The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 18 October 2002

The Fish Can Sing

by Halldór Laxness

It is early in the 20th century, and the island of Ísland (Iceland) is on the brink of nationhood (though it wouldn't be until 1948 that it would become fully independent). Our narrator, with the unlikely concatenated name of Álfgrímur, is a man looking back on his youth in Reykjavík, before he went off to become a man of the world. Iceland's identity at this time was fragile. The people of the small fishing town, of a fishing culture, look up to Garđar Hólm, a singer who brings the country's identity to the world. He is looked upon with adoration, and a small local paper, the Ísafold, publicizes his triumphs in the world's cultural capitals. But when Garđar comes home, there are vague inklings that all is not quite as rosy as it seems in his life. All is not rosy in the adoration he enjoys. Álfgrímur grows up in a small sod cottage on the outskirts of town. His foster grandparents take in boarders of all sorts, and the house is constantly full of quirky characters and their stories. Álfgrímur, too, looks up to Garđar, but also sees the cracks in his facade. He becomes something of an apprentice to the singer, but he learns more than just to sing and to search for the "One Note" that rises above all others. As the years pass, the young man slowly learns the subtle ways of the world and the ways in which people quietly endure. The One Note becomes a purity of life, living honestly in a complex world. Perhaps this is how Iceland wanted to join the community of nations, as well. Laxness tells the tale with subtlety, generosity, wit and insight that comes from Iceland's particular culture. And he tells it with just a touch of out-of-focus nostalgia, and the incomplete detail that is an artefact of incomplete memory.

(Laxness was awarded the 1955 Nobel Prize for literature.)

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