Simple Songs and Viking Sagas
“Life has taught me to make no distinction between a hero and a little man, between great events and small trifles,” says a drunken Icelander in The Fish Can Sing. “From my point of view, men and events are all more or less the same size.” This gentle, moving novel by Iceland’s foremost modern author disproves these inebriated ramblings utterly. With The Fish Can Sing, Halldór Laxness finds large ideas in the modest minds of rustic Icelanders, portraying their lives as humble and occasionally absurd, but imbued with an eclectic, uniquely Icelandic dignity—a literary feat that is far more than a small trifle.
Despite his cult-like status in Iceland, a Nobel Prize, and frequent comparisons to authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Laxness, who died in 1998, is still largely unknown outside his homeland. The Harvill Press deserves praise for remedying international ignorance by reissuing an English translation of one of Laxness’s more accessible works. Originally published in Icelandic in 1957 and in English in 1966, The Fish Can Sing isn’t Laxness’s best—that distinction goes to Independent People, his 1935 novel about a pathologically self-sufficient farmer—but it’s a beautiful book nonetheless.
Alfgrim, raised by his adoptive grandparents, is a bit of a simpleton who earns pocket money by singing at sparsely attended funerals. Although his grandparents hope he’ll pursue an education, Alfgrim wants only to be a fisherman, naively finding more charm than hopelessness in the town drunks, trifling politicians, and itinerant shysters who pass in and out of his life. The Fish Can Sing ultimately centers around Alfgrim’s encounters with a famous Icelandic singer named Gardar Holm, a celebrity who is apparently renowned throughout the world—even though almost no one at home can seem to recall ever having heard him sing.
Nearly all of Laxness’s novels hint at the contrast between the larger-than-life heroes whose mordantly humorous exploits are preserved in the Icelandic sagas, and the dingy realities of life in early 20th-century Iceland—at that time a rural Danish colony with a sagging national self-esteem.
“I spent my entire childhood in an environment in which the mighty of the earth had no place outside story books and dreams,” Laxness said in his 1955 Nobel acceptance speech. “Love of, and respect for, the humble routines of everyday life and its creatures was the only moral commandment which carried conviction when I was a child.” As a result, Laxness’s depictions of his characters in The Fish Can Sing glow with a careful affection for the commonplace, always lovingly rendered in beautiful prose:
At first she looked at me without seeing me; she was deep in thought, and I imagined that she had got up early to go to the churchyard to mourn a lost friend. She set off in the direction of town. Somehow I got the impression from her walk that she was rather depressed; at least she was taking no particular care over the way she walked, and her hair was dishevelled by a breeze that was not there at all.
With characteristic humor, Laxness pokes gentle fun at his countrymen, allowing their speeches and soliloquies to reveal passionate feelings about entirely inconsequential subjects:
No sane or healthy man had ever grown a beard. There was no conceivable work at which a beard did not get in the way. The only people who grew beards were men with tender skins, and the only cure for that ailment was to seize them by the beard and drag them back and forth through the whole town. There were few people who were so indispensable to a community as those who shaved men’s beards.
But Laxness allows the homely charm of Iceland to shine forth as well. While fraudulent Gardar Holm continues to evade public performances—even as his deluded countrymen toast his supposed accomplishments in the concert halls of Europe and America—one of Laxness’s characters suggests that Iceland find its more natural niche.
“t isn’t enough,” proclaims one proud merchant, “that Icelandic fish should have Danish ribbons and bows; it has to have the ribbon of international fame. In a word, we have to prove to the rest of the world that ‘the fish can sing just like a bird.’” The tension between earning the accolades of outsiders and being content with one’s born circumstances and modest natural gifts is a constant in Laxness’s work, an idea that applies not only to his characters and, by extension, his nation, but also to Laxness himself.
For much of his career, Laxness lived a saga of small-time controversy. In the 1940s he was harshly criticized by Icelandic politicians for publishing editions of medieval sagas—Iceland’s sacred texts—with modernized spelling, and for decades his countrymen had plenty of occasion to roll their eyes as the capricious author sought a brief career in Hollywood, leapt from Catholicism to socialism, and dabbled in Eastern religions. Today, however, reverent bus drivers in the Icelandic countryside slow down to point out his unassuming home. Laxness saw Reykjavik grow from a hardscrabble village to a hip modern capital, and he almost single-handedly legitimized modern Icelandic literature. Foreigners are baffled; Icelanders shine with pride.
Authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Jane Smiley revel in medievalism, crafting impressive modern myths with intelligence and clear devotion. But Laxness lived the legacy of the Middle Ages as only an Icelander can, in a country where nearly all literature is seen as a response to Viking sagas. The Fish Can Sing is not only an important work by a Nobel laureate who brought his modern country lasting literary fame, but also the fascinating voice of an earlier, more insular Iceland—“in the years,” Laxness acknowledges, “before we came to be reckoned as people at all.”
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