In early times, say the Icelandic chronicles, men from the Western Islands came to live in this country, and when they departed, left behind them crosses, bells, and other objects used in the practice of sorcery.
So begins Independent People, or in the original Icelandic, Sjálfstætt Fólk or Self-standing Folk. The author, Halldór Laxness, won the Nobel prize for literature in 1955, partly on the strength of this 1934 epic. I flirted with the novel for months, pulling it from the shelf, wondering about the sheep on the cover, quickly replacing it, though never quite scooting it into the darker recesses of the bookcase. After settling upon it, I was visited by the uncanny sense that I had chosen just the right novel at just the right time, a dose of serendipity that may carry Independent People to the finish line in my ‘read of the year’ reckoning.
It is a hefty thing, 482 closely spaced pages in the 1997 Vintage International Edition, translated by J.A. Thompson. I feared, diving into the opening, that amid the supernatural rattlings of the devil, Kolumkilli, and his evil changeling Gunnvor, the heaths, the stones, and the bleating sheep, my reading might be hexed. But tenacity like that of any old crofter seeped through; before long, I picked up the ultrasonic heartbeat of Independent People, faintly at first, then pounding so wildly that I won’t soon forget the emotional journey I took within its pages. For the next two weeks, I dwelt in the hovel of Bjartur of Summerhouses, a protagonist so completely fleshed that I can forever picture him schlumping through the low doorway at the end of the long day, chores set aside, ewes in the pen, scowl on his highly un-evolved brow. I can also imagine just what he might say, or his snide glances towards his family and neighbors.
Bjartur is a man who flings contempt at the notion that his property, acquired after 18 years of indentured service, might be worth less than his appraisal because of the witch Gunnvor’s hauntings and the local requirement of placing stones on the witch’s grave to pacify her and ward off her interference.
”No,” he said defiantly…And as he passed Gunnvor’s cairn on the ridge, he spat, and ground out vindictively: ”Damn the stone you’ll ever get from me, you old bitch,” and refused to give her a stone.
In flaunting his disregard for the history and spirit of lore, Bjartur establishes himself as the true force to be reckoned with. He sees himself as outstandingly modern, indebted to none, shorn of superstition and emotion, free to pursue the sheep raising he esteems, using his children as ever busy farmhands. There are fields of sheep populating Independent People, and Bjartur’s struggle to establish and grow his flock is central to the novel. But the sheep of Summerhouses possess no cynefin. They are passive, dependent creatures who suffer from maladies both meta and sheerly – I almost typed sheeply – physical.
Yet sheep are not the heart, that pulsing life of the novel. For Bjartur has a daughter, Asta Sollilja, or Beloved Sun-lily. She is birthed during a blizzard when Bjartur is far from home pursuing a ewe that he wrongly believes has wandered too far. (Revealing what happened to that ewe would spoil a section of the novel that is so brilliant I’m again marveling and smiling to think on it weeks later.) As she grows, Asta Sollilja’s lowly beginnings and impoverished circumstances contrast with the high minded, romanticized adoration she holds for her father and others. Herein lie the seeds of great conflict, for Bjartur refutes emotion and all of its tendencies while Asta Sollilja embodies them.
She sat on the bank and listened. Then she stripped herself of her torn everyday rags under a sky that could wipe even the sunless winters of a whole lifetime from the memory, the sky of this Midsummer Eve. Young goddess of the sunlit night, perfect in her half-mature nakedness. Nothing in life is so beautiful as the night before what is yet to be, the night and its dew. She wished her wish, slender and half-grown in the half-grown grass and its dew. Body and soul were one, and the unity was perfectly pure in the wish.
Father and daughter embark one morning upon an educational and mercenary excursion to Fjord, a trip that deals the novel’s centerpiece of shattering, cataclysmic misunderstanding. I came to this section unprepared for its majesty and emotion, within just a few pages – perhaps twenty – and found myself, a few days before Father’s Day and at the end of a sunny lunch break, kneeling unseen in the workplace garden, studying the undersides of cabbage leaves, blubbering towards composure for the afternoon’s tasks.
It is not enough to say that Bjartur and Asta Sollilja find themselves bitterly opposed. Their estrangement animates them, each wandering through years of mental and financial waste to endure that which defines them. Bjartur takes newfound prosperity at the advent of World War I.
”And since the swine can be bothered to go to the trouble of butchering one another — from imbecility or ideals, it’s all the same to me — well, I’ll be the last man on earth to grieve for them. To hell with the lot of them. All I say is this: let them continue till doomsday, as long as the meat and the wool keep on rising in price.”
Asta Sollilja drifts, impoverished and alone, with neither safe homestead nor love to call her own.
Her life was one unremitting impassioned torment, so that one could not help wanting to be good to her; and then to push her away; and then to return to her again because one had not understood her — or oneself either, perhaps.
Even when their lives run at right angles, Asta Sollilja and her father are inextricably bound. A lesser novelist might have imagined a weaker, sentimental ending for his epic. Halldór Laxness found the clay of rich emotion, mixed it with the grass of the Icelandic heath, but rather than a hovel, he fashioned a timeless, sparkling home for his Independent People.