Bjartur of Summerhouses is a crofter, a smallhold farmer on the north coast of Iceland who has finally put a down payment on a plot of his own. He hates the man he purchased it from, the imperious Bailiff Jon of Myri, and his wife, who insists that the life of the peasant farmer animates the spirit of Iceland, while she lives in the lap of luxury. But he's determined to pay off the farm as soon as possible, and become an independent man, the only true way to be. He's so determined that he shakes off the stories of the evil spirit, Kolumkilli, who haunts the place, even as his wives and children die, disappear, and move to America.
Independent People, the masterwork of Iceland's Nobel prize winner, Halldor Laxness, is one of those decently heavy books whose intermingling of melodrama and social commentary puts Dickens and Tolstoy to mind. But I was also reminded of Thomas Hardy, who also adored the pastoral life and who frequently stocked his books with choruses of simple farming folk who pepper the main narrative with comic interludes or plainspoken political discourse.
But even among such a rarified crowd Laxness' Bjartur stands out. His stubborness and idealism make him a comic figure. When his first wife dies in childbirth, he runs to the closest farm for help, only to hem and haw when someone asks him if Rosa is all right: "Hm, whether anything's happened to her is more than I can tell you... It all depends on how you look at it. But she lives no longer on my earth, whatever follows it." Or when he composes a poem--in the classic Icelandic style of his forebears, not the newfangled new kind--to send to his estranged daughter because he can't say straightforwardly how much he misses her. But his drive for independence is also incredibly noble, hard-won and hard-lost. He's made of finer stuff than the petty Bailiff or the rest of the homespun troop of local crofters.
It's the strength of Bjartur's character--and the finely wrought depictions of his children, too--that wrings so much pathos out of the novel. His strength in the face of loss is bewildering, but also pitiable, because we sense that Bjartur knows no other way of dealing with loss than putting up an iron jaw. His estrangement from his eldest daughter is somehow more moving because its toll on him is mostly unseen, moving beneath the surface of his manner like the silhouette of a great Icelandic whale. And when he finally reunites with her, he gives her this advice, which seems as good as any:
"My opinion has always been this," he said, "that you ought never to give up as long as you live, even though they have stolen everything from you. If nothing else, you can always call the air you breathe your own, or at any rate you can claim you have it on loan..."