Situated in Iceland’s unforgiving climate and rugged terrain and against the backdrop of Iceland’s struggle for independence in the early twentieth century, Halldor Laxness’ Independent People explores complex issues of survival, independence, and community. This masterpiece secured for Laxness the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature.
The protagonist is Bjartur of Summerhouses, a stubborn, opinionated, inflexible, and fiercely independent sheep farmer who exhibits a mass of contradictory qualities. Bjartur is compassionate, tender, solicitous, and considerate. But only if you happen to be one of his sheep. By contrast, his treatment toward his family occasionally borders on cruelty. He expects them to whip themselves into shape as he has done, survive on stale fish and endless cups of coffee, confront the harsh Icelandic winters with equanimity, and vehemently decline assistance from others. Bjartur values his independence above all else, even at the expense of exposing his family to severe hardship. He disdains the most basic comforts in life and expects his family to do the same.
The story unfolds as Bjartur, having labored for eighteen years for others, finally secures a home for himself and his sheep. His first wife dies giving birth to Asta Sollilja, a girl he knows is not his. His second wife moves into his croft with her mother. She produces several children, only three of whom survive. She dies of grief when Bjartur ignores her pleas and kills the one meagre cow they possess. His eldest son walks out in a snow storm one evening and is never seen again. He ousts his only daughter from home on a freezing night when he discovers she is pregnant.
World War I brings prosperity to Icelandic farmers. Bjartur builds a home for himself only to lose it like many others before him because he is unable to pay his debts. His world disintegrates and he is forced to relocate to his mother-in-law’s home. The novel ends on a note of reconciliation. Bjartur finds Asta Sollilja living in a hovel with her two children. She is weak, coughing blood, and dying of consumption. He sweeps her up with her children and takes her home.
There is much to love about Bjartur. He writes poetry and recites Icelandic sagas, claiming their heroes as a point of reference in his every day conversations. His determination to be self-reliant is heroic. He works hard and expects others to do the same. He is a man of his word. He is noble, heroic, stoic, and proud. But there is also much about him that frustrates. He is incorrigible, fixated on his one goal, harsh in word and deed, and oblivious to the adverse effects his intransigence has on his family. It is almost as if he feels the need to suppress his emotions in order to survive in an inhospitable climate. His layers of tough skin peel away at the end of the novel, revealing his ability to forgive and to love another deeply as he carries his dying daughter, “the one flower of his life,” to their new home.
In Independent People, Laxness has produced a novel vast in scope and epic in nature. At the center of this masterpiece is a complex, fascinating protagonist. Laxness’ language is poetic, beautiful in its simplicity, full of profound insights, laced with irony and understated humor, and smattered with references to Icelandic heroes and mythological characters. At times his prose leaves you breathless. The characters are so real, they could almost walk off the page. His detailed descriptions transport the reader to the expansive moors and the modest croft; to experiencing the biting cold and relentless snow storms; and to smelling and hearing the sheep, the sheep, the sheep in all their tapewormy glory.
This is more than a novel about an Icelandic sheep farmer struggling to survive. This is a deeply profound masterpiece about the struggles we face in life. It is full of beauty, full of sadness, and brimming with poetry and wisdom. It is a novel that speaks to our common humanity and touches the soul.
Very highly recommended.