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independent people

26 march 2017

I am not sure whether Independent People by Halldór Laxness is the great Icelandic novel. Laxness wrote several similar books in the 1930s and 40s, including Salka Valka, World Light, and Iceland's Bell, and I have not read those. But if any of them are better than Independent People, they are pretty outrageously magnificent books indeed.

The hero of Independent People is Bjartur, who has grown up a shepherd on the estate of the local Bailiff. He'd been part apprentice, part foster child, and as the novel opens, he's finally saved enough money to buy a farmstead from his mentor. The farmstead comes cheap because it's accursed. Bjartur moves into the homestead, long called Winterhouses, and renames it Summerhouses in a fit of rhetorical optimism. He brings with him a wife who seems mighty reluctant about Summerhouses and about Bjartur – with good reason, because she is pregnant with the Bailiff's grandchild, fruit of her brief fling with the Bailiff's imperious son Ingolfur Arnarson.

I should probably stop with the plot summary right there. I don't think spoilers are to be regretted when it comes to Independent People, and if you find out elsewhere how the story runs, you will not enjoy the book any less. Without having re-read it, I would venture that Independent People is even better on re-reading. There are wonderful scenes where the characters talk obliquely about the past that shackles them and the destiny that constrains them. The more you know, the better. But there are also beautiful surprising scenes that I was spellbound to experience for the first time.

Bjartur's great theme is that he can be truly independent by living off his own sheep on his own land. Of course, he can't. Sheep are only good to the "independent people" as commodities, and the necessity to bring commodities to market binds them inextricably to forces that span not only Iceland but Western Europe and beyond. Unwilling to deal with the Bailiff or with Ingolfur Arnarson, Bjartur casts his lot with Bruni, a merchant who seems just as independent as Bjartur himself. Whether Bruni cheats Bjartur or not makes little difference, because the Bailiff's people would cheat him just as badly; it doesn't pay to be contrarian, but it doesn't pay any worse than conformity.

Meanwhile, Bjartur and his upland shepherd community learn of world history mainly through its impact on the price of their sheep. The First World War makes them wealthy; the lean years afterwards ruin them. Try as you may to light out for the Territory, the globalized economy will still have you in its grasp. One of Bjartur's sons emigrates to America; another almost follows, but stays in Iceland to his own ruin. Emigration simply erases people from view, but it serves as another reminder that labor is globalized under modern capitalism, and draws people where it will.

I seem to be painting Independent People as socialist realism. And it is that. "The essence of being a poor peasant," Laxness says in his direct-narrator's voice, "is the inability to avail oneself of the gifts that politicians offer or promise and to be left at the mercy of ideals that only make the rich richer and the poor poorer" (457). You could abstract a social-justice treatise from such narratorial passages. But remember that I am repressing most of the novel's stunning plot so as not to spoil it. I also can't hope to capture its poetry – some in actual verse, some in poetic prose, as rendered by J.A. Thompson. There is sheer beauty in the descriptions of the landscape, arch humor in the dialogue, verbal bravado, and poignance. Characters build their personalities out of catchphrases, often in defiance of material reality.

There is a hard-to-define Irish cast to Thompson's translation. Though my perception of verbal nuance is not very refined, and it may just be that I associate Thompson's language with Ireland because I know a very little bit about Ireland, and because Iceland bears a contentious cultural relationship to Denmark analogous to the relationship that Ireland bears to England. Thompson was from Berwick-upon-Tweed, as far north as one can get in England, and the language he imparts to Bjartur and his folk may draw more from Northumberland and the Scottish Borders than anywhere else. Thompson, who apparently translated nothing else in his writing career, after learning Icelandic during a teaching stint in Akureyri, finds a confident English idiom for Laxness' characters and for the narrator who is sometimes sympathetic, sometimes ironic, sometimes lyrical.

Laxness, Halldór. Independent People. [Sjálfstætt fólk, 1934-35.] Translated by J. A. Thompson. 1946. New York: Vintage [Random House], 1997. PT 7511 .L3S52313