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Halldor Laxness

Halldór Kiljan Laxness (1902-1998) was a famous 20th century Icelandic author.

Laxness started to lean towards socialism after having visited to the United States to try to make films. This is evident in his book Atom Station, about the fight of some ordinary people to find a place in a new Iceland controlled by the cold war invasion of an American bomber base into the hearts and minds of the politicians. It is told from the point of view of a poor country woman who moves to the city, finds work as a maid for one of said politicians, and who somehow sees the folly of the whole thing, and who campaigns for what she sees as a bigger priority, social welfare from the government.

Independent People is sort of deadpan tragedy. It is basically the story of a man's life from just after he escapes his virtual enslavement to a local rural family on a remote end of Iceland, up through his attempts to build a family, a home, and a future for himself. However, from reading it, it is never explicitly stated that the setting is a remote part of iceland. The reader only knows what the character thinks about it; and as far as he is concerned, it is a good plot of land. It is all he's ever known, he hasn't wandered in his mind to France or Germany or America. So as far as the reader knows, the land is just his Land.

It reveals some of Laxness anti-war leanings in a chapter that consists of Iceland fisherman sitting around talking about how the fish sales sure have gone up since the Europeans started murdering each other for no good reason. Also displayed is hatred of politicians, as he depicts them as all bosom buddies part of some exclusive mindset that renders them too busy hobnobbing with each other and fulfilling grand ideals for them to actually care about what the poor people are going through.

Readers may also interpret it as an indictment of the idea of independence--not the good kind of independence, but independence taken to such an extreme that it becomes willfull ignorance, and a sort of slavery of family members to the patriarch's ideas. To him his ideas are unquestionable, and inherently linked to his 'freedom'. This ends with alienating his family, in tragedy, in every minuscule and minute detail that Laxness paints with. Then he pulls back, and the reader realizes that just about every person out there on this part of the Icelandic ground was going through similar experiences. Poor health, near starvation, exploitative merchants, ignorance, hatred, etc. People will probably notice that Laxness, although he bitterly hates the main character for the lives he has destroyed, has a deep understanding of how that character came to exist, of why he exists, of why everything happens. Laxness still manages to dig out some shred of hope and love from the abysmal rural disenfranchized powerless poverty depicted in the book, and to find some human tenderness inside the burly troll monster of the main character.

One of the strangest features of his books are his racist remarks about Africa and black people. There are only one or two sentences in Independent People, and Atom Station, and perhaps others, but they reveal that he had not given much thought to racism when he wrote them. Perhaps the translation of some harmless Icelandic word ended up as 'nigger' in English, or perhaps not. Either way, there is more than a single word that is condescending and prejudiced about the sentences of problem. Laxness won a Nobel Prize in literature in 1955.

He was married and lived on a farm in Iceland, from where he took his pen name, Laxness.



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