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Monday, May 07, 2018

Independent People (1935) by Halldor Laxness


Book Review
Independent People (1935)
by Haldor Laxness

   I've never been to Iceland, despite being asked to go at least a half dozen times.  I've turned down offers to attend the Airwaves festival, a personal invitation from a long-time San Diego neighbor who relocated, and requests from two significant others to go.  My sense is that few, if any of the American's I see posting photos on social media about their Iceland trip have read Independent People, written by Iceland's Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Halldor Laxness.   I read Independent People for the first time a decade ago, when my Icelandic neighbor lent it to me after I expressed interest in knowing about the "real" Iceland- beyond the landscape photos and Bjork.

   I'd admit that Independent People is a tough sell for a casual visitor to Iceland. It is almost 500 pages long, and focuses almost solely on the life of a small time sheep herder, living on a marginal farm on the edge of Icelandic civilization.  The title, Independent People, translates in the original Icelandic to "self-standing"folk, and it a concept near and dear to Bjartur, the peasant-farmer, who takes possession of an allegedly haunted holding and renames it "Summerhomes" in much the same spirit that the original Viking settlers dubbed "Greenland."  Summerhomes is allegedly haunted by a pre-Christian/medieval witch and a pagan demon.

  Pre-Independence Iceland was an incredibly impoverished place- not even indpendent until 1944, so much of Independent People takes place during the late colonial period.  For all that modernity intrudes into the initial portion of the narrative, it could have been seven hundred years ago, but eventually modernity rudely arrives at Summerhomes.  This really is THE book to read if you are heading off to Iceland itself, but maybe give yourself a couple weeks before you take off, lest you not finish before you leave.

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