Wednesday, April 21, 2010

By Turns Both Enlightening and Agonizing

Independent People by Halldór Laxness (1934; Vintage, 1997, 482 pp.)

This 1955 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is unlike any book you will ever read. It is a multigenerational tale focusing on the bleak, oppressive living conditions of rural Iceland in the early twentieth century, in particular on one Bjartur of Summerhouses, a sheep farmer who is fiercely independent. Although the book is subtitled “an epic,” perhaps it should instead be titled “a depressing, satirical epic that actually makes you laugh once in a while.” This is by no means an easy read. Weighing in at almost 500 pages, this dry, plodding tome spends whole chapters wading through minute details on local politics and the economy with an attentive (and infuriating) sort of calm. The story itself is almost painful to read at times, oscillating between delightful humor and black despair. It relates, for example, Bjartur’s delight in rolling big rocks from cliff-tops and watching them fall (who doesn’t like doing that?), while later describing the slow starvation and eventual death of his flock one spring. Our hero is infuriating, bullheaded, and stubborn, but reassuringly human at his core, allowing the reader to cheer him on, once in a while, as he blunders his way through life. Independent People is an admirable, poetic novel, by turns both masterful and agonizing on the nerves. It’s the kind of book that one will appreciate having read at least once, but not plan to revisit anytime soon.

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