The Fish Can Sing

Book Number 8: The Fish Can Sing, by Halldór Laxness
Country: Iceland

To be honest, most of the time I forget Iceland even exists. This sounds a little rude, and is an insult to Icelanders, but Iceland has never managed to really penetrate my consciousness. It wasn’t something we covered in Geography classes at school, it isn’t ever in the newspapers, and although Bjork used to be kind of famous…it wasn’t in an especially ‘what a wonderful country Iceland is’ way. It’s ironic that I picked up The Fish Can Sing by Iceland’s most famous author (although I had to look on this list to find an Icelandic author – doesn’t say much about my current state of literary awareness), because it’s about the backwardness and obscurity of Icelanders.

The book is set at the beginning of the 20th century. Reykjavik is still a small town, and the people live simply. Alfgrimur lives with an old couple he calls his grandparents in a house called Brekkukot. As Alfgrimur grows up, his life changes and becomes more complex as Iceland develops. The personality of Garðar Holm is sporadically present – Holm is well known in Iceland to be a world famous singer, rich and globally renowned, despite the fact that he never sings in Iceland. Alfgrimur and Garðar Holm come into contact on the few occasions that Garðar Holm returns to Iceland to visit his mother, and Holm chips in with everyone else in offering Alfgrimur advice on what to do with his life.

I’d originally wanted to read Independent People, which is recognised as the best of Laxness’ works, but the library only had this one. Fine by me, because I loved it. Perception and transition are central themes, played out through Alfgrimur as he grows older, and reflected in the people around him. Alfgrimur is not an emotional narrator, and I was very surprised that the last page almost made me cry – but it isn’t until then that he really sees anything and understands what he is seeing.

A little bit on Halldór Laxness: He is Iceland’s only Nobel prize laureate, not only because he wrote amazingly compassionate and profoundly touching works, but also because he wrote them in Icelandic. Icelandic authors used to write in Danish, because “they despaired of the Icelandic language as an instrument for artistic creation”. Laxness forged the path for modern writers to use Icelandic as an artistic means of expression, giving his fellow Icelanders a priceless gift.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Fish Can Sing

  1. Dorothy W.

    Very interesting. I read Laxness’s book Iceland’s Bell a while ago (I think I found out about it through a review in the New Yorker) and liked it. I found it to be a very different kind of novel — the focus was on plot and exterior events, with little description of the inner lives of characters. I guess the idea was to write in the tradition of the sagas.

  2. BookGirl

    This book sounds interesting. If you ever want to read another Icelandic author I highly recommend Arnaldur Indridason. His crime novels have won awards and are really good.

  3. Danielle

    I have heard of Indridason–since I love mysteries I should really give him a try.

  4. booklogged

    Traveller, You read such interesting books and write such good reviews, that I keep adding more books to my ‘to-be-read’ list. It’s getting amazingly lengthy.

    My small town library did not have any listings for Laxness, so I ordered it online. Thanks for sharing.

  5. The Traveller

    Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll bear him in mind for the future.

    Booklogged, I know what you mean about a lengthy ‘to read’ list – my Amazon wish list has over 200 books on it, which scares me in case I don’t get to read them all before I die! I really hope you enjoy Laxness; let me know which one you read and what you think of it?

  6. Hi Traveller,
    I am delighted to find your blog. My interest is literature in general (I’m a librarian), and Icelandic literature (and film, travel, and music) in particular. In my opinion, you chanced upon Laxness’ finest book. This is a great review of one of my very favorite books. Coincidentally, you posted this the day I arrived in Iceland for the first time. I know you must move on to other countries, but if you wish you can check out my blog, and if you search under Laxness you’ll find my reviews of many of his books–I still have several to do, though! The sagas are the other Icelandic literature that I recommend highly.
    Best, Rose

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