A Freakish or Enchanted Kingdom: Early Impressions of Iceland Through the Writings of Halldór Laxness

February 27, 2016 § Leave a comment

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To prepare for a trip to Iceland—a country noted for, among other things, its literary culture, boasting the greatest number of books published per capita—I picked up a title by the country’s sole Nobel laureate, Halldór Laxness. There are six titles currently in print that have been translated into English (all but one by Magnus Magnusson). The Fish Can Sing (published in 1957 as Brekkukotsannáll, or “Annals of Brekkukot”) seemed one of the more accessible.

Laxness was born Halldór Guðjónsson in 1902 and took his name from Laxnes, the homestead in Mosfellsdalur where he grew up. Lax in Icelandic means ‘salmon’; nes means “cape, promontory, headland.” I am making the educated guess that Laxnes means something along the lines of “salmon cape,” i.e., a port at which salmon is caught. He did not spend his entire life in the country. By the 1920s he was in the United States, living mostly in Hollywood; he spent much of the 1930s in the Soviet Union. By the time he was awarded the Nobel Prize, in 1955, he was one of Iceland’s most famous and cosmopolitan citizens.

The narrator of the The Fish Can Sing, Álfgrímur, is an adult looking back on his orphaned childhood, living in the fishing village of Brekkukot. His grandfather is a fisherman and it is expected that Álfgrímur will follow in that tradition. Thirty years before the emergence of Björk, the most famous person from Iceland is also a world-famous singer: this time, a male opera singer named Garðar Hólm. When Garðar returns to his homeland, he strikes up a friendship with Álfgrímur, and attempts to cultivate the boy’s talent as a singer in his own right, thereby setting up a tension between the traditions of the homeland and a yearn to set out to test one’s limits.

The Fish Can Sing paints a portrait of a country aware of its smallness and coming to terms with its place in the world at large, and this is conveyed through the village’s ambivalence with which it receives Garðar. The reflective narrative feels apt to the Icelandic saga tradition. It feels as though Laxness wrote the book expecting—perhaps due to sheer dearth of countrymen—that most of the people who would read it would be those who had never lived in Iceland and would seek explanations for why and how things were done. And there is a wryness layered throughout the book, not only to allow the village to celebrate its eccentrics, but also, much like Garrison Keillor’s tales of Woebegone and its residents’ sturdy Lutheran un-apology, to position the tale as a nostalgia of the folly of national youth and parochialism:

The word “love” was never heard in our house either, except if some inebriate or a particularly stupid maidservant from the country happened to recite a verse by a modern poet; and moreover, the vocabulary of poems like these was such that if ever we heard them, cold shivers ran down our spines, and my grandfather would seat himself on his hands, sometimes out on the garden wall, and would grimace and jerk his shoulders and writhe as if he had lice and say, “Tut tut!” and “Really!” On the whole, modern poetry had the same effect on us as canvas being scratched.

Susan Sontag wrote about Halldór Laxness in one of her final essays before she died in 2005, focusing on another novel, Under the Glacier (Kristnihald undir Jökli, 1968), which she credited for its seamless spanning of multiple genres (science fiction, allegory, philosophical, visionary, fantasy) and its positioning as an epical response to Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Imagining the exceptional, which is often understood as the miraculous, the magical or the supernatural, is a perennial job of storytelling. One tradition proposes a physical place of entry — a cave or a tunnel or a hole -which leads to a freakish or enchanted kingdom with an alternative normality. In Laxness’s story, a sojourn near Snaefells does not call for the derring-do of a descent, a penetration, since, as Icelanders who inhabit the region know, the glacier itself is the center of the universe. The supernatural — the center — is present on the surface, in the costume of everyday life in a village whose errant pastor has ceased to conduct services or baptize children or bury the dead. Christianity — Iceland’s confession is Evangelical Lutheran — is the name of what is normal, historical, local. (The agricultural Viking island converted to Christianity on a single day at the Althing, the world’s oldest national parliament, in 999.) But what is happening in remote Snaefells is abnormal, cosmic, global.

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