Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Independent People: A rock-hard view of the human condition

Where to start with a novel whose main character starts out disagreeable and winds up almost monstrous—a novel that despite its main character’s obvious faults is still impossible to put down? This is my problem with Halldor Laxness’ Independent People. Reading it was worthwhile and even fascinating, but it was not enjoyable in any traditional sense. In fact, I suspect the ruggedness and hopelessness of the book was the author’s intention, capturing the plight of Iceland’s early 20th century croft farmers, many of whom endured lives of tremendous hardship to free themselves from the debts they were forced to incur to farm their own land.

Bjartur of Summerhouses insists on his family’s independence –independence ironically handed to him by a wealthy landowning family who needed to marry off a servant made pregnant by their son. He wields his independence like a weapon, bludgeoning dissent and enslaving his children. In fact, independence, in the form of his sheep, is Bjartur’s only loyalty. His actions lead to the deaths of both his wives and one of his sons, yet he counts himself virtuous because of his fidelity to his own independence. He is pitiless, but never pitiable, which makes the book hard to like.

And yet I actually did like it. The author’s storytelling is detailed, and yet spare, like the countryside I imagine it captures. But what was most interesting was the way the author was able to articulate his very sophisticated world view so powerfully through the lives of these obscure, desperately poor people. Laxness’ mistrust of government is a recurring theme:

To be poor is simply the peculiar human condition of not being able to take advantage of a generous offer. The essence of being a poor peasant is the inability to avail oneself of the gifts that politicians offer or promise and to be left at the mercy of ideas that only make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

The book manages to expound on organized religion, war, international trade, healthcare and sexual mores. No wonder it is often described as a modern “epic.” But from my point of view, it’s more an “anti-epic.” Rather than relating great deeds and expansive travels with broad strokes, it depicts commonplace occurrences in one very small part of the world in intimate, minute detail. The effect is the same, however: Independent People, like all epics, is at its heart a rendering of the human condition, in all its sadness, fear, anxiety, and hope. It won’t make you smile, but it will make you think. I highly recommend spending the time on this novel.


  1. Nice to meet you and awesome blog. I have this book on my reading list so I'm happy to see that you liked it!

    btw: nice to meet a fellow leftie and wiseass!

  2. Nice to meet you too! Left wingers are pretty easy to find in college towns, but wiseasses -- not so much. That's one of my reasons for blogging!

  3. I'm a total wiseass. LOL Sadly, for the first time in my life I'm out in the boonies away from an academic environment, and I really miss it.

  4. "Mistrust of government"? Where can I buy this book? Seriously, I like how you said that it's not a book you'd enjoy as in pleasure's sense, but it was worthwhile. Those are always a fascination to read, especially as I (um, age) and discover life doesn't smooth out after all. Funny, I always thought by now I'd have more answers than questions.


I absolutely love comments. Thanks for taking the time to share! Col