Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Independent People - Halldor Laxness

After working for the Bailiff for 18 years under near slavery, Gudbjartur Jonsson, is now the owner of his own croft. His eighteen years of previous experience is enough resolve for him to be independent man. Now known as Bjartur of Summerhouses, running his farm with multiplying numbers of sheep, he now determined to preserve his status as an independent man. Plain and simple, he has no two ways of thinking nor any polished way of communicating his feeling. Anything that comes in between him and his perceived independence, he is fight with all his might. The place acquired by him is no great shakes. It is believed to have been haunted. The spirits of Kolimkilli and Gunnvor ( from the Icelandic saga) , is believed to be the owner of these wastelands and does give torrid times to the people, unless they made pact with them with offerings. Halldor Laxness starts his epic with the reference to the myths and legends of Kolimkilli and Gunnvor and continued the subtle references to this from time to time.

Even in the face of one mishap after other, Bjartur is unperturbed. He has decided to face the repercussions for his belief. His wife, dies after giving birth to a illegitimate daughter. His second wife with whom he had 3 sons, also did not live long to serve him. His sons, one after other desert him ( either perish or migrated to other pastures). The famine stuck many times, His fortune with sheep oscillate like a pendulum, from great years to being lost all due to some illness. The croft remain the same despite his promise to build a mansion to his daughter. He stood firm despite all the backlashes and the sacrifices, being an independent man. The only soft corner in his mind was towards his foster daughter Asta Sollilja (born to his wife and Bailff's son). But, when she was pregnant ( illegitimate again) , he did not think twice in expelling her from his house.

Its a sad story. One can not but sympathise with Bjartur, despite his stubbornness and thoughtlessness. He had clear ways of behavior and looked at everything else as a plot to put him back in debt. He did not give a damn to the church or to the authorities, neither thought it is important to educate his kids in the traditional way. He found all those a waste of time.

We Icelanders have never had any great respect for kings … for everyone is equal before God; and as long as a farmer can call himself an independent man and no one else’s slave, so long can he call himself his own king.
Despite his stubbornness and the rejection of all the believes, Bjarthur at time display his conciliatory side to the myths. He even offered a cease-fire with Gunnvor and Kolumkili , albeit momentarily. However, he remain critical to the church.

Tragedy stuck one after other in his life. However, he managed to complete the promised house, but only after the daughter was thrown out. But, he did not have the chance to live in his dream, as he lost all his properties, succumbed to the debt and clever ploy by the mighty ( they had forced him the loan for the raw material and the labour in building the house)..

Against this backdrop, the book addresses a lot more basic questions about the human survival. Despite his initial success and the shear ability to stay out of the water. The noose is always hanging above them. The politician and bureaucracy is strengthening their hold on the poor , looting them and pushing them down the debt track. People loose properties and all their belongings.

The World War 1 has a great significance in this novel, as it did for Iceland. Though it is not participated in the war, for geographical reasons, the repercussions are felt even at this distant land. People keenly follow the happenings as it changes their fortune, mostly favourably as the demand for raw material and meat was increased. There is also reference to the death of CSAR and the raise of Communism, as people are eager to learn the outcome of this experience. Laxness was known for his affinity towards Communism, and the subtle hints of new regime of people in that country is mentioned as a new light at the horizon. There are workers agitating, some of them even taking the path of looting the rich ( only the bread and milk ). There are proposed strike against the authorities for wages and their rights. Their resolve was firm despite the news that the authorities are expected to use force on them including firing squad. At the end despite all the setbacks and tragedies, Bjarthur stands tall, and the books ends with the reconciliation of the family and beginning of a new life with the hopes of new era for Iceland.

This is a fabulous book, and what is impressive is the detached tone of language and its simplicity. The narration never takes over the plot, nor the characterisation is exaggerated or typecast. He is the representation of the society , who would like to stand on their own without dependency of the authorities be it bureaucratic, papal , ideological or even familial. The "independence" for him does not merely an economic means, but on every aspect of his life, including his personal interactions with his wives and children. This does not mean he is not in love with them. He shows his softer side, by composing verses for his daughter, by looking out for his estranged son, allowing the youngest one to leave him and migrate to America.

Independent people is an outstanding novel. Originally published in two parts in the year 1934 and 35, it was published in English in1946 and Laxness went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1955. Though long and slow moving, it never leaves your attention to the narration. Despite the general feel of the book, it never come across as a gloomy , grim and sad novel, even while we are sympathetic to the protagonist. Carefully crafted and progressed, cleverly articulated ; Great read and a master piece.
Independent People ( 1934-1935)

Halldor Laxness ( translated by J A Thomson 1988)

Vintage Classics

544 Pages
Read more : Scandinavian Books, Dannyreviews , npr , Wiki Entry

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