Friday, June 17, 2005

The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness

I enjoy a novel with a sense of place, especially if that place is strange to me. In The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness, the setting is Iceland in the early years of the twentieth century, a time when farmers are burning peat and dung and the citizens of the capital Reykjavik are heating and cooking with coal and whale oil. The merchants and government officials, the latter were all appointed by the Danes, aspire to modernize and put the island in the European mainstream economically and culturally. Some even want independence from Denmark. Naturally, they have great pride in their internationally renowned opera singer, who never actually sings when he visits his homeland.

The central character in The Fish Can Sing is Alfgrimur, who is abandoned by his mother and raised by an older couple who operate a boarding house full of unusual people. His adoptive grandfather is a fisherman with his own sense of economic values unfazed by the rules of supply and demand. His prices never change. His regular customers buy his fish when they are both the cheapest and the most expensive at the market because he is considered always fair and honest. He teaches the boy his immovable beliefs, including that a Bible is worth a cow.

Alfgrimur is asked by Pastor Snorri to sing at funerals for the poor, for which he is paid a few coins. Add these to the coins that the kind people outside the capital give him because he is a good orphan and he is always able to buy a few cream cakes. He is sent to school and some of the adults who watch him grow hope that he too will become an opera singer for the glory of Iceland.

I can imagine The Fish Can Sing as a small budget foreign film with subtitles and no special effects or background music. Only patient viewers will appreciate the slow unwinding of the plot, which does have some big surprises. Until the movie is made, look for this book at your library. It may have to be borrowed through interlibrary loan.

Laxness, Halldor. The Fish Can Sing. Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson. London: Harville Press, 1966. ISBN 1860466877

1 comment:

Jon said...

This would be a cool movie. Certainly not an action-packed thriller, but an absorbing insight into a unique coming of age story.