Wednesday, April 18, 2012

100 Books #30 - Halldor Laxness' THE FISH CAN SING

Oh man, I could quote bits of Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness to you all day long, making this book seem like just a string of bon mots, but that would be doing The Fish Can Sing a great disservice even though it probably would make you want to drop everything and read it. Laxness is a funny, funny writer, in that surreal and dry Scandanavian way that always makes me feel like I'm missing what's really funny about it but grasping just enough to laugh anyway. For example, describing some pictures on his adopted family's walls, the narrator says "these people had achieved 'good times' in America, as the saying went, which consisted of clearing away boulders and uprooting tree-stumps or digging ditches, and then posing in collar and tie in a photographer's studio."

This book is usually described as a coming of age story, but what I have found in its pages is a lot of sly discourse on how we place values on things, of economics as a sort of cargo cult, and on modernity as something more risible than desirable.* So we have the narrator's grandfather stubbornly charging the same price for his lumpfish whatever the market might say they're worth, an equally stubborn transaction in which a bible salesman offers a cheaply printed one in exchange for lodging but that same grandfather clings to the old saw that a bible's price is one cow, and the narrator himself amusingly detailing how his repeated violations of a stretch of barbed wire fence are adding up to his having ducked enough fines to buy all of the chocolate that has ever been imported into Iceland "even counting caramels as well." There is way more of this sort of thing, at any rate, than of the typical idyllic/tragic boyhood tale of home, though there are bits of that as well; the little place at Brekkukot where the narrator grows up with his adopted grandparents is quite an extraordinary place, and one at which anyone is welcome for any length of time. Yeah, his grandparents are kind of proto-hippies like that.

And of course, eventually our hero is sent away from this weird idyll. The trigger there, more or less, is an opera singer who comes from the same settlement where the narrator grew up and who now "travels."** Once this large-living man has come on the scene, nothing is the same again, but not because the boy whom he regards as "more myself than I am" wants to follow in his footsteps; the singer is merely a herald for change. Before the boy knows it, he is being sent to school to learn Latin by rote because that will make him an educated man (shades of George Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys" there, but with a lot more humor of course) and thrown into a larger world that doesn't want to let him be a lumpfisherman like his grandfather but doesn't seem to have any real idea of what it does want from him.

Which is fine with him.

What makes The Fish Can Sing most striking overall, whatever its other charms, is that strange element I mentioned above, the peculiar thoughts about economics present throughout. Given what became of Iceland after it, as the economists I can't stop reading like to put it, "stopped fishing and started banking" I can't help but see this novel as a sort of subtle treatise on how all that went wrong. If lots of Icelanders were like the characters in this story (a particular anecdote comes to mind from the novel, in which the famous singer eats a whole tray of creme cakes at a bakery and tries to pay with a single gold coin, which is more money than the bakery girl has ever seen and she is so frightened to have that much money in one place that she won't accept the coin and essentially just lets him go without paying at all -- and the coin haunts the rest of the story in various peculiar ways) perhaps what happened there in the early 21st century isn't really much of a surprise?

At any rate, this is a most peculiar novel, and while it kept me entertained and chuckling, as it came to its strangely airless end, I was left with the most peculiar feeling that the joke had been on me -- and that I hadn't gotten it at all.

Ah, me.

*The story is set in Rekjavik before it was Rekjavik, when the land there was still mostly stone-and-turf houses and cow pastures, and follows the city's and the narrator's gradual transformation from bucolic youth to bustling and busy adulthood. Along the way, there is a lot to mock.

**Grandmother has convinced our hero that "traveling" is a punishment and a sin all rolled into one, so convincing him to do it is no mean feat.

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