Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson
by Laura Sims
Over 100 pages into this novel, a character describes our protagonist, Olafur Karason, as "delicate and radiant, like a tender plant; every line of his body suggested a personal life, every movement an expression, every proportion a grace." This may come as a shock—we have seen Olafur primarily as a forlorn and sickly orphan struggling to be a great poet while living off the grudging charity of others, and we have felt a mixture of pity, loathing, and respect for him. More importantly, he has seemed, up to this point, wholly incapable of carrying the epic weight a 600-page saga demands. But when Olafur finds himself being woken up from his hitherto wretched existence as a bedridden invalid by a woman renowned for her healing powers, the reader too finds herself coming alive to the possibilities inherent in this lead character, as well as to the generous delights of this Icelandic novel, written in 1937 by Nobel Prize-winner Halldór Laxness. While this optimistic turning point in the narrative heralds the start of a new relationship between reader and protagonist, the remaining 400 plus pages contain so much misery for Olafur that one begins to pine along with him for those early days, dreary as they were, when he lay in a squalid corner waiting to die, neglected and/or abused by every member of the "charitable" household on which he depended, watching a single sunbeam penetrate the ceiling of his hovel.
Although it may seem that Laxness is leading us straight into Hardy territory, Olafur's highly amusing interactions with others prevent the novel from being categorized as a straight tragedy, just as his various insufficiencies as a potential "hero" prevent it from being pigeonholed as an epic. Neither can it be named comedy, political satire, nor romance, although the elements of each category abound. They abound likewise in the alluring, frustrating, despicable, loveable, and ridiculous character of Olafur Karason himself. Laxness certainly indicts society vehemently for its abuse of the poetically gifted Olafur, but Olafur does not escape indictment himself. In the following exchange between the poet and Peder Pavelsen, the manager who owns and runs the town of Svidinsvik where Olafur spends much of his adult life, we witness the poet's vacillation between ridiculous docility and passive resistance. The manager, in a drunken stupor, offers his benefaction in exchange for Olafur swearing to support the manager's pet cause, the "Regeneration of the Nation"—an ambiguous movement which sounds grand but amounts to further exploitation of the poor laborers by the few rich rulers of the town. The manager begins:
"If you'll swear to be my poet, you shall have a roof."
"I don't know how to swear," said the poet.
"Well, in that case you can go to the devil," said Peder Pavelsen; he let go of the poet's hand and pushed him away.
The poet's upper lip began to tremble at once, and he said bitterly, "It's easy enough to push me away."
"Yes," said Peder Pavelsen. "You're a rat. Anyone who won't raise three fingers in the air for the Regeneration of the Nation is a rat."
At that the poet changed his mind and declared that he was ready to raise three fingers for the Regeneration of the Nation.
Then the manager loved the poet again, embraced him, and wept a little.
The manager, after securing Olafur's loyalty, presents him with a house worthy of such an oath: a vacant, broken-down, rat-infested old palace. When the poet goes to claim his "home," he finds that both front and back door are nailed shut, and a feral cat passes by, stopping "to hiss in the poet's direction" as an added insult. At another time he is tempted, by a passionate woman who becomes his lover, to join the coalition of "freedom fighters" who plan to rebel against the town's leadership to improve working conditions and pay for laborers. For a moment, the door to another world swings open to Olafur; in the next moment, he chooses wife and child, the stability of home, not because he has found true happiness there, but because he pities his dependents too much to abandon them. His lover responds to his explanation that "'pity is man's nobility'" with the accusation: "'You don't believe in life! You think that the Creator cannot keep the world going without your idiotic pity!'" Olafur sticks to his chosen path, but also "looked back as he softened, and saw himself splitting in two: the freedom- fighter, the madman, the villain and the poet were left behind in the distance, and forward stepped the meek adherent of conventional orthodox behavior." This move requires courage on his part, but the reader may feel something akin to his lover's frustration when he makes this bleak choice. Rarely has any writer offered up such a vexing character as Olafur Karason. It may be that we love his very humanness —he is momentarily rebellious, then mundanely heroic; often absurd, then suddenly saintly; and he rarely travels the path of his life with ease, like most of us. Olafur Karason's humanity is what comes across so vividly in Laxness's masterpiece, and our own humanity urges us to follow him along his life journey.
In the moments scattered throughout this tale when Olafur engages in transcendent communication with what we may call "world light"—that otherworldly inspiration common to poets, martyrs, and sainted outcasts of every kind—the reader can wholeheartedly admire him. It becomes clear that he is a being who can escape the tired earth, and the tedious ways of humanity, when he lies in a field looking up at the sky, or looks out toward the great glacier dominating Svidinsvik's horizon, and realizes "that Nature was all one loving Mother, and he himself and everything that lives were of the one spirit, and there was nothing ugly any more, nothing evil." These moments are few and far between, but they always return, and they lead him to the place where "beauty shall reign alone," where his meager, largely unhappy existence is transformed into poetry, beauty, and ultimate redemption. Before Olafur reaches that state of perfection, however, he stumbles along, allowing his fellow humans (and readers) to peg him as parish pauper, worthless scoundrel, ridiculous poet, sainted hero, or whatever they wish—while he solemnly goes about his existence, a quiet soul surrounded, and roughly touched by, the noise and ugly commerce of life.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003