Thursday, November 01, 2007

Independent People

For anyone bracing themselves for long cold winter nights, Halldor Laxness's Independent People makes good reading. I actually read this book in December 1999, outside on the deck of our home in suburban Maryland, late at night with a pipe and snow falling all around. This is probably the optimal method for reading a book set in the isolated frozen wastes of Iceland.

Independent people is the story of an obstinant Icelandic sheep rancher's struggle for independence against time, the elements, family responsibility, and an evolving economic system. For Bjartur, nothing is as important as his land and the sheep upon it, for in his thinking, the land represents true freedom. Wives die, children are lost, and eventually the ranch itself comes to ruin as a result of Bjartur's inability to see beyond the tip of his nose. As with most pioneers, there is a certain insanity in him, and a mad touch of the heroic.

One feels that Bjartur survives a harrowing ordeal in the frozen wasteland (as his wife is dying in childbirth at home) not by heroism, but by the fact that he is so single-mindedly obsessed with his dream of independence that he simply does not consider the fact that he should not be able to live through the night. The tale is a tragic one - for all its simplicity, Bjartur's dream is crushed in the end by his inability to adapt to a changing world. The other characters, especially the girl Asta Sollija, are drawn with depth and care. There is a touch of the comical in this novel, but there is mostly - almost unbearable in parts - tragic sorrow in the life of this man and those he dominates.

I was fortunate to find and read an English translation of this book some years ago. I see that a more recent edition is now available. Pleased to know that it is back in print.

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