Independent People

by Halldor Laxness (translated by J. A. Thompson)

Rating: ★★★★

Independent People isn't, on the face of it, a one-of-a-kind novel. I've read books that dealt with similar content before -- the trace of a family or individual over an extended period of time, dipping into real history but focusing on the singular subject matter. However, with a lot of this kind of literature, I find the characters hard to relate to. They act in strange, unpredictable fashions, spurred by minor events into incredible actions. They whimsically destroy their entire lives, or blame others for perfectly ordinary actions. They don't make sense.

Laxness' portrait of these unusually isolated Icelandic homesteaders conforms in many ways to this description. Bjartur is strange, fanatically committed to remaining independent of anyone, for even a simple kindness; his first wife brutally slaughters a panicked lamb because it bleats in the night. But the difference is that, somehow, all of this makes sense. The people in Laxness' novel share something with the Sagas I have read -- they seem somehow real, three-dimensional characters with the flaws and inconsistencies of reality. I can understand the mood that led to that sheep's murder, and I can understand, in part, Bjartur's uncompromising attitude to his independence.

And that independence comes at a cost. In a way, this book is a great counterpoint to Walden. A life on your own terms does not come without great sacrifice -- the numerous small graves at Rauðsmyri being but one portion of it. The story of the cow is also a great illustration of how dangerous a gift can be. The man from Rauðsmyri sends Bjartur a cow he never wanted, and at the urging of his second wife, he permits it to stay (though, of course, paying for it). The children grow healthy from its milk, it becomes a much-loved member of the family, despite his grumbling. But then a hard winter comes, and there is not enough hay, so Bjartur is forced to make the cold choice between the beast his wife adores and the flock which supplies all their income. If that small gift was cruel, the gift of the great war on the mainland, which produced such a boom in the Icelandic farming economy, was even crueller. It was not deprivation that killed the Summerhouses or overwhelmed Bjartur's stubbornness, it was wealth and plenty.

With poetry, pragmatism, humour and heartbreak, this portrait of humanity certainly covers its bases.