Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Independent People by Halldor Laxness

Ever heard of “Independent People” - by Halldor Laxness? If you’ve read it, I would love to discuss it with you. Most likely you haven’t even though it delivered the 1955 Nobel to Laxness, an Icelandic author who wrote in his native language. Apparently, Laxness is firmly oriented within the Icelandic Saga tradition, which spans over a 1000 years. Who knew? But, as it turns out, Iceland is a mighty literary place.

The novel is centered on Bjartur of Summerhouses, a sheep farmer who has one primary goal - to be an Independent Man. After working for the local bailiff for 18 years, Bjartur has scraped together enough money to buy his own farm. He sets out to be steadfastly independent economically, but is also quite emotionally distant with his family. This emotional distance combined with his refusal to accept any form of assistance from others is disastrous to his two wives - both of whom he lets starve to death, essentially. His one weakness is Asta Sollija, the child born to his first wife. Technically Asta Sollija is not his - rather, his first wife came to him already pregnant by the Bailiff’s son. Regardless, she is a ‘flower’ to Bjartur - and in the end he can’t remain independent of her.

The central family story is set within a larger social and economic context in the early 1900’s - small farmers are caught in the middle of a power struggle between large landholders and the merchant class in Iceland. It’s a remarkable exposition on the plight of the ‘small’ man - who craves independence but can not achieve it without joining forces with others.

I highly recommend this book - which is now firmly at the top of my list of favorites -- all-time favorites that is. I seriously do not think one word is wasted in this rather thick story, there isn’t a single annoying tangent - it fits together beautifully, and is full of insight about the experience of living.


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