by Halldor Laxness
Every now and then you read a novel that plants images in your subconscious and intrudes into your dreams; that interrupts your train of thought at work and changes your perspective on the world. INDEPENDENT PEOPLE is one of those books. It is an epic, slow-burning but compelling tale of hubris and tragedy written with dry wit and deep sympathy.
Written in 1934, the novel spans the period from the beginning of the twentieth century until the end of World War I and is set in the barren north of Iceland.
Laxness sets the scene with a description of a lonely croft in a place called Winterhouses, a blasted valley in the lea of snow-capped mountains, blighted by a history of evil ascribed to sorcerers and trolls. We are then introduced to Bjartur, a strong-willed farmer who worked for the bailiff for eighteen years in order to save enough money to buy this miserable plot of land for himself. Bjartur scorns the superstitious nature of the Icelandic peasants as much as he derides the Christian religion. His belief is in himself – an independent man – and he refuses even to add an appeasing stone to the witch’s cairn to keep ill luck away. He renames his croft ‘Summerhouses’ and we know it’s all going to be downhill from there.
Bjartur is as obdurate and unmoving as the crags that surround his valley. He values his independence above everything and would rather see his family starve than accept help from anyone else. Wives (“they are to be pitied more than human beings”) and children are unable to survive the cruel existence that he offers them at Summerhouses, yet it takes the death of his beloved sheep to really wound him. The only emotional vulnerability he allows himself is his love for Asta Sollilja, his daughter and “the flower of his life”, and the delicate tracery of their relationship stands in sharp relief against the remorseless banality of the daily struggle for survival.
Halldor Laxness (1902-98) was born near Reykjavik, Iceland. His first novel was published when he was 17. The undisputed master of contemporary Icelandic fiction and one of the outstanding novelists of the twentieth century, his work was translated into more than 30 languages. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.