Read Your Way Around the World Challenge: Iceland

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 :) 

Global Voices is conducting a book challenge titled “Read your way around the world”  to mark the day.   

  Global Voices Book Challenge

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

Alas, my response to the challenge was less than successful. This book was just not my thing. 

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.

16 responses to “Read Your Way Around the World Challenge: Iceland

  1. Hello Niranjana! I’m so grateful you took up the challenge even if you didn’t enjoy the book. Thanks for pointing out “World Book and Copyright Day”, I didn’t know that this is what the challenge was championing! You’re right, Steinar sounds like an ass, a do-gooder with no brain at all. Such people make me mad because their idiot antics affect the people they are tied to and they cannot seem to see that. Have you seen the movie “Amal”…by Richie Mehta? Amal got to me in the same way Steinar got to you..I wanted to grab him and give him a good talking to!

    I think you will enjoy Laxness’ other books…I read somewhere that this one was his weakest.

  2. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Read Your Way Around the World: Book Challenge Roundup

  3. Pingback: Read Your Way Around the World: Book Challenge Roundup « NhanLife

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  5. @Lotus: I looked AMAL up on IMDB and it seems interesting. I’ll try and locate the DVD now

    Re: Laxness–I think I need a short break from him before trying another🙂

  6. This is such a coincidence, but a friend was talking to me about – yes, Laxness – just a few weeks back. What he said about Paradise Reclaimed was very similar to what you have written about it. I have read several books by Nobel Laureates that have been extremely disappointing. And others that still haunt me – in a good way. The Nobel Prize selection process is so politicized, I think that often the actual merit of the book is quite low down in the list of criteria.

    • @ Kamini: Yes, I think this book was one of Laxness’s less successful efforts. The Nobel prize, however, makes me want to try another of his books before giving up on him entirely.

  7. Hello,
    Thank you for flying to my blog.
    I see you have a very interesting blog here. My eyeballs are all dried up, so I will have to come back tomorrow. I’ve bookmarked your site.
    See you then!!!

  8. @ Auntie: Thanks! Look forward to hearing from you.

  9. As a big Laxness fan, I’ll agree that you picked one of his lesser books. A better introduction would be The Fish Can Sing. There are ten titles of his in English now available:

    http://flippistarchives.blogspot.com/2007/12/top-ten-laxness-in-translation.html

    The saga references can be daunting. Laxness is truly a window into another world and requires some work to appreciate. Independent People, World Light, Iceland’s Bell, Salka Valka and The Happy Warriors are all considered classics of literature.

  10. @ Professor Batty: Thank you so much for the suggestion–I was wondering what I should read next. I really do not want to give up on Laxness.
    May I ask if you have any recommendations for an accessible book on Icelandic sagas and myths?

  11. I’d recommend Viking Age Iceland by Jesse Byock (Penguin books, 2001) for a basic introduction to the history and culture of Iceland during its settlement and the age of the sagas. It really helped me to grasp a sense of the whole before reading. It also gives context to the sagas. The best selection/anthology of the sagas would be The Sagas of the Icelanders (Viking Penguin, 2000, Intro by Jane Smiley) which has parts of many of the most important ones. They are new translations taken from The Complete Sagas of the Icelanders,Volumes I to V, Leifur Ericsson Publishing LTD, 1997.

    The Byock and Smiley books should be available in a good library system.

    The best sources for myths and tales are the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, these are available in a variety of formats, they are pretty dense, not for a casual reader. Favorite Norse Myths (Paperback)
    by Mary Pope Osborne, while aimed at a younger reader, is accurate and much more accessible.

    I started getting into Icelandic culture about 10 years ago, it can become addicting. If you go back on my link above and click on the “Key” in the sidebar, scroll down and there are links to my various Icelandic “Adventures”, or “Search this blog” for “Iceland”

    Glad to be of service.

  12. @ Professor Batty: Thank you for your very helpful recommendations. I’ve reserved the Byock and the Osborne at my library.
    I did observe the many links to Iceland on your blog–I’ll explore them in detail this week.

  13. Here’s a very good short over-view of the sagas, if you are still intrigued by them:

    http://www.penguinclassics.co.uk/nf/shared/WebDisplay/0,,101690_1_10,00.html

  14. @ Batty: That was very informative, and very well written; thanks for the link.

  15. Pingback: Under the Glacier by Halldor Laxness « Brown Paper

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