Top positive review
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Very different from "Independent People", but just as good..
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.