In 1957, when his novel Brekkukotsannáll appeared, Halldór Laxness was fifty-five or thereabouts. The title (literally “tales of Brekkukot”), refers to a very small community on the outskirts of Rekyivik, though the book’s English title, The Fish Can Sing, better conveys the novel’s tone and subject-matter. For Halldor’s book is a description of childhood, of an orphan among eccentric adults, but it’s also a meditation of sorts on music, nature, and ambition.
The narrator, one Alfgrim (an odd name) lives in the rather un-private middle-loft of his adoptive grandparents’ sod-roofed inn, where he shares a bed with a former sea captain and listens to the late-night conversations of the Superintendent, whom Alfgrim considers a great man, though his only responsibility seems to be to keep the urinals clean down at the dock.
Alfgrim goes fishing for lumpfish in the pre-dawn hours with his grandfather, and is so enchanted by the labor that he has no other ambition but to follow the same trade himself. The trawlers (boats with machines, his grandfather calls them) have arrived, however, and are starting to obliterate the sea-bottom in the bay.
Alfgrim also earns a bit of pocket money singing at funerals. He has a fine voice, and it’s widely thought that he’s related to the town’s Golden Boy, Gardar Holm, who has developed a world-wide reputation as a singer. Gardar himself returns to town occasionally, though he’s invariably called away again by some pressing engagement in Paris or Cairo before anyone gets the chance to hear him sing. Gardar acknowledges a strange affinity with Alfgrim, and calls him “My second self,” and another dimension is added to the plot (such as it is) when the daughter of the local merchant who’s been financing Gardar’s career reveals her long-standing infatuation with the famous musician.
But much of The Fish Can Sing is anecdotal, and Laxness’s descriptions of the peasant population of Brekkukot, as seen through Alfgrim’s eyes, is both charming and wise.
“I spent my entire childhood in an environment in which the mighty of the earth had no place outside story books and dreams,” Laxness said in his 1955 Nobel acceptance speech. “Love of, and respect for, the humble routines of everyday life and its creatures was the only moral commandment which carried conviction when I was a child.”
In this regard his books bear comparison with those of the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, especially such later works as Wanderers and Wayfarers. But Hamsun’s central character is often an edgy and passionate misanthrope on the fringes of society, whereas Alfgrim is a sweet young fellow, well-known to the local community, whose seemingly naïve observations carry the inadvertent wisdom and the poetry of those whose lofty ideals and rhapsodic impressions have not yet been unduly dampened by the rampant cynicism and ambition of the wider world.
Among the gems scattered throughout the book one in particular caught my eye. “…the world is a song, but we do not know whether it is a good song because we have nothing to compare it with.”
It’s true, the world is a song. I believe we can also say that it is a good song. The Fish Can Sing sings it at its best. Perhaps the comparisons that arise throughout the book between the world-voice Gardar and the churchyard funeral-singer Alfgrim allow Laxness to scrutinize his own mixed feelings with respect to having recently won the Nobel Prize and brought Iceland onto the world stage. Perhaps he’s trying to say, “A world-class writer like me is less important to Iceland or the world than a couple of poverty-stricken old-timers who take in an orphan boy and fill his soul with images of modesty, nobility, rectitude, and compassion.”