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.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Book Notes on LibraryThing

For anyone out there who might enjoy my writing on books (rather than my leftie rants), you may be interested to know that I have begun to cross post some of my book notes from this blog to my LibraryThing catalog (accessible as "reviews" on the Makifat profile page). I am also posting shorter reviews of books read that I have written in my notebooks, but which I have felt aren't substantial enough to note on this blog.

The LibraryThing cataloging continues, slowly and surely. I should pass 3000 books sometime tomorrow, but there is still a long way to go until I have entered my entire library.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Manuscript Found at Saragossa

As a student in the early 80's, I saw a film at the local art house that was quite unlike anything I'd seen before. It was foreign, black and white, and featured (in addition to scantily clad temptresses) seemingly innumerable stories within stories, a narrative Chinese box, all in a quite fantastic vein. The name of the film escaped me for years, but it remained as a tantalizing memory. No one I spoke to seems to have any recollection of the film, and I wondered if it had been a dream after all.

A few years ago there was a new translation of a book entitled The Manuscript Found at Saragossa by Polish author Jan Potocki. This novel is comprised of interlocking stories within stories, gothic and surreal. Set in Spain's Sierra Morena mountains in the early years of the 18th century, the intricate stories make generous use of the elements of hermetic and kabbalistic teachings, as well as Islamic history and the horrors of the Inquisition.

Potocki knew the detailed history of the time and sprinkled his narrative with actual persons and events. He created in this novel a subterranean twilight world, where secretive Moorish sheiks hoard incredible wealth and scheme for the continuance of their hereditary authority in the hidden realm.

Van Worden, the narrator, is manipulated throughout to serve the purposes of a distant relation, the Sheik of the Gomelez. He accomplishes this through tests of character, through the intricate web of stories (including the tale of the Wandering Jew, a popular gothic motif - see also Melmoth the Wanderer and Eugene Sue's eponymous novel), and through, not least, the erotic attractions of two nubile Moorish princesses. A recurring episode pertains to some criminal corpses, hanging near a crossroads, that seem to be resurrected with an almost comic consistency.

The disparate narratives weave together in the final pages. Van Worden learns the object of his manipulation, but is greatly rewarded for providing an heir to the Sheik. The object of the Sheik is a plan for Moorish world domination, a foreshadowing of the anti-semitic and discredited "Protocols of the Elders of Zion". Conspiracy theorists, alas, have always been with us.

And of course, while reading this novel, back in 2001, my mind was struck by similarities to a film I had seen many years before. The film? The 1965 production of "The Saragossa Manuscript", which I now own on DVD. Both the book and the film are wonderfully imagined works of art.