Friday, February 17, 2017

Independent PeopleIndependent People by Halldór Laxness
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Our book group chose Independent People for rainy February's title and I tried several times to get into it without success. After about 150 pages, I was ready to concede defeat but persevered and finally started to cotton to this long, dense tale of an irascible Icelandic sheep farmer who buries two wives and numerous children and animals in his single-minded ambition to be an independent man beholden to none. Great swathes of text describe the unremitting misery of the climate and the lives of sheep and men, living and dead, as they struggle to survive.
"Great is the tyranny of mankind," says Laxness, and great is the tyranny of the Classics reading list which brought this book to my attention. Yet, I admit that I liked it! The author can be wry and funny and poetic in spite of the hackneyed poetry salted throughout, the husbandry and the grim weather: "And the ceaseless rain of this inclement summer poured down upon the three little unprotected workmen of the moors...turning their headgear into a shapeless, sodden mass and running down their necks and faces in rivulets stained with the colour from their hats." Yet there is youth and beauty and love: "she was leading two spirited young thoroughbreds whose coats glistened with good feeding, glossy as silk. The sunshine and the breeze played in her golden hair, in its waves and its curls; her young bosom rose cupped above her slender waist, her arms were naked to the shoulder, her eyebrows curved in a high care-free bow. Her keen eyes reminded him both of the sky and of its hawks; her skin, radiant with the fresh bloom of youth, colour incomparable, make him think of wholesome new milk in May." (402) Bjartur, the key figure, relentlessly pursues his dream of independence realized in Summerhouses, his bought-and-paid-for plot of land after eighteen years of servitude, as his family dies or abandons him and his sheep fail with disease. And the book by a Nobel Laureate hones to the definition of a classic as it tackles the human condition and our universal responses. My response would have been to abandon the sheep and retire with the coffee and a book while the snows blow around the croft, but these were hardier souls who needed the sheep to go on, to sell, to eat, to be independent people.

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