The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness
Translated from Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson
The Harvill Press, 2001 (first published 1957), paperback, 246pp
Bought by me, from a bookshop somewhere.
The Fish Can Sing wasn't the book I was expecting. When I read Laxness' extraordinary sheep-farming epic Independent People I was overwhelmed and unsettled. It has stayed with me over the years, growing more majestic and psychologically acute in my mind. That novel - especially the first 2/3 of it - is a great cosmic shout, a conjuring of both the grandeur and limitations of human life. The Fish Can Sing is a different kind of book altogether: a satirical touchingly eccentric bildungsroman set in early 20th century Reykjavik. It is tender, philosophical and deeply moralistic, and occasionally mad as a box of frogs. See, for example, the chapter on whether shaving is evil or a social good.
Our narrator Alfgrimur grows up in a lowly turf cottage on the croft at Brekkukot, on the outer edge of the town that will become Reykjavik. He is looked after by Bjorn of Brekkukot, his 'grandfather', and a woman he knows as his 'grandmother'. They are no more his blood relations than they are husband and wife. This enigmatic pair offer their home as a sort of charitable boarding house for waifs and strays, taking in travellers with no where else to go and poor migrant families on their way to America. People come to give birth or die there, all together in the sleeping loft with only a hankerchief size window to let in the light. Alfgrimur's mother, whoever she was, left her baby behind there and disappeared forever.
He is raised collectively by a band of outcasts and misfits - a blind ship's captain; the 'superintendent' of the harbour toilets; the first man to be run over by a motor-car in Iceland - in a sort of pre-capitalist, atheist Eden, where Bjorn of Brekkukot stands fast against a tide of change in Iceland. Bjorn is a fisherman with his own small boat and a handcart for selling his catch in the streets, one of the last of his kind. His living, and his entire way of life, is being destroyed by the big trawlers from Denmark and Norway with their great nets. Alfgrimur remembers him - from some future time when he has left Iceland himself - with enormous tenderness and respect. He recalls how his grandfather refused to price his catch according to the laws of supply and demand. Instead he would always charge the same for his fish whether they were abundant or scarce. He considered that the value of a fish was the value of a fish, and a man only needed so much money for the necessicities of life. Still people bought from Bjorn, even on days when his prices seemed high, because they believed his fish tasted better (presumably because of the added principles).
This elegiac note for simpler times runs throughout the book, because The Fish Can Sing is as much about the slow death of a way of life as it is about Alfgrimur's growing up into a bigger world. This world is starting to encroach and impact on Brekkukot at the same time as he is becoming aware of it and deciding how to make his way through it. The older Alfgrimur makes a sad affectionate shake-of-the-head for a time gone by, similar in some ways to Laxness' nostalgic sighing in Independent People. Although Bjatur of Summerhouses is a very different character to Bjorn of Brekkukot, they share an allegiance to a disappearing world and a gruff moral resistance to change. But in both books the next generation is inexorably driven into the future - Asta Sollija from Summerhouses, and Alfgrimur from Brekkukot.
Iceland's most famous son, the mysterious opera singer Gardar Holm, is the son of Bjorn''s neighbour, and an occasional visitor during Alfgrimur's childhood. He is apparently rich and successful, performing for Popes and Kings, and watching money grow and grow in his Swiss bank accounts, but proves strangely reluctant to sing in his home town or share stories of his life abroad. He choses to sleep in his mother's hay loft rather than in his hotel suite, and swaps his fancy patent shoes for Alfgrimur's boots. He is sometimes hysterical, apparently sickened by his contact with a less honest way of life. It isn't clear whether he is really famous or a fraud, a case of the Emperor's New Clothes. When he spots Alfgrimur's own talent for music - nurtured by the local pastor who pays him to sing at pauper's funerals - Gardar challenges him to discover the 'one true note', the pure way of living and expressing ones self that gets to the heart of things.
The 'one true note' haunts the adults of the book, apparently unattainable through wealth or influence. Although Alfgrimur is clever and comes top of his class at the local grammar school, he struggles to understand the riddle of it. He senses, perhaps correctly, that his grandfather and grandmother have discovered it through their way of life, and for a long time he is determined to become a fisherman and carry on their legacy at Brekkukot. Of course this is impossible, because that way of sounding the 'one true note' is almost gone; the croft is not a place out of time and the march of history is implacable. The 20th century is coming.
It turns out that in spite of their stylistic and tonal differences Independent People and The Fish Can Sing are sibling-novels after all. Laxness is exploring the same dilemma of change vs tradition. He was as haunted by the moral lure of nostalgia in 1957 as he was over 20 years earlier. Independent People is certainly the darker twin, and my favourite; the power of the writing, the rage and confusion of it, hits you over the head like a rock fall. Fish is the work of a writer more reconciled to his ideas; it grows in your mind, a stone cast in a pond. Oh how I relish the Laxness novels I have yet to come.