Friday, 17 July 2015

Book Review: Iceland's Bell by Halldór Laxness

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/14267.Iceland_s_Bell
Justice seems to be a natural and clear concept, but as we all know it’s not easily achieved – in spite or because of many as well as complex laws and the people who enforce them. Especially poor people are often helpless victims of unfair treatment or even arbitrariness although the situation has a lot improved since the era of Enlightenment. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, however, class-distinctions still made a big difference in court and elsewhere. The central figure of Iceland’s Bell by Halldór Laxness is a perfect example for a man who – like his whole nation – becomes the plaything of the powerful because he is poor and uncultured. But he is a sly as well as lucky guy who in the turmoil of Scandinavian history struggles for justice helped by an inexperienced girl in love with a scholar who only cares for old books and the scholar himself.

Halldór Kiljan Laxness was born Halldór Guðjónsson in Reykjavík, Iceland, in April 1902 and grew up in Laxnes, a village then outside the capital, now part of it and called Mosfellsveit. He turned to writing early and brought out his first novel, Barn náttúrunnar (Child of Nature), already at the age of seventeen. In the 1920s he converted to Catholicism and adopted his middle name Kiljan and the last name Laxness while staying in a Benedictine abbey in Luxembourg for studies. During this time he produced among others his much acclaimed novel The Great Weaver from Kashmir (Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír: 1927). Soon the author’s attention turned from religion to socialism, though, and he wrote his most important works Salka Valka (I: 1931; II: 1932), Independent People (Sjálfstætt fólk I and II: 1934; 1935), World Light (Heimsljós I-IV: 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940), Iceland’s Bell (Íslandsklukkan I-III: 1943; 1944; 1946), and The Atom Station (Atómstöðin: 1948). In 1955 Halldór Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland”. Most notable among the prolific author’s later works are the novels The Fish Can Sing (Brekkukotsannáll: 1957), Paradise Reclaimed (Paradísarheimt: 1960) and Under the Glacier (Kristnihald undir Jökli: 1968; also translated as Christianity at the Glacier), the play The Pigeon Banquet (Dúfnaveislan, 1966), and the ecological essay The War Against the Land (Hernaðurinn gegn landinu: 1970). Halldór Laxness died in Reykjavík, Iceland, in February 1998 after having suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease for several years.

Around 1700 Iceland is a miserable place under almost despotic Danish rule. When Jón Hreggviðsson, a poor farmer and petty thief by necessity (he stole a piece of cord to be able to go fishing during a famine), is ordered by the king’s hangman to cut down Iceland’s Bell fastened since time immemorial at the court house on the site of the national assembly at Þingvellir, it’s the beginning of his misfortune. A thoughtless remark in front of the hangman earns him twenty-four lash-strokes for insulting the king, but what is worse, after the flogging he joins the hangman and a group of Icelanders on their way home and gets dead-drunk with them. The following morning he wakes up in a swamp and
“… [a] few steps away they found the hangman, dead. He was on his knees, propped upright between the banks of the stream, which was so narrow there that the man’s body was enough to stop it up. The stream had filled in somewhat above the body, so that the water, which was otherwise not much more than knee-deep, was at that point up to the armpits. The corpse’s eyes and mouth were closed. …”
 Not even Jón Hreggviðsson remembers what happened and taking the death for an accident returns home. The next day a group of gentry, among them the Icelandic scholar Arnas Arnæus and the Magistrate’s daughter Snæfríður, visit his farm looking for ancient books containing Icelandic sagas and they discover parts of a priceless manuscript. This would be an insignificant event, weren’t the farmer seized by the bailiff’s men a few days later, brought to court for the murder of the hangman and eventually sentenced to be beheaded, so his old mother sets out to beg their noble visitors from months ago to free him. In the end Snæfríður actually helps him to escape because she wants him to take a ring and a message to her lover Arnas Arnæus who hasn’t returned from Copenhagen as promised. During the years to come Jón Hreggviðsson lives a life of adventure and makes the best of it in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark where he meets Arnas Arnæus at last. Thanks to the scholar’s intervention at the royal court the fugitive is allowed to return to Iceland as a free man to have his case reopened, but things take a different turn and Arnas Arnæus as well as Snæfríður and her father have their part in his fate which he always accepts with remarkable stoicism.

The title of the book is Iceland’s Bell not because the cracked national treasure and symbol of justice were particularly important for the story, but because it represents the Iceland’s decline until the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and forebodes the fate of its wretched protagonist who is nothing but a pawn in the big game played by the rich and powerful. The linear plot unfolding on about 400 pages in English translation is complex, eventful and rich in details. By way of contrast, most of the characters, who are based on real people from Icelandic and Danish history, are portrayed rather superficially through their actions and conversations which accounts for their unusual lack of psychological depth and which in fact is a trick of the author to approach his work to its medieval models, the sagas. The preservation of this literary heritage also is a recurring theme in the novel which is clearly embodied by the scholar and devoted book collector Arnas Arnæus and, less obviously, by the illiterate farmer Jón Hreggviðsson who is ever again shown singing stanzas from the fictitious Elder Ballad of Pontus thus continuing the oral tradition of story-telling. The author’s style is dense and skilfully adapted to the genre and the same can be said about his language which in addition is often interspersed with Latin and French expressions as they might have been used at the time of the novel. Moreover, the entire novel is spiced with quite some irony.

Summing up, Iceland’s Bell by Halldór Laxness is a modern Icelandic saga which gave me a lot of pleasure although in general I’m no great fan of historical novels. There would be much more to say about it, its varied plot, its historical background and its symbolism in the context of the time when it was written, i.e. when World War II raged elsewhere and Iceland finally became an independent country again after several centuries under Danish rule. In any case it’s a classic by a Nobel laureate that is little known... and definitely worth reading.



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