Today (April 23rd) is World Book and Copyright Day. It’s organized by UNESCO to promote reading, publishing and copyright. I feel obliged to honor the occasion–especially now that I’m in the middle of a copyright flap :)
The Challenge is as follows:
1) Read a book during the next month from a country whose literature you have never read anything of before.
2) Write a blog post about it during the week of April 23.
3) Tag your posts with #gvbook09
I joined the challenge on Lotus Reads, and chose Paradise Reclaimed by the Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness. Laxness won the Nobel prize for literature in 1955, and his book has been on my shelf for a long long time. It seemed the perfect choice.
Paradise Reclaimed deals with the adventures of a farmer named Steinar of Steinahlioar (I don’t know how to insert the special characters that every proper noun in this novel seems to require). Steinar is a simple man who happens to own a beautiful horse. When the king of Denmark visits Iceland, Steinar decides to present him the horse, and thus sets out on the first of his travels. On the way, he meets an Icelandic Mormon who tells him all about the Promised Land. After a couple of adventures, Steinar abandons his wife and son and daughter and sets off for Utah.
Steinar’s farm falls into disarray. The daughter is raped and becomes pregnant; in her innocence, she insists it’s a virgin birth. The wife and son are relentlessly exploited. Their land is destroyed.
I quit reading here, midway through the novel. It was just too depressing and infuriating.
I’ve no doubt that this novel is a saga of the redemptive power of goodness, but mostly, I just wanted to kick Steinar in the seat of his pants. The introduction by Jane Smiley states that the novel “asks us to accept in Steinar a man of radical innocence, who neither ruminates upon nor questions his own decisions, but acts and then accepts the results of his actions.” Well, the novel failed to make me accept Steinar or suspend judgement; I blamed him soundly for going off half-cocked to Utah. Laxness evidently intends Steinar to be something of a tragic hero. Not that I’d dream of contradicting a Nobel prize-winning writer, but Steinar seems to me a bit of an ass; I can understand his desire to see the Promised Land, but why couldn’t he take his willing family along instead of leaving them to the wolves? As for his wife and children, they never blame Steinar for abandoning them; rather, the daughter weeps for her father and says “If Daddy is a Mormon, then I want to be a Mormon woman.”
I also think much of my inability to relate to this book stems from my ignorance of Icelandic folklore–I can tell I’m missing all sort of references to myths and historical events that would have made this book a much richer read. This omission is of course entirely my fault (I should have hunted out the Cliffs Notes), but if I had read something about Iceland, I couldn’t have chosen this book for the challenge. Anyway, the overall feeling was rather like reading Beckham’s autobiography without ever having seen the man kick a ball. Not satisfactory.
I have to say: Laxness has perfect control of his material. I’m admiring the way the author plays off Steinar’s innocence against his child-like wisdom even as I resent the plot turns. He successfully uses a strange satirical humor while writing about brutal events, and there’s a fable-like tone to the prose that perfectly suits this kind of story. In sum, I think I’ve picked the wrong book by the right author. I can’t bring myself to finish Paradise Reclaimed, but I’ll be hunting out other works by Laxness. Oh, and I’ll have start figuring out those special characters soon.