Sunday, June 7, 2009

Independent People

Independent People by Halldór Laxness

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2009

Every now and then, I read a book which is so good it takes my breath away; Independent People is one. It is a work of fiction in the tradition of the great Russian novels, describing a society undergoing seismic shifts brought on by forces the people do not fully understand and cannot control. Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for this novel in 1955, but it was not widely read in the English-speaking world and thus languished in obscurity for many years. In my opinion Independent People belongs on the bookshelf with Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and other classic literary works because, like them, it is a tapestry of words: colorful, beautifully detailed, richly textured, and singular. Independent People is both the compelling story of a foolish, tragic, frustrating, and loveable man whose world fails to conform to his expectations and beliefs, and an intimate encounter with the soul of Iceland.

Literally translated from the Icelandic the title, Sjálfstaett Folk, reads “Self-standing Folk,” a perfect label for the main character, Bjarthur of Summerhouses, who values his independence above all else. In a larger sense, this theme is integral to the story of Iceland, a geologically young island nation which evolved from Viking settlements into a modern, independent, parliamentary democracy. To Icelandic peasants, such as Bjarthur of Summerhouses, being completely self-sufficient and beholden to none, is the highest measure of success. But can an individual – or a nation – succeed in isolation? That is the essential question the author analyzes through the story of Bjarthur’s struggle to stand alone, on his own two feet, needing no one and owing nothing.

Bjarthur Jonnson, was born sometime after the year 1910 into the household of the local landholder, the Bailiff at Utirauthsmyri. Global economic changes and a brewing world war created a situation which enabled serfs, such as Bjarthur, to buy their freedom and become crofters, or share-croppers. At age 18, Bjarthur had saved enough to become the owner of Summerhouses, a small croft, and to purchase a herd of sheep. His first act upon taking possession was to laugh in the face of the spirits known to have haunted Summerhouses since the time before the Vikings arrived by refusing to add a stone to the cairn located at the entrance to his property. Bjarthur, an independent man, would pay no tribute to ghosts.

The Mistress of Utirauthsmyri arranged a marriage for Bjarthur to one of her serving girls who, it turned out, was carrying the child of the Bailiff’s son. Bjarthur discovered this fact after the wedding and treated his young wife accordingly. His unhappy marriage was the first of many misfortunes to befall him. During a fierce storm in his first winter at Summerhouses, Bjarthur went out in search of his prized sheep and got caught in a blizzard. Four days later he returned to find his wife dead with a tiny infant on top of her. Despite his hard heart, Bjarthur fell completely in love with the baby whom he named Asta Sollilija (Beloved Sun Lily) and she became the joy and torment of his life.

Independent People spans the period during which Iceland emerged from a centuries’-old agrarian economy, under the control of a few wealthy land owners, in response to political and economic upheaval in the outside world. Halldór Laxness does a masterful job of explaining why that happened and how it affected peasants such as Bjarthur. The author does this by taking us back in time to the volcanic eruptions in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which gave rise to the island some 20 million years ago. The first human inhabitants, according to legend, were Irish and Scottish Christians who fled attacking Vikings, although there is no archaeological evidence to support this. In the year 874 AD, following discovery of Iceland by explorers, Ingólfr Arnarson, a Norwegian chieftain, became the first settler. (Ingólfr Arnarson is also the name Mr. Laxness chose for the Bailiff as a way of indicating his social status.) Many Norsemen along with their Irish and Scottish slaves emigrated to Iceland across the next 100 years and soon most of the usable land was settled. Around the year 930, the ruling chiefs decided to hold an annual assembly, called “Althing,” in order to resolve disputes, make laws, and appoint juries for trials. This marked the beginning of an independent nation and Althing remained a governing body until the 19th century when the Danish king abolished it.

Bjarthur of Summerhouses, like his contemporaries, was a Christian because church membership was the same as citizenship. Before Christianity arrived in the tenth century, Icelanders looked to pagan gods such as Odin, Freyr, Thor, and Freyja, to explain ancient mysteries. The Christians set about converting pagans with the goal of eradicating the practice altogether, but not everyone agreed to convert and bitter disputes arose. The Althing at the time decided to adopt Christianity as the national religion but permitted the pagans to worship in private. Concurrent with the religious “culture war” clans began merging into larger groups under powerful chieftains who waged a seemingly endless series of attacks against each other. In spite of, or perhaps because of the fighting, this was also when Iceland’s literary arts flourished, giving rise to a great tradition of story-telling, folk lore, and epic poetry. The civil strife finally ended when Norway’s king took over Iceland, around 1260, leaving a power vacuum which the Church took full advantage of. Parishes replaced clans, bishops replaced chieftains, and ancient pagan practices were outlawed. On a spiritual level, however, the Icelanders retained many of their pagan beliefs but adapted them to be compatible with Christian teachings. In Independent People, Bjarthur and his contemporaries go through the rituals of Christianity with a complete lack of spirituality. They are men of the earth and understand that no amount of Christian prayer will tame the forces of nature.

To Bjarthur of Summerhouses and other crofters the fear of famine was ever present owing to Iceland’s short growing season and periodic volcanic eruptions. In the 14th century a particularly large eruption spewed a dark cloud over the northern hemisphere causing the so-called “Little Ice Age” which lasted into the 19th century. A volcanic eruption in 1783 instantly killed 9,000 people as well as most of Iceland’s livestock. By the end of this period, known as the Mist Hardship, roughly one fourth of the population had died of starvation. Icelanders kept the memory of these disasters alive through poems and stories.

Life in Iceland was so difficult that few people noticed or cared that Europe was on the brink of war. Bjarthur was glad when World War One broke out and a sudden demand for Icelandic wool created an economic boom, allowing him to enjoy a degree of material wealth. Instead of worrying about diseases and parasites in sheep, crofters suddenly found themselves being asked to take sides in political battles as a socialist movement arose to challenge the status quo. Independent People is an astute analysis of the attractions of socialism for the world’s workers as well as its fundamental flaws. We in the United States, never having been subjected to the whims of monarchs and land barons, cannot understand a nation embracing socialism or communism. Icelanders, however, were led to believe that socialism would protect the interests of peasants and put them on a par with their former masters. In reality, socialism simply replaced power based on land ownership with centralized urban politics. The Bailiff at Utirauthsmyri moved to Reykjavík where he became an important politician and the peasants, his former serfs, suffered from economic decline caused by his policies.

While Bjarthur of Summerhouses’ world changes profoundly throughout his adulthood, he stubbornly remains the same. I was reminded of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, King Lear from Shakespeare’s play, Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire, and Hank Stamper in Sometimes a Great Notion while reading this book. Bjarthur is a character as emotionally challenging as the tragically flawed protagonists of those classic stories because, like them, he is his own worst enemy. Unlike them, and somehow in spite of his meanness and stupidity, he is a gifted poet whose verse is like the sound of water dancing over smooth stones; it turns out he has a beautiful soul. Bjarthur of Summerhouses will make you smile while tears run down your face.

(Important note: The introduction to Independent People is adapted from a condensed retelling of the story and gives away the whole plot. My advice is either to skip it entirely or wait and read it after you have savored the pleasure of Halldór Laxness’ book.)