on 8 April 2013
In 2008 I visited Iceland. I never have the habit of reading up about the holiday destination before the trip; I always learn about a place by experiencing it and find the surprise element part of the fun. My trip to Iceland has left me with an indelible memory because of its glaciers, its lava fields / deserts, its numerous geysers which provide their geothermal power, its fields and free roaming sheep but above all, its people and its sagas. It was like a world of its own, of which I had no understanding whatsoever. For example, it is a people who will go and watch a volcanic eruption rather than running away from it! I was fascinated, so I went into a bookstore originally to find their sagas but I also found Independent People. I was drawn to it because it secured its author a Nobel Prize in literature in 1955. I didn't remember reading any literature of that calibre, so I was curious and bought the book. I am not disappointed as this book not only entertains, but also provokes us to think more deeply about norms that we don't challenge anymore. In this sense, it is engaging. My appreciation, I believe, would have been even deeper had I been better acquainted with Icelandic culture and history.
The story is about Bjartur of Summerhouse, who set securing his independence as his life goal. He was determined to the point of obstinacy. But his notion of independence was nothing like a child growing up and growing in independence from his parents. Rather, he sought to owe no debt to anyone or God. The means to this life goal of Bjartur was his sheep which were elevated to a status above human in many's subconscious mind and of an idol in effect, prompting the minister of the parish to reflect in a sermon that "many people had neglected their Creator while they were chasing stupid sheep over the mountains... sheep had been a greater curse to the Icelandic nation than foxes and tapeworms put together... People run after sheep all their lives long and never find them. Such is the lesson we may learn from the parting that oppresses us today." (p.131) In Bjartur's mind, independence and freedom went hand in hand: if you are independent, you are free to be your own master. This was his definition of bliss, of a lifetime fulfilment, if he could achieve that: "The man who lives on his own land is an independent man. He is his own master... No, it is freedom that we are all after.. He who pays his way is a king. He who keeps his sheep alive through the winter lives in a palace." (p.13)
He set out to work very hard towards his life goal, to pay off his mortgage on the land, involving his expanding household. The author was skilful in his vivid description of man's struggle to conquer all elements that the natural world threw at us. As most of us do not work on the land anymore, we sometimes lose the sense of how tough it could have been just to survive. Working sixteen hours a day was their norm; even the children had to be always doing "something"; leisure was something that they never knew; the same preserved food was served everyday; even so, it was a blessing to have something to eat as eating one meal a day during the springtime was not atypical; a bad and wet summer stored up trouble for the winter; a deep and long winter prolonged the problem; starvation was never a faraway possibility. Death was always in the household, of animals, of women or of infant, who lost their battle against the tyranny of life. Physical death was not the most dreadful but the death of the soul, when the sparks in the eyes and enthusiasm towards life became no more. There were a couple of graphic animal slaughter scenes, which expounded in extravagance on the human emotions towards the act. For a city dweller, it was squeamish to read but then this is what eating meat involves, and this book throws this reality back at my face.
He did eventually manage to stand on his own land, and owed no debt to anyone. But then unexplained disasters struck and wiped out most of his sheep. In situation like this, it was natural to turn to the supernatural force as an explanation, whether it was God or others. The community was quick to their opinion as how these things happened but Bjartur of Summerhouse listened to none of them for he was an independent man. Temporarily he left the farm to work as a hired labourer. He managed to rebuild his fortune and became rather "rich", but nothing could compare with the windfall bestowed upon Iceland by WWI when prices for their produce rocketed, passing money into their hands in quantity that they had never dreamt of! The war was stupid, in their eyes, but they did not care as it brought them prosperity. They were lost in their new found wealth. Savings had to find a bank, which then had to lend. Even Bjartur of Summerhouse was caught up in debt as he was arm-twisted into building a mansion to replace his humble hut. It was a building project that did not turn out right, and it kept sucking in more money to make it habitable. The period of prosperity passed and the prices of his produce dropped. Unable to service his debt, his farm was auctioned off, and he was left with nothing but the determination to rebuild his independence all over again. Reflecting on his loss, he came to conclude that "human life isn't long enough for a peasant to become a man of means"; he was doing fine when he did not risk building a house for the people on his croft; he had only built for his sheep; thus "it is safest for one's future welfare to do as little as possible for the people". (p. 456) It was poignant and eerily relevant to our present life too. As we are wrestling with debt, the story of Bjartur shows just how easily everything you have been working for all your life can be wiped out in a flash. And isn't debt the developed world's headache today? Iceland is still living in the consequences of their banking crisis five years on.
