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Independent People by Halldor Laxness
Independent People

gray-c, March 26, 2010

I picked up Independent People somewhat reluctantly (it was assigned by my book club), but within a very few pages found myself awakening to the recognition that this is simply one of the great books. It may be hard to imagine getting turned on by an Icelandic novel about sheep farmers, coffee, bad weather, and economic disaster, but Laxness makes us care, with his sardonic and affectionate perceptions of this small group of quirky, indomitable people. At the same time he rivets us, like Melville or Twain, with an absolutely unique and engaging voice. The political and ovine discussions among visiting sheepherders are simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, and Bjartur of Summerhouses is one of the most tragic, infuriating, and sympathetic characters ever invented. He’s a hard, implacable man, but a man who also has a deep love for Icelandic poetry and “a flower in his life” – a flower he eventually feels compelled to cut off. Around this excruciating struggle between a stubborn man and his loving but equally stubborn daughter Laxness brilliantly brings to life a cast of flawed but appealing rural characters and an intensely beautiful, pitiless natural landscape. The random attacks of sub-Arctic weather and disease (of both people and sheep) join with the inscrutable grinding of human markets to overwhelm the Icelandic crofters; and yet Laxness makes us believe that even amid the wreckage of dreams of independence and security, the precious pebbles of human love and loyalty stubbornly preserve their gleam.
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