on 7 December 2004
This is a strange and unexpected novel, which seems to have resulted from Laxness' fascination with the true story of an Icelandic farmer who abandoned everything to travel to Mormon Utah, only to come full circle and return home a few years later. Amongst other things, it is interesting for Laxness' sympathetic treatment of the nineteenth-century Mormon community: though his own world view was very different, he was clearly a man of broad sympathies. However, the book contains some of Laxness' most sardonic and laconic prose, and if you're unfamiliar with his work this probably isn't the best place to start - the quirkily touching "The Fish Can Sing", or the monolithic "Independent People", are safer bets.
Steinar of Hlidar is a virtually penniless farmer in the Icelandic outback, whose mare gives birth to a miraculous pure-white foal - a "fairy horse", as Steinar tells his children. When the King of Denmark visits his Icelandic subjects on a tour of state, Steinar gives him the horse as a gift, clearly expecting his generosity to be returned. The King, indeed, does invite Steinar in an offhand way to Copenhagen, "to get his bridle back". However, when Steinar turns up in Copenhagen the following year, clutching another miraculous gift - a wooden puzzle-box that has taken him all winter to construct - he finds himself treated as a novelty act by the King's retinue and assorted Crown Princes of Europe, who happen to be visiting at the time. (The Tsar of Russia, growing bored with the puzzle-box, breaks it in frustration after about five minutes.) The King does give him a signed photograph, which he is able to sell for enough money to buy a packet of pins for his wife.
Steinar is on the point of returning home in disgust, when a chance encounter with a Mormon preacher sends him off on another quixotic mission - this time to Mormon Utah, where he hopes to construct a heaven on Earth for his family. Though he does at least partially succeed, it is almost too late for his children, and certainly too late for Steinar himself who loses almost everything that is important to him.
Although probably not the easiest introduction to Laxness' unique style, this is a touching and idiosyncratic novel that has a lot to offer. As ever, Magnus Magnusson's translation is a joy - earthy and idiomatic. Definitely worth a look.
This book traces blindly the long itinerary of a naïve fatalist (`One must just take it as it comes').
The protagonist falls under the spell of a sectarian, anti-rational preacher (`I prefer the folly of man, for that has brought him farther than his wisdom') and follows him to his reclaimed paradise. He neglects thereby completely his family, his farm and livestock. He undergoes the same fate as Icelandic horses: `sold, blinded and put to work in the coal mines.'
His good-hearted naiveté is also exploited by a `respected landowner-friend', who lets his big livestock herds trample the protagonist's farmland into mud. Into the bargain, he rapes his innocent daughter.
Ultimately, the protagonist becomes a preacher himself and returns to his homeland and farm, as if nothing whatever happened in the meantime.
One could interpret the story as a `minor' variation on the theme of `the paradise belongs to the innocents'. But the protagonist here is an irresponsible, naïve and dumb fool.
Halldór Laxness doesn't evaluate or intervene, as the author, in the story. He tells it more or less as an uninvolved bystander, thereby creating a very ambivalent product. The negative hero is treated as a neutral one, as a kind of village fool.
This is certainly not Halldór Laxness's best book and not a good introduction to his work.
Recommended only to his fans.
Meet Steinar of Hlidar, in Steinahlidar, a.k.a Stone P. Stanford of Spanish Fork. Names only seem to cause trouble for such innocent folk as hold centre stage in a Laxness novel; they are always somebody else's problem. Paradise Reclaimed probably deserves better than 3/5, but we live in a naughty world where innocence is hard to come by and bliss isn't worth the price of admission if the cost is ignorance. But that's all nonsense, of course. Here be the story, the odyssey, of a small crofter who shares one or two virtues with the illustrious hero from Ithaca, whose circumstances change when a beautiful white foal is born on the farm and he decides to give it away to the King of Denmark. Soon he's giving everything away in a quest to find Paradise with the Mormons.
Steinar and his family retain a certain wisdom born of their obscurity, which enables them to cope with circumstances and suffering. What's likable about Laxness novels is the absence of judgement, that no-one is looking for permission, validation or pity from anyone else. There lies the spirit of the sagas, and the doom of so-called heroes: lack of circumspection. Nevertheless, there are snatches of wisdom to be had from the travails experienced by the Icelanders and their offbeat dialogue.
"Good health and peace of mind are the only real blessings in life; whereas all life's evils spring from gold."
on 9 July 2010
I knew that this wasn't the most highly regarded of Laxness's books but I thought it sounded interesting - Mormons and Iceland seemed a unique combination. It is a very odd book, a bit more like an extended folk tale than a novel. His characters are simple to the point of extreme stupidity and it's hard to get into them. The tale seemed to be trying to make a point but it wasn't made very well, in my opinion. I was puzzled by this and did look it up in Laxness's biography. He wrote this in 1960 at a time when he had finally realised that Stalin and Communism in Russia were deeply flawed and was very disappointed as he had been a supporter for a couple of decades. Perhaps this is behind this tale of disappointment, but Laxness didn't lose everything like the character in his book. Laxness continued to be highly regarded in his homeland and abroad as both an author and intellectual, in spite of his changing political opinions.