Sunday, September 21, 2008
Title: Independent People
Author: Halldor Laxness
Pages: 512 pages
Rating: 4 out of 5
Independent People is the story of Bjartur of Summerhouses, an Icelandic crofter who has bought his own croft after 18 years of servitude to the Bailiff of Myri. Bjartur is conservative, stubborn, and fearful of progress. He is not especially likeable, but you can't help being drawn into his plight. Bjartur prides himself on being an independent man, defining independence as freedom from servitude. However, freedom and independence from starvation, sickness, and extreme poverty are issues he confronts on a daily basis.
Halldor Laxness won the Nobel Prize in 1955, and many view Independent People as the crown of his achievements. Despite this, it remains an obscure novel--it took months to obtain a copy through the interlibrary loan system--from a small country most Americans know little about. For me, that is part of its charm.
The book is hard describe. It is about many things: Icelandic sheep farmers in the early 20th century, self-sufficiency and independence, a satirical look at Bjartur's limitations, the impact of war, and the juxtaposition of economics and politics (particularly socialism vs capitalism), all play out through the course of this epic novel. There are long discussions of ancient Icelandic poetry, for Bjartur is a poet, which really gives the story a timeless quality. Framing these themes is the relationship between Bjartur and his only daughter Asta Sollija.
Independent People certainly hold its own in comparison to other works of the time by authors such as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Pearl S. Buck. It is a book to read when you have the time to sit down and browse slowly.