The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

Harvill Panther, 2001, 252 p, including i p note on pronunciation and ii p map of Iceland. Translated from the Icelandic, Brekkukanstannáll, (Helgafell, Iceland, 1957,) by Magnus Magnusson.

 The Fish Can Sing  cover

There is something almost mythic, or fabular, about the origins of narrator Álfgrímur Hanson, born in the mid-loft of Brekkukot, a dimly lit turf-roofed shack on the outskirts of what would become Reykjavík, and who never saw his mother again, as she was in transit to the US, sponsored by the Mormons or some such. Instead he was brought up by the pair who lived in Brekkukot, whom he called grandfather and grandmother even though they were no relation at all. Grandfather Björn is a lumpfisherman, wedded to the old ways, plying his trade by hand. He never changes the price of his fish; neither when a surplus lowers others’ nor when a shortage makes his catch more valuable. Brekkukot is also a way-station for those with nowhere else to go, packed with adults sleeping in the same cramped space, always available to house those needing a bed. Such is the atmosphere that surrounds him, though, that Álfgrímur does not realise he could be considered poor until almost into adulthood. Not that he ever thought about it, he simply didn’t question Brekkukot’s place in the world.

His grandfather has a firm sense of what is right and proper with his “conviction that the money which people considered theirs by right was unlawfully accumulated, or counterfeit, if it exceeded the average income of a working man; and therefore that all great wealth was inconsistent with common sense.”

In many ways, perhaps due to similarly inclement climates, Icelanders’ attitudes to the world as shown here have something of the Scots sense of endurance about them. Álfgrímur tells us, “I could swear on oath that growing up I never heard the word ‘happiness’ except on the lips of a crazy woman who lodged in the mid-loft with us for a time.” He instances many Icelandic phrases with this kind of sentiment. ‘They have plenty of salt fish,’ = they’re doing all right, ‘Oh, he’s fat enough,’ = he’s well, ‘Oh, you can see it on him’, = he’s unwell, ‘He’s a bit low,’ = he’s more dead than alive, ‘He’s off his food these days,’ = dying of old age, ‘he’s packing his bags now, poor fellow,’ = on his deathbed. When a married couple separated, ‘Yes, there’s something wrong there I believe,’ was said. Or is this stoicism simply due to Álfgrímur’s particular circumstances? “At Brekkukot every word was precious, even the little words.”

The book is set at a time when change is coming to the country yet still before Iceland had gained independence from Denmark. The prickly relationship between the island and its then ruler is alluded to often in unflattering mentions of the Danish king and brought into sharper focus by the sentence, “The only insult that can really rile an Icelander is to be called a Dane.” And Icelanders had apparently always considered what the Pope said about religious faith laughable.

A lot of the novel is taken up with the saga of Garðar Hólm, of Hríngjarabær, close to Berkkukot. He is apparently the only world-renowned Icelander, a singer, known to crowned heads and the Pope. His returns to the island are eagerly awaited, promoted in the newspaper, the Ísafold, but often found to be only rumour or called off at the last minute. Yet he makes unheralded appearances in Reykjavík and the odd visit to Brekkukot. He and Álfgrímur strike up a relationship of sorts, especially after Álfgrímur is employed by Pastor Jóhann as a singer at funerals and learns of the concept of the one pure note. On one occasion he and Álfgrímur even exchange footwear. Yet Álfgrímur notes Garðar Hólm’s rather dressed down appearance. The singer is said to be unmarried (a very minor sub-plot has the daughter of the owner of Gúðmúndsen’s Store – an institution in Reykjavík – hankering after him) but there are also tales of a woman with two children in a hut in Jutland. Garðar Hólm exerts a large influence on Álfgrímur. In one of their conversations, he tells Álfgrímur in relation to wealth that, “The man who is worth anything never gets a jewel,” in another that in encyclopaedias, “murderers, particularly multiple murderers, command much more space than the greatest geniuses and men of intellect.” There are heavy allusions to the possibility that Garðar Hólm’s fame is nothing of the sort and is a sort of trick pulled off by Gúðmúndsen to bolster Icelanders’ thoughts of themselves.

Perhaps it is Álfgrímur’s almost naïve acceptance of things but there is in all this a dislocation almost like that encountered when reading fiction by South American writers. It can’t though be said to be magic realism because the writing is resolutely realistic throughout. There are things undoubtedly lost in translation and others that perhaps only Icelanders could fully understand. But the point of reading translated fiction is to help expand your view of the world. Laxness’s writing fulfils that function very well.

Pedant’s corner:- “the kind of audience he attracted there were” (the kind of audience… was,) “for a long rime now” (a long time, I think,) “‘And for that reason she does not want you not to drown in the Soga Stream’” (omit that second ‘not’,) galoshes (galoshes, x 2,) “a horde of fat men comes running over waving cheque books and hire him” (plus points for ‘comes’ but it then also ought to be ‘hires’.)

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