This book also highlights that the struggle of man is not just against the natural environment but also the socio-economic environment. Throughout the book, there were debates of how the country developed and of policies; private enterprises were described as "a movement"; and cooperatives were set up against the "merchants". One could be caught up in the socio-economic tides as much as the natural environment, and lost one's footing. At times, we are all dumbfounded. Before Bjartur knew it, his estate was wiped out! His friends lost out in the previous round. Perhaps continuously betting on the winning side is too much to be expected from life?
The story is also enriched by Bjartur's tender relationships with the women in his life - his two wives, his daughter (who was not his own flesh), the mother of his second wife, and very briefly his housekeeper towards the end of the book. He had three boys too, but he "lost" them all albeit in different ways.
All in all, this book has a lot to offer at different levels. First, it asks big questions. First and foremost, in what sense are we or can we be independent? Bjartur of Summerhouse scorned welfare or community relief and insisted he paid for the cow that the community insisted on him so that his family could have diary in their diet. His wife loved the cow and the family looked a lot healthier since they had the cow. He was described as "a thoroughly upright, trustworthy person, one who could never bear the thought of being in anyone's debt. Such people are not found on the parish. It is such people that are the core of national life." I think in today's western society, the pendulum has swung too much to the other side and state welfare no longer carries a stigma but seen as a right. Perhaps a bit of Bjartur's pride in one's independence may do the society much good today.
Second, it asks about God: Does He exist? Do we need Him? Is He a tyrant? "Then why did God allow sin to enter the world?" (p.325) Knowing Christian ethics without the help of the Holy Spirit is clearly tormenting to the soul, as exclaimed by Bjartur's daughter in utter desperation, "there are limits to the amount of Christian ethics that human nature can bear". (p.338) This is true, and this is why Jesus has left us His Counsellor. Is it really possible to find independence in Bjartur's sense? Is being independent of God really freedom? What is freedom?
Third, I believe the author most likely was sceptical about any virtues of capitalism, as his words were stern on the subject. The "merchants" were pictured as oppressors who were against the interests of the peasants. Cooperatives were the solution which cut out the middlemen. These were the two opposing views in the local politics for most of the book. At the end, after the prosperity of WWI had passed, workers hired for public work once again found it the wages did not make ends meet and organised strike. In a striker's angry words, "What different will one loaf more or less make to the capitalism the murdered ten million men for fun in the war? Capitalism punishes people much more for not stealing than for stealing - so why shouldn't a fellow steal?....And the only thief there is is capitalism." (p. 472) Here is a debate that will never die! And on the government's intervention in the economy, the author came up with a rather surprising observation that all the grants and subsidies only really benefited the already rich. "The fact is that it is utterly pointless to make anyone a generous offer unless he is a rich man; rich men are the only people who can accept a generous offer. 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 ideals that only make the rich richer and the poor poorer." (p. 457)An interesting thought. I wonder how far this holds true.
Besides the big questions, the book is witty and makes insightful observations about human nature. It often makes me smile - I guess this means I enjoy it. There are many but I will only share one with you (because I am a woman and a wife!):
"I do not doubt that many a woman will think it an impossible task to make her home such that wherever one looks is one radiant smile; to invest everything indoors with such tranquility and bliss that all hate and bitterness disappear, and everyone feels equal to the greatest of obstacles; to make everyone feel that he is free and pure and courageous, and to make him conscious of his affinity with God and Love. All this is certainly difficult and perplexing. But that is your part, housewife; the part that God Himself has given you to play. And you have the strength for it, though you may not know it yourself. You are capable of it, if only you do not lose faith in the love within you. Not only the woman whose good fortune it is to tread the sunnier paths of life and who has benefited from a good education, but also she who has had little schooling and who lives on the shadowy side of life in a small house with little to choose from; in her too it dwells, this power, for you are all of the same high birth: God's children all of you. The power of a woman whose home glows with the radiance of earthly bliss is such as to make the low-roofed cottage and the high-timbered mansion equal. Equally bright. Equally warm..." (p.26)
This power of women, beautifully worded by the author, I believe has been lost in today's society, as we are encouraged to make ourselves noteworthy and equal with man in the workplace instead.
And finally, though Bjartur of Summerhouse might have been stubborn, this was his laudable spirit: "It had never been a habit of his to lament over anything he lost; never nurture your grief, rather content yourself with what you have left, when you have lost what you had; and fortunately he had had the sense to hang on to the sheep as long as possible." (p.459)