The fish can sing just like a bird,
And grazes on the moorland scree,
While cattle in a lowing herd
Roam the rolling sea.
Starting from this Icelandic paradox put in verse, Halldór Laxness weaves an enchanting tale on the outskirts of Reykjavík, in a time when the price of a Bible was equal to that of a heifer and people still tried to cure headaches by smearing their faces with warm cow-dung. Some say that The Fish Can Sing
is a coming-of-age novel, but I don't really see it that way; it is more the diary of a place, Brekkukot, and the portrait of a generation long gone, in a time when Reykjavík was just a bunch of houses inhabited by farmers and fishermen.
Álfgrímur is an abandoned child who grows up at Brekkukot
, surrounded by peculiar people and evening sessions of sagas and rímur. His childhood revolves around Brekkukot, convinced, like the eminent Candide, that the world we live in is best at home
. He reminisces about a lot of things there: a clock in whose ticking he discovered eternity, a window so small that it was possible to see only one blade of grass and one star. Álfgrímur doesn't perceive himself as poor and he wants to become a fisherman, just like his adoptive grandfather. Until one day, when he hears about the one pure note
and starts to indulge in dreams of becoming a singer.
This is one of the details I loved most in this novel - one blade of grass and one star
. Such a tiny universe and yet so grand! Because Brekkukot is an open place for the unfortunate and the poor, who bring with them strange stories and peculiar situations. All sorts of people come to live here from all over Iceland - some just in passing, others to stay for good, until their dying day. Álfgrímur shares the loft with three permanent inhabitants - a genuine saga-men who used to pilot Danish ships; a philosopher with a mysterious job whom the child believes to be descended from the Hidden People; and an occasional drunk, admirer of cesspools, who in old age was to become the first person to be run over by a car in Iceland.
The household is run by Álfgrímur's adoptive grandfather, Björn of Brekkukot, and his companion - whom Álfgrímur calls his grandmother, two people that Laxness endows with unforgettable traits. No matter the circumstances, fisherman Björn
sold his fish at the same price, rejecting all the fundamental rules of economics, because he thought that people accumulated more money that they actually needed. He used to read the Bible in a monotonous and solemn chant, a special manner of reading that is now lost. Wealthy people considered he had no ambition, but how much benefit could it bring to a man who was obviously more happy than most? Álfgrímur's grandmother
is a mysterious character to him, because he doesn't really get to know her. She was a well of knowledge, answering people with sayings and proverbs, knowing whole ballads by heart from beginning to end. And it seemed she never had a bed of her own to sleep in. It was not until after I was fully grown that I noticed her sufficiently to feel that I really saw her. Suddenly one day I simply felt that she was probably closer to me than anyone else in the world, even though I knew less about her than anyone else and despite the fact that she had been in her grave for some time by then.
And then there is the elusive Garðar Hólm
, the most famous Icelander, known all over the world for his amazing voice. Álfgrímur has the chance to meet him several times when the singer comes to Reykjavík, not knowing what to think of his strange and unapproachable character. He can't even hear him sing, because Garðar Hólm always leaves unexpectedly before his due concert. Music had not been an educational subject in Iceland since the Middle Ages – indeed, it was considered an affectation or an aberration, especially among the educated – until Garðar Hólm won for Iceland musical fame abroad; and then a few people began to think more highly of it. But for a long time afterwards it was still generally considered rather odd to be famous for singing. So it was practically unthinkable in my younger days for people to let themselves in for the tedium that music involved, except in the cause of salvation; music was good when people had to be put into the ground.
You know the case of the studious pupil that makes a good impression with teachers and, even if later he becomes lazy and uninterested, they still give him good grades? I know this, as I've been there. Well, the same thing happened with me and Halldór Laxness: I fell in love with his [b:Under the Glacier|14265|Under the Glacier|Halldór Laxness|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1320556030s/14265.jpg|3019063] and thus I tend to project this elated feeling upon his other novels and Icelandic literature in general. But the truth is that Laxness's novels are wonderful just the same and I can't praise his writing enough: it is warm, mysterious, poetic, full of humor, but also with an undercurrent of sadness. He makes me experience a sort of happiness.
I'll share with you what I've learnt about Iceland while reading [b:The Fish Can Sing|150472|The Fish Can Sing|Halldór Laxness|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1328033613s/150472.jpg|308523]:
1. The Hidden People (Huldufólk)
, a sort of elves in Icelandic folklore, but not quite. They are believed to live under rocks, so many Icelanders try not to disturb the environment when building their houses. Also, they refrain from throwing stones, for fear they might hit the Huldufólk. Icelandic gardens often feature tiny wooden houses for hidden people to live in. Some people claim to be able to see and interact with Huldufólk and almost everybody has a story to tell. I find this heart-warming, even if the Hidden People are blamed for every object that gets lost.A wonderful illustration by John Bauer (1882–1918), a less-known Swedish painter.
2. The interesting Icelandic national costume
. There are several types of folk costumes in Iceland, some that were designed by the artist Sigurður Guðmundsson in the 19th century. I found it strange that such an outfit could be designed, but it turns out that this practice is quite common - it also happened with the Swedish National Costume, the Amalia Costume of Greece or the Nestor Costume of the Canary Islands. I don't want to post too many pictures here, so I've chosen my favorite traditional costume from Iceland, popular in the 18th century:The large white headpiece that curves forward is called krókfaldur (I find it fascinating)
3. The Great Icelanders praised in sagas and rímur, one of which was Pastor Snorri of Húsafell
, a Latin erudite immensely quick at composing verses, a powerfully built and strong man, so good at Icelandic wrestling that it is believed that for more than fifty years there was no clergyman in the whole synod who could stand up against him
(you have to admire the subtle humor here).
To this day there remains the legendary Husafell Stone
, used by the Pastor as a door to his sheep pen. The stone weighs 190 kg and is popular even today as a test of strength. It is said that a man has acquired "full strength" if he can lift the stone up and carry it the 50 meters around the perimeter of the goat pen. I hope these guys managed to prove their strength