The Importance Of Being Independent

As you may have seen from my recent posts and comments, I am on a bit of an Iceland kick at the moment, and if you are that way inclined, sooner or later you are going to end up reading a book by the country’s undisputed number one writer – Nobel Prize Winner Halldór Laxness.  I’d never tried any of his novels before, but I was determined to see if his work was as good as many say it is – and luckily my local library was able to get me a copy of his most famous novel…
Independent People (translated by J.A. Thompson) is a 544-page epic, cramming two decades of life on the harsh lands of the Icelandic interior into a superb novel.  It’s the story of Bjartur, an agricultural worker, who after eighteen years of hard service to the local farmer has been able to set himself free and buy some land to start his own small croft.  Our newly independent man is in for a tough life, battling not only the elements (and in Iceland that would be bad enough on its own), but also the unforgiving land, the greed of richer farmers and, of course, the supernatural.  This is Iceland after all…
If anyone can manage this though, then Bjartur of Summerhouses is that man.  A taciturn being of Viking stock, he is determined to make a go of things and stand up straight, regardless of what the weather and the local spirits throw at him.  In a wonderful introduction to the novel, Laxness takes us through the history of the croft, telling us all about the evil murderess Gunnvor and her refusal to take death quietly.  Then Bjartur comes striding onto his land…

“No,” he said defiantly…
And as he passed Gunnvor’s cairn on the ridge, he spat, and ground out vindictively: “Damn the stone you’ll ever get from me you old bitch, ” and refused to give her a stone. p.18 (Harvill Press, 2001)

He then proceeds to climb a hill to survey his domain:

“Standing on the highest point of the knoll, like a Viking pioneer who has found his high-seat posts, he looked about him, then made water…” p.19

In the shadow of Gunnvor’s cairn, Bjartur proceeds to mark his land – territorial pissings indeed…
In the coming years, Bjartur will need to show all this strength of purpose to survive.  In a land where Easter is often celebrated in snow, getting the sheep (the key to his survival) through the winter in one piece is a mammoth task.  Luckily, as the years pass, he is helped in this task by his family, eventually being joined by four children, three sons and one daughter, Asta Solillja.  However, as the children grow towards maturity, some of them are shown to have inherited their father’s strength of character and stubbornness – and not all of them want to live a life of Bjartur’s making…
Independent People is a wonderful book, a mini-saga written (and translated) in clear prose, a marvellous tale of an environment which appears almost alien to comfortable 21st-century city dwellers.  As much as the book is about Bjartur and his family, it also foregrounds Iceland itself.  The country’s interior is another of the book’s characters (one of its more important ones) and is almost Hardyesque in its importance to the story.  As well as living off the proceeds of his work and the land’s generosity, Bjartur feels a more intangible connection to the place he lives in:

“But the high heath had also a value for this man other than the practical and the economic.  It was his spiritual mother, his church, his better world, as the ocean must inevitably be to the seafarer.  When he walked alone over the moors on the clear, frosty days of late autumn, when he ran his eyes over the desert’s pathless range, and felt the cold clean breeze of the mountains on his face, then he too would prove the substance of patriotic song.”  pp.102/3

Easy as it is to get carried away with romantic pastoral fantasies though, the reality is that life in Independent People is hard.  Iceland is an isolated wilderness, primitive in comparison to the rest of early-twentieth-century Europe, and the awful weather conditions, combined with an absence of electricity, running water and home comforts, meant that just keeping yourself warm and healthy was a major task.  Without giving too much away, death was just as much of a certainty as cold winters and wet feet.
The country was also a colony at the time, to be exploited by rich Danish merchants, and part of the interest in Independent People is seeing how things begin to change over the course of the years.  The richer farmers form a co-operative society which challenges the primacy of the banks, and eventually the native people begin to take more responsibility for their own affairs, culminating in the first steps to independence for the country in 1918.  It’s fascinating to see how Iceland’s rise to independence is aided by the slaughter elsewhere in World War I – the country is able to export its lamb and mutton for astronomical prices, using Europe’s misfortune to improve its economy.  Not for nothing do the farmers call it “The Blessed War’…
One thing does not change though, and that is Bjartur’s insistence on the need to be independent.  Having laboured for eighteen years to finally escape servitude, he isn’t likely to give up his freedom in a hurry.  As he tells his wife: 

“Independence is the most important thing of all in life.  I say for my part that a man lives in vain until he is independent.  People who aren’t independent aren’t people.”  p.41

And that, perhaps, is what it all boils down to: is it better to life in servitude and comfort, or freedom and poverty?  For Bjartur, it’s a question that only has one possible answer.

