The miserly cast of a flock of worm-ridden sheep and a handful of souls in a remote Icelandic valley seems hardly the fodder for an epic tale – yet Laxness delivers to the reader the complexities of human psychology and the economic, political fortunes of nation states. These facets are all intimately intertwined in the bleak pursuit for survival, fleetingly thrown into relief by glimpses of something that might be happiness.
The prose is dense, and Laxnesses descriptions of landscape, sheep and dogs requires perseverance, but it is weft to the warp of the narrative, they are the thread of subsistence that is hung onto by Bjartur the farmer. He is a misanthrope who on the one day tenderly fosters lambs while on another slaughters beloved hopes. It is the same steady trustworthy hands that force a living from a wasteland that also drive those closest to him into despair.
Bjartur has no mercy for other people’s weakness, there is no recognition that he himself has been unfair or heartless, blind to his own passions. He will not measure the cost of his dream in human terms. His dream, his ambition stands godlike before him and before those in his power. He can no more apostate than deny his own existence. If the dream does not exist then neither does he, neither does the whole damn world.
It is a world where thaw only comes at mid-summer and blizzards rage over any month, a world where being father and husband is a means of controlling free labour. Yet, in his perverse pride, he will never serve to show any gratitude. His warmest sentiments displayed by the meanest of actions.
The passages dealing with his botched relationships are keenly observed by Laxness, their rawness drawn so subtly – these are people’s responses cannot be altered, it would be like meltwater flying up over the cliff tops rather than descending to the valley floor.
Comparisons occur to me of Thomas Hardy. This is a tougher rural landscape than Wessex, but it suffers the same false promises from new technology and the booms and busts of the outside world.
If you have a winter to set aside for reading, perhaps a sneaking suspicion that the room is a little too warm, the seat a little too comfortable, then Independent People will transport you somewhere different and more discomforting. Whatever the setting though the truth remains, in every dream there is good and evil.
Orkney, December, 2018
Books by Gabrielle Barnby:
The Oystercatcher Girl – a beautifully understated story of deception and forgiveness, love and redemption.
The House with the Lilac Shutters and other stories – utterly original story-making of a very high quality.