Monday, April 13, 2009


The Fish can Sing (originally published in Icelandic in 1957 as Brekkukotsannáll) is, for most readers, probably the most accessible Halldór Laxness novel.

This coming-of-age story centers on the orphan Álfgrímur and his relationship to his very small world—indeed, almost all of the story takes place within a radius of about 2000 meters! This small area is, however, rich in characterization and momentous events. Each of the episodic 41 chapters exposes Álfgrímur to some new lesson about life; lessons which he takes to heart as he comes to grips with the modern world and his role in it.

Gardar Holm, a ‘world famous’ singer who may be Álfgrímur’s father, appears from time to time—in a sense he represents Laxness himself—a world traveler who is not exactly what he seems. Álfgrímur may be thought of as personifying Iceland at the turn of the twentieth century, waking up from a solitary existence, ready to go out and make a mark in the world. Gardar’s talks with Álfgrímur exist on several levels of meaning: personal, artistic, political, moral and emotional. Despite this, the tone of the book is generally lighthearted and is quite funny at times. The characters who drift in and out of Álfgrímur's life ground it; their faults and foibles reveal basic human dignities.

All in all a wonderful book, the translation (by the esteemed Magnus Magnussson) seems to capture Laxness' deceptively simple style; certainly well enough to completely charm this reader- for the third time!

Check out Rose's review, I've touched upon this book before in FITK.

I must add this small sample from the chapter When our Lykla Calves. One of the guests staying in Brekkukot is “… the woman from Landbrot” who has come there to spare her children the sight of her dying. She is on her deathbed, trying to dictate a letter to Álfgrímur; a final letter to her children:
“When our Lykla calves,” said the woman -
“When our Lykla calves;
Yes, when our Lykla calves:
If it’s a bull,
If it’s a little bull-calf,
Then Nonni must grind peat for his bedding.
Each morning and night: dry peat.
But if it is a heifer, as we all hope,
She is to be called Rosa.
We shall give her a pint of milk every feed;
No, wait, let's make that two.
We must not be mean to her.
It will pay dividends in the long run, dear children.
It’s good to put some groats in too.
And boilings from the fish-pot do no harm.
Some people put coffee-dregs
Into the calf’s slops; that's said to be wholesome,
But more for cud-chewing than nourishment.
Have I written that she should be called Rosa?
Oh, how messy all of this is,
There isn’t a slightest trace of order in it;
We’ll tear it up and try again;
When our Lykla calves.
When our Lykla calves.
When our Lykla calves.

By Professor Batty


Blogger Darien Fisher-Duke said...

Garðar Hólm as Álfgrímur's father? I hadn't thought of that...
Charmed is the perfect word. Or, the one pure note to describe the book.

Anonymous mary said...

I have this book (unread) on my shelf.
Not unread for much longer!
My great love is Independent People, I have read it 3 times and each time I find more in it.
I bought it in Akureri, which makes it all the more special.

Anonymous Jon said...

One of my favorite lines was a quote from the Superintendent. "As you know, the only insult that can really rile an Icelander is to be called a Dane." I liked the quiet dignity of Captain Hogensen as he spun his horsehair. A great bunch of characters visited Brekkukot and I will visit them again.

Blogger Darien Fisher-Duke said...

The Magnusson essay you link to is really wonderful, and I'm grateful for the discovery.

Blogger Professor Batty said...

Rose~ He never lets you know for certain, although many times people tell him that he's related to Gardar. It seems that Magnus was just as infatuated as we are.

Mary~ I'd like to see your review! (I'll print it here- perhaps you'd like to become an occasional contributor to FITK?)

Jon~ Each of the minor characters is quotable.

Blogger Móðir, kona, meyja said...

I really should get around to reading this one...

Blogger Professor Batty said...

If only to receive some compensation for having endured Vefarinn mikli frá Kasmír!

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