Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Halldór Laxness - Iceland's Bell

Sometimes grim, sometimes uproarious, and always captivating, Iceland’s Bell by Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness is at once an updating of the traditional Icelandic saga and a caustic social satire. At the close of the 17th century, Iceland is an oppressed Danish colony, suffering from extreme poverty, famine, and plague. A farmer and accused cord-thief named Jon Hreggvidsson makes an improper joke about the Danish king and soon after finds himself a fugitive charged with the murder of the king’s hangman.
In the years that follow, the hapless but resilient rogue Hreggvidsson becomes a pawn entangled in political and personal conflicts playing out on a far grander scale. Chief among these is the star-crossed love affair between Snaefridur, known as “Iceland’s Sun,” a beautiful, headstrong young noblewoman, and Arnas Arnaeus, the king’s antiquarian, an aristocrat whose worldly manner conceals a fierce devotion to his downtrodden countrymen. As their personal struggle plays itself out on an international stage, Iceland’s Bell creates a Dickensian canvas of heroism and venality, violence and tragedy, charged with narrative enchantment on every page.

Comment: I brought this book from the library but it was the first time I ever heard of the author. I read the blurb and it seemed this would be an interesting historical tale based on the early history of Iceland and that is certainly a theme I don't much about. I was curious, then, to learn a bit more while being entertained and it was quite an extra to know too that the author has won a Nobel prize.

In this book we have a main plot which is divided into three parts but we get to follow the main three characters throughout it all.
The story starts with the decision from the Danish king to remove the bell in an Iceland town because all copper and metals are to be taken to Denmark to help after the battles against their enemies.
The population in Iceland, mostly poor people with serious difficulties to survive and have a worthy life, is not in agreement with the decision and that is embodied in the person of Jon Hreggvidsson, who is considered guilty of staling rope and later of killing a man.
As the story develops, Jon and other central characters see themselves in a life long journey to tell their side of events which are no more than the foundation of what we can now think of the Iceland tradition and identity.

I'll be completely honest: I didn't enjoy reading this story.
The author might be well received by his fellow writers and judges in literary competitions, might be liked by many readers, but to me his writing was not appealing at all.
I think the narrative is so complicated, so confusing to follow it took out all the fun in it for me.

I know perfectly that everyone looks at the same book in different ways but the story had potential for what I was hoping this would be like. I was curious to see why the act of removing the bell would affect people, especially since they were poor and struggling, but that national pride, the ownership feel we all have about our country or the things belonging to it is always an important part of us anyway, even when we sort of feel disappointed with our country's governors/kings.
However, I don't think this was the notion the author explored the best. There are so many details about everything and everyone that I was quickly lost among the scenes.

I still can't summarize what I was reading about except that time was passing, some characters failed to do what was promised and what is sometimes perceived isn't really reality.
I know sages are meant to put in evidence how time passes by, how things change even if they were affected by something and one day that something might be addressed again or someone will want to see things right once more. But I have read one or two other stories based on Iceland sages, namely during school and those texts seemed a lot more accessible and not just because thy were meant for younger students. 
I just think this story was not written in an appealing way.

One detail some readers have mentioned in their reviews is how the author adds comic tones to situations that are supposed to be negative and how this means we always look at the characters through a distanced lens. I have to agree because I could see myself rooting for this person or that but it was so weird how they would speak, act, decide things in relation to problems they faced.. I couldn't take any character seriously and that has certainly made me think I never knew what drove them besides what the author told us that it was also very easy to not care, thus, along with the unappealing writing, made reading this quite a duty and not entertaining at all.

All things considered, I didn't think this was a good book for me. Everything read as confusing, including too many characters with similar names and if this means I'm not "clever" enough to understand Laxness, so be it and I hope there are others who can see the beauty in his writing.
Grade: 4/10

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