Saturday, January 27, 2007

#1 - Iceland's Bell, Halldór Laxness

An Icelandic rikisdalur, dating from 1789. No, I don't know what any of that stuff says.

I'm a huge fan of everything Icelandic, and I'll say right here that it's because of Sigur Ros. You know how American anime fans call everything "kawaii! ^_^!", and think about how awesome it would be if they could move to Japan, really become one with the culture there, and think that if they eat ramen all the time they'll eventually become Japanese? Well... I don't really have an equivalent for any of that. I don't know how to say a word of Icelandic, although I think I've figured out some things.
  • The suffix -vik means city.
  • Everybody has the word "Thor" at the beginning of their name.
  • If you're a girl your last name is your dad's first name with -sdottir at the end of it, and
  • if you're a boy, it's your dad's first name with -sson at the end.
  • Everybody is bad. Ass. Thorhall Asgrimsson in particular.
  • ... actually, I think that's about it.
I do think about how awesome it would be to live in Iceland, if only because I live in Maine and think about how awesome it would be to live just about anywhere else. Nah, that's not the only reason I think about living in Iceland. I think about it because I love it. I think. I love it as much as you can love a place you've only romanticized in your head for a few years, which is probably a very unhealthy love, very one-sided. And no, I don't eat pickled shark's meat in the hopes that I can osmose some Icelandic power from it.

About two years ago I tried to start reading Iceland's Bell, but about ten pages one of the characters references Gunnar of Hlidarendi. Halldór Laxness, in his infinite glory and wisdom, places an endnote which tells me that Gunnar was the most bad-ass dude, like, ever, and that he drank the blood of witches, could leap ten ells, owned more property than Trump, and made love like a god. Naturally I was curious about this, so I went out and read some sagas to get acclimated to the Icelandic lore (Njal's, Hrafnkel's, and Egil's, in particular) that would undoubtedly take up a large part of the book. It turns out that I didn't have to, but they were great reads, anyhow, so I'm not complaining.

So I started reading Iceland's Bell again, and it read a lot easier. The book is written by a genius armed with a gorgeous pen, the words with gilt edges, the silences full with the knowledge of eternity. Divided into three parts, the book follows Jón Hreggviðsson, a poor farmer, on his journey across Iceland and into the rest of Europe to get his name cleared for a crime he's been accused of. During these travels his story becomes intertwined with the subject of of the second part of the book, Snæfríður Íslandssól, the daughter of a powerful magistrate and eventually the third, Arnas Arnæus, an Icelander living in Denmark under the king's employ, who has taken it upon himself to collect every piece of literature pertaining to Iceland in an attempt to save the country he loves from falling out of history. The first part, with Hreggviðsson, is the best, as he is rude to everybody and has very few redeeming qualities. Snæfríður's part is long and, while still interesting, the most tedious part of the book. Arnas' part is also very good.

The best part of the book, for me, at least, is how accurately it depicts mid-1700's Iceland. During that time Iceland was under Danish rule, owned by the king. There were steep tariffs on all goods imported into Iceland, and the king claimed nearly all the fish, grain, and other Icelandic goods for his country, leaving the impoverished Icelanders with nothing. Famine runs rampant and nobody has good shoes. Everybody seems to have accepted what's going on, complaining about it but not doing anything to remedy the situation. People die. A lot.

4.5/5 [Recommended!]
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