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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

Halldor Laxness - The Fish Can Sing

The Fish Can Sing - Halldór Laxness, Magnus Magnusson

Reykjavik today is such an interesting place. Half spartan northern outpost, half ambitious capital of a scarcely populated but not diminutive country, the biggest (and some say only) town in Iceland welcomed your humble reviewer in style.

Bygone the hectic days of the financial and real estate bubble followed by the economic crisis that lead the local currency to lose a good deal of its value overnight and the national government to fall, Reykjavik is slowly recovering. Quite reluctantly, many Icelanders have to reckon that tourism turned out to be a damn good goldmine for the country. According to the Visitor's Guide handed over by the Tourism Office in Ingolfstorg (a main square shaped by burger joints and marauded by skateboarders), 278,000 people visited Iceland in 2002, while 672,000 did it ten years later. Given the importance and the position of the capital - not to mention the proximity of Keflavik, the only international airport - I have reasons to believe that 9 out of 10 of these tourists passed through Reykjavik (sorry Akureyri folks!).

When I visited the place - at the end of the summer of 2013 - I couldn't help but finding the wonderful Harpa a shiny blackish convention centre cum opera house straight on the waterfront, slightly overdimensioned for a town the size of Reykjavik. Especially considering how, the capital of Iceland already had a Opera House. Ok, the building has just won the prestigious Mies van der Rohe Award 2013 which is to say the Nobel Prize for Architecture and is labelled as 'Reykjavik Latest Landmark'. But still. Personally, I've found the building bearing many a resemblance with the new Royal Library in Copenhagen (aka The Black Diamond) and the Utrecht University Library. But I'm no architect, indeed.

Some Icelanders would have rather preferred, say, a new hospital for their capital - the one I saw looked in a pretty bad shape - or those 164 million Euros to be invested elsewhere. Completed and open to cultural business on 2011, two years later the building does still look like the proverbial cathedral in the desert as no money were left for a development project including a 400-room hotel, luxury apartments, retail units, a car park and the new headquarters of an Icelandic bank (ironically). Which, your reviewer believes, it's a positive thing.

One must not forget that Reykjavik is still administred by a comedian playing the mayor. And sometimes it shows. Formerly a misdiagnosed retarded child, a punk rocker, a cab driver and founder of the self proclaimed Best Party (Besti flokkurinn), Jon Gnarr was dismissed as 'not very entertaining' and a disgrace by all the locals I spoke with. I mean, where else in the world you have the most popular weekly flea market in town being hosted in the ground floor of the National Customs House? Isn't that ironic? I mean not even the bohemian likes of former playwright and Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel could have made it better.
(For some additional awe-inspiring fun, just check the Icelandic phonebook which is one for all the country and has people listed on it alphabetically but by their first name).

Anyways, the Reykjavik that you can find in 'The Fish Can Sing' looks centuries away from the one I saw. And yet, merely one hundred years have passed by as Laxness set his novel at the beginning of 20th century. At that time, Reykjavik was the capital of a poor, remote and backwardish Danish province with none of the cultural, technological and environmental zest of contemporary Iceland.
The town itself gravitated around a couple of long streets, the church, a main square and the Danish Government building (formerly a prison). A bunch of shopkeepers with Danishised surnames and toying with Latin mottoes were the bourgeoisie. The price of jet-set commodities such as books and cream cakes was compared to the one of sheep and cows. Cottages still had turf-made roofs. And all that came from Copenhagen - save preachers - was fashionable.

This is the Reykjavik were the orphan Alfgrimur Hansson (a surname meaning the son of Him and thus given to children with no parents) grows up fishing lumpfish with his adoptive 'grandad' Bjoern of Brekkukot, being chased by the plump daughter of the greatest shopkeeper in town and wearing the shoes of the opera singer Gardar Holm, the man who sung for the Pope and made Iceland known worldwide.

Holm is a masterfully built and elusive fictional character who is suddenly appearing and disappearing in town baffling the local authorities and bourgeoisie who always try to give him a kingly welcome. When reading about Holm and his idiosyncrasies, I thought that Laxness was partially talking about himself - just change the profession of singer with the one of writer - and that could be true. At the same time, this Gardar Holm who is reluctantly playing the ambassador of Iceland in Paris, Rome and New York is exactly what Bjork became for her country in the 1990s (and Sigur Ros in the 2000s): a celebrity detached by his/her homecountry due to their talent, but later pining for a return back home with world weary eyes hoping to be left in peace by the media.

To be honest, not that much happens in 'The Fish Can Sing', but for those who are interested in how people lived, thought - and what they dreamed - in Reykjavik one century ago this novel has a historic significance. The coming of age of the protagonist is not that compelling, but it works as well.

Laxness himself was a communist (but driving a Jaguar) who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 due to his portrayal of rural Iceland - go and read 'Independent People'! - and hated any foreign influence in his homecountry. If he were still alive, I'm not sure the author would have liked the fact that all of his books in their English translation are easily avaialble in every bookstore, duty free shop and fuel station of Iceland today. Including 'The Atom Station' where Laxness attacks the presence of a Nato base in Keflavik which is exactly what has recently been converted into the only international airport in Iceland.

'The Fish Can Sing' is not Laxness at his best. But this novel does have its charm, includes some decent Icelandic-like humour and I would go for it if you went or are planning to take the next flight to this magnificent and crazy country. Perhaps, if you are lucky, you could get a ticket to see Bjork or Gardar Holm performing at the Harpa seeking for the one note, the same note Alfgrimur Hansson was looking for.