Ten million men and a half, I see,
Were slaughtered in fun in that maniacs’ spree.
By now they’re probably all in hell,
But I mourn them not. God-speed. Farewell.
There was, however, another war,
Waged near a rock in the blind days of yore,
And that was fought over one sweet flower
That was torn away in disastrous hour.
And that’s why I’m lately so moody grown
And Pride myself little on what I own.
For what are riches and houses and power
If in that house blooms no lovely flower? -From Independent People, page 437-
Halldor Laxness published Independent People in 1946 and later went on to win the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 – largely because of this novel. The author has created a sprawling, generational saga revolving around Bjartur of Summerhouses – a stubborn Icelandic sheep farmer who is determined to be free and independent after spending 18 years as an employee to a wealthy landowner. Bjartur purchases land from his former employer and quickly marries the tragic Rosa. Tough, spirited and wholly dedicated to his sheep and worm-infested dog, Bjartur fathers several children including a daughter – Asta Sollilija (translated “Beloved Sun-lily). The relationship between Bjartur and Asta is tender and heartbreaking and is what drives the narration of the novel. Bjartur stubbornly follows his path toward independence and refuses to mourn his losses as the years slip by. Only when he finally succeeds in achieving his dream of building a house (and discovers the dream is empty), does Bjartur recognize all he has lost through the years.
Thematically the novel explores freedom and independence within the context of Icelandic politics and agricultural progress.
The man who lives on his own land is an independent man. He is his own master. -From Independent People, page 13-
The love of freedom and independence has always been a characteristic of the Icelandic people. Iceland was originally colonized by free-born chieftains who would rather live and die in isolation than serve a foreign king. -From Independent People, page 65-
We Icelanders have never had any great respect for kings, except perhaps Fell Kings, for everyone is equal before God; and as long as a farmer can call himself an independent man and no one else’s slave, so long can he call himself his own king. -From Independent People, page 373-
Birds are happier than men, it is their wings that make all the difference; “grey-goose mother, lend me thy wings.” – From Independent People, page 37-
Entwined in this idea of independence at all costs are moral questions about our connections to others. Where does the search for independence and freedom from others’ influence become loneliness and isolation? At what point does a person’s quest for autonomy interfere with his ability to establish and nurture relationships? Bjartur’s dream to become self-sufficient is marred by the rigidity of his definition of independence.
An independent man thinks only of himself and lets others do as they please. -From Independent People, page 393-
Laxness fills his novel with complex and multi-layered characters living in a harsh and desolate countryside. They all seek their dreams, stumbling through their lives with their eyes on an uncertain future. Little Nonni – Bjartur’s youngest son – clings to his mother’s dream that he will ‘sing for the whole world.’ Asta dreams of love. Bjartur sees the construction of a real house as the ultimate sign he has become independent.
Independent People is the story of one man, but in many ways is a universal tale. Laxness writes with an eye on scene, describing the vast moors of Iceland in such a way as to place the reader there. His language is poetic, touching and authentic. Although at times the novel seems to drag, Laxness always redeems it by bringing the reader back to the soul of his characters – individuals who I found myself wanting to get to know better, who I wanted to see succeed despite their failings.