Sunday, 13 November 2011
An independent Icelander
Bjartur of Summerhouses is the unlikely hero of Halldor Laxness’s most famous novel, Independent People. He's not a bad man, but a difficult and stubborn one, who loses in one way or another two wives and a surrogate daughter through bloody-mindedness. Is his story one of a farmer surviving doggedly in the face of a mythic curse he affects not to believe in, or the age-old – and, alas, still topical – struggle-in-vain of a have-not against the bunch of smug have-it-alls who, Laxness insisted, still ruled the Icelandic roost in the mid 1930s?
Independent People is rich and ambiguous enough to hold both these elements in play, and so much more. I'm hardly surprised after the more off-piste singularity of Under the Glacier. This earlier masterpiece's staggering humanity makes you care for the self-sufficient sod who blinds himself to the possibility of wider sympathy until the end of the novel. It’s a typically understated victory when he finally looks at his daughter’s younger child and utters ‘Heavens, what a helpless-looking object…Yes, mankind is rather a pitiful sight when you come to look at it as it is in actual fact’. And Bjartur has persistently refused to look ‘actual fact’ in the face as he clings on to his croft and his livestock in a remote Icelandic valley.
Yet for all that he’s a worthy object of our sympathies. I never quite warmed to Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Summer Will Show, because the heroine can be such a cold character; the author meant her to be so, but somehow failed to involve us into the bargain. Bjartur has his attractive sides, all paradoxical. He’s a gruff plain-speaker and a poet, an old-fashioned one obsessed with rhymes rather than content, who nevertheless keeps alive in a snowdrift by reciting all the epics he knows, ranging from the heroic to the erotic. And he loves his sheep more than anything else, which of course leads to tragic results for both other people and a poor cow who makes a memorable appearance half way through the novel.
The other characters’ consciousnesses zoom in and out of the picture, often with such incomparable vividness that you wish you saw more of them. Perhaps my favourite chapter comes at the beginning of the second part, where the seemingly endless time between waking and dawn on a winter’s day for an imaginative young boy is so evocatively conjured. Laxness could have written an entire novel through this character’s eyes alone had he wanted. But Nonni and his spiritual sister, Asta Sollilja, for all that we see into their souls, disappear from the canvas for whole swathes. And the elder brother Gvartur comes into focus at a late stage, just when you think Laxness has no interest in him.
Unfolding a terrific yarn over time, this masterpiece doesn’t always communicate its ironic side effectively, though that may be something to do with J A Thompson’s translation. The irony can be overwhelming from the moment Laxness takes us through the profitability of the First World War’s slaughter for the Icelanders, and on to the snares of the banks and the co-operatives which made ‘interest-slaves’ of so many in the 1920s and 30s. But this is still fascinating, for it proves that little has changed either in Iceland – prophecies of 2008 are rife – or here. The scene where Bjartur meets a protester in town and belatedly realizes they’re brothers under the skin, the dispossessed against authority, could have been written today.
And, yes, it hit me with some force yesterday, listening to a debate about the worldwide demonstrations on the World Service, that we really are at a make-or-break junction in history. The opponents were putting their views across about the sometimes unbelievably courageous folk of the Arab Spring as contrasted with the Occupy movement in the relatively privileged west. A very prim young man argued that the protesters in the Middle East were fighting for democratic institutions which we’ve had for hundreds of years, and which he thought the Occupy group simply wanted to dismantle. Not dismantle, said his brilliant opponent, an Arab professor at an American university, modify. The system’s broken, it needs changing; Republicans and Democrats are in total deadlock; after the last crisis the bankers all went on as before, but they no longer can.
I’d agree with that. And I thought it was all crystallized brilliantly by another pro-democracy speaker from the University of Hawaii, who said the common link between these very different fights going on in different parts of the world was the discrepancy between expectation and reality. It really is as simple as that. We have indeed created a lost generation of educated young people, many of whom will be lucky when they come out of university to get a job stacking shelves. They should be glad of that, said the prim young man. They deserve better, said the Arab and Hawaiian academics; we’ve never had a greater capacity, through technology and innovation, to deliver work for all, and we don’t know how to make it function any more. I agree with them on that too, of course. Interesting times indeed: adapt and/or change, since going under isn’t an option for humanity.
The Icelandic landscape photos are mine; image of some 9000 G006 demonstrators at Austurvollur was taken in Week 6 of Iceland's Kitchenware-Revolution protests in October 2008.