19 thoughts on “The Importance Of Being Independent

  1. I loved this book. I always thought I was quite independent, but then I read this book and realised the Icelandic take that to a whole other level! I'd love to know how similar modern Icelandic culture is to this. Guess I just need to read more Icelandic books 🙂


  2. Thanks for this interesting review. Someone has already recommended this book to me but as they hadn't given me any inkling of the plot I'd ignored it. Think I'll have a look now and see if the library can turn up a copy.


  3. I have this one on the shelf as I decided that if I read one book by this author, it must be this one. Looks like it might be heavy going. Is it?

    THE PETS! THE PETS! For something lighter


  4. I loved this book too and have, ever since I read it, had a hankering to read it again. As for Hardyesque, that's an interesting comparison. If I were answering Parrish I'd say more in tone than in landscape itself … but perhaps you're referring to the sense of things being out of one's control (as much as Bjartur tries to maintain control).


  5. I read Laxness' Iceland's Bell a few years back and though it was a weirdly structured book, I liked Laxness' writing enough to buy Independent People. I haven't read it yet (I seriously use this sentence all too often…!), but you've certainly gotten me excited about it again.


  6. I read this book years ago and found it hard going, but I loved reading it. Even more than now, I was very much into all things Icelandic.

    For people who want to go further back in time, I can recommend Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders, where a group of Icelanders settle in Greenland, which causes all kinds of problems – an even harsher life than that in Iceland.

    These days, since the 1960s, Iceland has moved from being a poor and rural country to a much more prosperous one so I think things are quite different now than in the time that Laxness writes about. On the other hand, the people themselves are probably still very similar.


  7. Gary & whisperinggums – I'd say both; in fact, the more I think about it, the more apt the comparison is. The two writers both show real life in the country (although Hardy is occasionally a bit more romantic in his treatment of life on the land). However, when you think of Egdon Heath from 'The Return of the Native', the use of landscape is similar too 🙂

    Jackie – It's a slightly different level of independence from the one we have become accustomed to 😉

    Maryom – It is an excellent book, but one to be enjoyed over a long time, a slow burner. Also not for people who like cheery, uplifting novels 😉

    Guy – Fairly heavy going, bring your wellies 🙂

    Alright, I hear you!

    Biblibio – I'll definitely be hunting down more of Laxness' work from the library before long, probably 'Iceland's Bell' and 'Hear the Fish Sing' (and I'm always glad to get people excited about good books!).

    Judith – In my recent read, 'Names for the Sea', the writer gave the impression of a country that still believes in its Viking past; it's just that now they have huge SUVs instead of longships. Apparently, Viking is more a state of mind than anything else 😉


  8. I read Under the Glacier a few years ago and struggled. It was billed as a comedy, but I didn't laugh. Maybe one day I'll try another. (Can second 'The Pets' though – that was great fun!)


  9. Annabel – I wouldn't have picked Laxness for a comedy writer (gallows humour, perhaps…).

    adiscounttickettoeverywhere – Good to hear 🙂 Depressing and enjoyable aren't mutually exclusive 😉

    Stu – You can't argue with Sjón – time to get it down from the shelves 😉


  10. I've read another one of his books last year. The Fish Can Sing. Loved it but it's not easy going, for sure, still it seems the heaviest is another one which I've got as well. Under the Glacier.
    What I truly liked is how unique his voive is. He writes like nobody else I've read so far.
    Btw – Are you warming up for November? Hint, hint…


  11. Laxness started being published in Portuguese a few years ago, there must be three or four books available now.

    I've been curious about Independent People for some time now. Thanks for this review, Tony, it shows what I've been missing.


  12. Caroline – It's not easy reading, but he does have a unique voice 🙂

    As for November, well, I'm always ready. Now, I'm just off to tinker about with the bus for a while… 😉

    Miguel – No worries, it's what I'm here for 🙂


  13. I went to Iceland years ago and came back all renewed and eager to read Icelandic fiction. I bought two of Laxness novels — this one, you have so excellently reviewed here, and The Atom Station. I read The Atom Station and thought it very patchy — there were bits that were very good and effortless to read, and then there were other bits that clearly went over my head. As a result I never bothered reading Independent People. Perhaps it's time I pulled it out of the TBR and gave it a shot; it does sound exactly like my sort of thing.


  14. Kim – It's not a nice easy read, but then I probably wouldn't be reading it if it was 😉 It's definitely one you should try though, especially if you're interested in Iceland 🙂


  15. Great write-up of the book. It must have been absolute hell to make a living off the land there, except when they were price-gouging during the war. I don't think I like that attitude.Millions died in blood and guts and mud and they were happy to turn a profit? Hmmm.


  16. Violet – That was definitely the character's view although he did have a point in that he thought they were all bloody stupid getting shot for no reason (which pretty much sums up World War I really). Seeing it from the perspective of someone who has no interest in it at all is actually quite fascinating…


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