Thursday, May 23, 2013
Independent People, first published in Iceland in 1934, secured Halldór Laxness his Nobel Prize in 1955. It is the grim saga of Bjartur of Summerhouses and his family, early 20th Century "crofters" -- subsistence sheep farmers who live in a sod house with the sheep on the ground floor and the family huddled in the upper level. The semi-literate characters starve through the winter and spring until they can grow a few meager vegetables in the home field and sell their scrawny sheep in the fall.
The book is rich, although the plot is meager, following Bjartur from the acquisition of his farmstead through the loss of two wives and three children. Vivid scenes punctuate long passages describing geography, weather, and peasant conversations about sheep ailments and Icelandic politics. For example, in one scene, Bjatur clings to the furry antlers of a reindeer as the animal drags him across a half-frozen river. Meanwhile, his first wife -- about ready to give birth alone in the hut -- kills and butchers a ewe, salts down the meat, and then gorges herself on a pot of offal stew. The cognate, while false, is apt.
Dark humor is woven into the story but does little to lighten the somber mood. With the cadences and vocabulary of Icelandic epic poetry, Independent People reads like a cross between J. R. R. Tolkien and Thomas Hardy. Many readers praise the book's genius; others will find it a heavy slog.
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Independent People counts as one of my choices for the 2013 European Reading Challenge. At just under 480 pages, it also counts as one of my Chunkster Challenge books.