Monday, April 3, 2017

Independent With Sheep

“Independent People,” by Halldor Laxness, 1946

This book won the Nobel Prize for Literature back when and is probably unknown to most.  It is a social-realist Icelandic tale set in the period before, during and after WWI.  It is reminiscent of the Scandinavian-U.S. writers like Knut Hamsun or O.E. Rolvaag, or in the tradition of Zola, Gogol and Hardy – high bourgeois fiction prior to modernism.  The graphic and detailed descriptions of peasant life in remote parts of Iceland are thorough and populist. 
Icelandic Sheep are Better than People.
The odd part is that this book ostensibly tells the story of a flinty ‘crofter’ who worships his sheep over everything else and you can’t tell if Laxness is making fun of this farmer or celebrating him.  Bjartur of Summerhouses first survives as hired labor for his Bailiff, a local gentry.  Then he buys a sheep-farm on marginal land in a mountain valley, christening it "Summerhouses," which has to be a joke.  After a long period of struggle and a short period of sudden prosperity his property is foreclosed on after he builds a too-expensive house.  In the process he loses his virtual daughter Asta Sollilja, several sons, two wives and some babies, and mostly cares about his sheep as an ‘independent’ man. 

The refrain ‘independent man’ reoccurs constantly, as Bjartur never accepts help nor evidently gives it.  He loves his sheep, which are the economic foundation of his life.  In one episode, Bjartur goes looking for a lost sheep while his wife is in labor, and she is dead upon his return.  His oldest son leaves the turf-covered cottage in the middle of a winter-storm in distress and Bjartur finds his body in the spring, and thinks no more of it.  He throws his pregnant daughter Asta out of the croft-house and she stumbles away almost shoeless.  A competent housekeeper who comes to live in his house is also told to leave after bringing home too many fine things from a shopping trip to town.  He will be the recipient of no ones charity.

Bjartur is almost a caricature of the backward farmer.  He loves old sagas and lives in the cultural past, dislikes women, never spends a dime he doesn’t have to, works like a dog, puts up with every physical discomfort as if it was nothing, and has no emotional attachment to his children or wives – at least that he lets on about.  His take on the world is intentionally obtuse and bad-tempered.  He initially refuses to join the collective society, preferring to owe his debt to a rich merchant instead.  Other farmers are smart enough to be kind to their wives and children, who grow up to help on the farmsteads, but not Bjartur.  The only son still living with him failed to sail to America due to an absurd romantic attachment with a rich man’s daughter, and got stuck in Iceland.  Otherwise he too would be gone.

In the very end, after being foreclosed upon, Bjartur changes.  He allows his last son to join a bunch of Bolshevik workers who are on strike in the port city of Fjord, as they wait for an attack by police.  He accepts bread stolen by a striker from a rich landlord’s wife – something no ‘independent’ man would have ever done before.  And he finally but accidentally visits his lost daughter and her two children in their poverty-stricken hut in Fjord and decides to help them out.  Ultimately he realizes complete ‘independence’ is impossible. 

Laxness carefully describes the cycles of disease, debt, boredom, really bad weather, death, ignorance, superstition, prudery, politics, loans, fake social-democracy and the one period of prosperity during WWI that the crofters lived through.  Laxness makes constant fun of the Christian religion, which Bjartur also has no truck with.  Laxness implies that an evil spirit named ‘Kolumkilli’ supposedly living in Bjartur’s hills to haunt the poor farmers is really the ghost of Icelandic society, not magic.  Kolumkilli is not the reason Bjartur is doomed – it is because of the functioning of Icelandic capitalism at this time.    

For all those Leninists who never read fiction, please see the recent article in the Guardian about Lenin’s close reading of Russian fiction.  Lenin sometimes characterized his enemies as characters in some of the novels he carefully read.  Fiction is many times more factual than ‘fact,’ as even Lenin knew, and this book certainly proves that.  Take heed.  Don't be a Bjartur!

Red Frog
April 3, 2017

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