957.] Translated by Magnus Magnusson. 1966, revised 2000. New York: Vintage [Random House], 2008.