Saturday, June 06, 2009

OTC 4: "Iceland's Bell" -- Iceland

This review is of my fourth book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge 2009.

Iceland's Bell by Haldor Laxness, originally published in 1943, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton in 2003.  Laxness won the Noble Prize for Literature in 1955.

Iceland's Bell is an historical novel set primarily in Iceland and, secondarily, Denmark during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, a period when Iceland was under total, harsh, and often oppressive Danish control.  Icelanders were permitted by law to trade only with a Danish trading consortium, a monopoly which allowed them to be exploited unmercifully; further, the Danish crown -- a typical absolute monarchy in much of Europe at the time, could literally seize property and possessions virtually at will.  In consequence, most of the population was reduced to crushing poverty while a small fraction of Icelanders who cooperated to some extent with the Danes became vastly wealthy.  In addition, Iceland had a very complex system of law and even that was interfered with by the Danish crown from time to time.  The thriving, vital, literate, and prosperous Icelandic civilization of the 12th through the 15th centuries has seriously declined in consequence of these conditions.  It is against this background that the events of the novel take place.

The plot of the novel, depending as it does on the twists and turns of the Icelandic legal process as well as Danish royal interferences, is too complex to summarize briefly.  Instead, I will provide sketches of the three main characters involved in the action.

First is Jon Hreggvidsson, a typical Icelandic farmer who has stolen a length of cord (an item rigorously controlled and exorbitantly priced by the Danish merchants) in order to fish for his family during a time of famine.  His punishment is that he is required to provide the labor to tear down "Iceland's Bell," the bell on the main Icelandic courthouse; the bell is one of many that is being confiscated because of its bronze and shipped back to Denmark, and its removal at the novel's beginning is symbolic of Danish power over Iceland and the corruption to the legal system.  In the process of removing the bell, Hreggvidsson insults the Danish monarch and is whipped for his insolence.  When the King's Hangman, who carried out Hreggvidsson's punishments, is found dead with Hreggvidsson drunk and unconscious nearby, the Icelander is accused of the murder and sentenced to death.  The novel revolves around this death sentence and the complicated legal machinations associated with it over the next 25 or so years.

Second of the major characters is Arnas Arnaeus, an educated Icelander who has won the friendship and patronage of the Danish monarch.  Initially, he is visiting Iceland at the novel's beginning because he is searching for and collecting the few remaining pieces of Icelandic manuscripts recording the written works of Icelandic scholars and poets of the medieval period, the period of Iceland's intellectual glory.    He hopes by doing so to establish that Iceland has a great past and to ameliorate the contempt in which Danes hold his countrymen.  When he leaves, he hopes to return shortly to continue his search as well as a romance he has begun, but it's 17 years before he is able to do so.  This time he is appointed by the monarch as the royal commissary with the responsibility of investigating, among other things, the fairness of the conduct of the Icelandic magistrates and the justice of their legal decisions; this role is tied in with Hreggvidsson's conviction.  He corrects some injustices inflicted by the Danish merchants on the Icelanders, but, ironically, the results actually add to the Icelanders' sufferings. He reverses a number of decisions and strips the chief magistrate of his position, but, returning to Denmark, he himself is stripped of his position and a new royal delegation will investigate Arnaeus's own actions as commissary;  worst of all, he loses his lifetime's work when the fragmentary manuscripts he has collected are destroyed by a fire.  The Danish monarch offers Iceland for purchase to the Germans who ask him to assume the position of head of the Icelandic government and offer him a free hand in reforming the Icelandic government if they decide to purchase the rights to Iceland.  He sees this as one final chance he has to help his homeland, but at the last moment the Danish crown withdraws the offer.  (In fact, the Danish trade monopoly continued with oppressive consequence until the 1850s).

Third of the major characters is Snaefridur, a young woman known for her great beauty as "Iceland's Sun."  For reasons of her own, she frees Jon Hreggvidsson the night before he is to be executed, allowing him to escape, eventually to Denmark.  She is the daughter of the chief magistrate, and as a young girl of 17 falls in love with Arnas Arnaeus during his manuscript-collecting expedition, a love he returns.  It is to her that he hopes to return, but when, after a number of years he fails to do so, she marries another, a man of comparatively low status and an alcoholic; she does so deliberately because she says if she can't marry the best of men, she will marry only the worst.  When Arnaeus returns 17 years later, she leaves her husband and moves to her sister's household where Arnaeus is staying; rumors arise concerning their conduct, the rumors that will cost him his position later.  Before he leaves Iceland, he strips her father of his position as chief magistrate.  When the investigation into Arnaeus's conduct are opened, she tells her father she will publicly admit to having committed adultery with him in order to discredit him and allow her father's position and property to be restored, but her father refuses to permit it; Arnaeus's actions are reversed anyway, and her family restored to its prominent position.

These character sketches barely hint at the complex twists and turns of the plot or the various ways the lives of these characters (and others as well) are intertwined.  The novel is dense, both in terms of plots and style, as is characteristic of Laxness's writing.  Though much of the novel portrays in great details the poverty , the suffering, and the harsh conditions of the lives of the Icelanders, the novel is also shot through with a considerable amount of rather grim, ironic humor.  Iceland's Bell is not the easiest of books to read, but it is very rewarding.  Works such as Iceland's Bell and Laxness's best-known work Independent People make clear why he deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature.


Blogger Emily said...

I read Independent People a few years ago, and had a similar reaction - very rewarding, with that grim humor that's somehow beautiful - but not easy reading. I've been meaning to pick up more Laxness; thanks for the reminder!

11:33 AM  
Blogger Charmaine said...

It sounds wonderful. With the digital conversion of television and my complete ineptitude seems I must take up reading.

It's only been a few days but already I can read your entire blog...previously...I could not due to a totally deminished attention span.

7:14 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home