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Fish Can Sing (Panther)
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on 7 December 2004
The justly famous opening sentence sums up the book's quirkiness: "...next to losing its mother, there is nothing so healthy for a child as losing its father." Alfgrímur ("Elf-guest"), the novel's narrator, has indeed lost - or at least mislaid - both his parents, and is being raised by his loving grandparents (who turn out not to be his real grandparents, or indeed married to each other) and an extraordinary but always supportive crew of archetypal Laxness characters who are boarders in his grandparents' house. During the opening chapters, we are gradually introduced to the child Alfgrímur's world: Laxness brilliantly evokes the way a child's initially limited understanding gradually deepens, so that the reader is learning the real truths behind the characters and events in Alfgrímur's Reykjavik at the same time as he himself is discovering them. This part of the book is deceptive - it can at the time feel slow-moving (though always quirkily charming), but in fact there is deeper and darker stuff going on than meets the eye.
The second half of the book becomes increasingly focussed on Alfgrímur's cousin, the internationally famous Icelandic tenor Gardar Hólm ... what, you haven't heard of him? Now, why might that be? This section of the tale suddenly and unexpectedly darkens, as Gardar's true circumstances are gradually revealed; and there are some utterly unforgettable moments - particularly Gardar's impromptu concert in the virtually empty cathedral, for the benefit of his aged and near-blind mother - this moment comes after Alfgrímur, and the reader, have been waiting all through the novel to finally hear Gardar sing, and it's undoubtedly worth the wait. The final few chapters combine high tragedy and low comedy in typical Laxness style: this is a slow-burner of a book that really blazes up towards the end.
This novel is perhaps the ideal introduction to Laxness' work - though less craggily monolithic than "Independent People", it is (for all its idiosyncrasy and charm) just as deeply serious. It is ultimately, like so many great books, about growing up - both Alfgrímur's own journey to adulthood, and his country's journey to modern, independent nationhood. Both processes involve as many losses as gains.
As usual, Magnus Magnusson gives us an unobtrusively idiomatic translation, which is a delight to read. This is an utterly unique book - highly recommended.
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on 24 September 2017
I haven't read it yet! It has a good reputation, so this is what my rating is going on.
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on 25 January 2001
"The fish can sing" tells the story of Alfgrimur from childhood to coming of age. Abandoned by his mother at birth, Alfgrimur is raised by his "grandparents" - an elderly couple who take him in. The centre of the tale is Brekkukot - their humble but hospitable turf cottage - which is a free and ever-open guest house for those who need it.
The book is set in Reykjavik at the beginning of its transition from an unremarkable town in a traditional society to the capital of Iceland. The characters of the "grandparents" represent the past of Icelandic society - with values which are sometimes amusingly irrational but which nevertheless are full of humanity. Through these characters, and those of some of their guests at Brekkukot, a picture of Icelandic rural life is presented with humor and lyrical beauty.
Modernity is represented by the mysterious character of Gardar Holm, who has achieved fame in the outside world as an opera singer. He is the hero of the new merchant class, who have opened department stores and newspapers and who threaten the livelihood of the old time fisherman with their trawler fleets. Through his contact with Gardar Holm, Alfgrimur is drawn towards that world.
Laxness succeeds in immersing the reader in the life of Brekkukot. This is a sometimes funny book, sometimes full of pathos. Memorable scenes come back to you many days after you have put the book down. Some might find the book a bit on the sentimental side, but it is much more than a sentimental tale. Just as it beautifully describes the change from childhood to adulthood, it describes the transition of a society - both with their own inevitability. Written in 1957, it is ahead of its time in its awareness of the environmental issues which result.
A thoughtful, warm and often funny book, with a slow pace. It's not for everyone, but many will find it a rewarding read.
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on 3 March 2016
A strange book which meanders around for a while just describing a series of eccentric characters and evoking the landscape. Which is fine, and it has some drily amusing moments, but then the plot kicks in and it's a little opaque. Towards the end I thought I was finally getting the point Laxness was making; probably a metaphor for Iceland's independence. Historical analogies may have gone over my head. Anyway, it's weird and memorable, if not exactly a page turner. Maybe easier to understand if you're Icelandic, as regards the temperament and sense of humour.
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on 3 July 2017
Halldor Laxness was almost ahead of his time, invoking magical realism amongst the poor, pious and parochial folk of Brekkukot in a nascent Reykyavik. Alfgrimur, the foundling, is an astute observer of life in a slowly expanding world, which grows with him. Characters who lodge in the Kot are beautifully drawn eccentrics akin to those dreamt up by P.G. Wodehouse (withouth the spats or Cow-Creamers). Speaking of cow's brings up what I feel to be the novel's strongest thread - that is the 'value' of goods against virtue. In a (far off) time when a bible was "worth a cow" and a cow was able to support a family; it is salient to imagine a person's reputational worth against that of their their worldly goods. Of course, this being Iceland, the author needs to decribe the feel of the waters the characters inhabit. But this doesn't detract from a dream-like story that suggests a time, a wolrd view and a land far-far away. I finished this book nostalgic for a place I never knew.
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on 1 September 2013
I chose this book following a recent visit to Iceland which I enjoyed very much and wanted to learn more about the culture and the people , I find novels are a good way of doing this , our guide and some other travellers recommended this . A simple unsophistcated start thet set the local scene, as the book went on the humour became apparent and a greater depth of understanding the local philosophy ... rather like Charles Dickens in the details of the characters . It is the charming story of a boy who has been brought up by an old couple living in Rekyjavik, his reactions to the people he meets as he grows up and their part in his journey towards adulthood
I am now going to read Independent People by the same author
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on 13 June 2013
read for book group, awful took ages to read, instant relief when finished.

however the arrival was prompt and in good condition
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on 19 July 2008
Having read and loved 'Independent People' I put 'The Fish Can Sing' forward to our Book Club. I found the book full of absolute gems of those small transactions of everyday life that remain with you for a long time. However, I did get frustrated with the book's lack of continuity and at times complete irrelevance. If it had been written as a series of anecdotes about the author's life it would have been far more palatable.

Having already read 'Independent People' I think I had the advantage over others in the Book Club who couldn't make head nor tail of it - only 2 other people managed to finish it. I scored it 4 out of 10 at the Book Club, and that was higher than anyone else!

Perhaps it's just the translation?
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on 8 September 2013
I had just read Independent People by the same author and turned to this novel not wanting to leave Iceland just yet. Where Independent People is dark and brooding in The Fish Can Sing the story is warm and humorous. The former's characters have impoverished lives yet we can identify with their universal feelings and emotions. The main characters in "Fish" are no less poor but seen through the eyes of the main character this financial poverty is almost a virtue, counteracted by the emotional wealth.
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on 27 January 2014
This novel of Halldór Kiljan Laxness "Brekkukotsannáll" / Fish Can Sing
is a wonderful story of a young man who is growing up in the
"village" of Reykjavík at the dawn of "present age"
I read this book long ago, and again now and I found it a very good litterature.
I would say that this is one of the best books of H.K.L. along with "Íslandsklukkan"
Iceland Bell.
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