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Iceland's Stoic, Sardonic 'Independent People'

I'd like to introduce you to the most maddening person I've ever encountered in my life: Bjartur of Summerhouses.

I've known him for 15 years, and he never fails to infuriate me; he is querulous, contrary, hard-hearted and stubborn.

And yet, I find myself drawn to him again and again.

Please do not let the fact that he is fictitious — or Icelandic, or an impoverished sheep farmer — deter you from entering his world, which is brilliantly conjured in the pages of Halldor Laxness' novel Independent People.

When I first opened this book, it was with a feeling of trepidation and a hefty dose of familial obligation. My mother had sent it to me in the mail, accompanied by a note that said "You must read this" — a phrase that was underlined three times. "It's written by Halldor Laxness," she wrote. "He is one of Our People."

My mother was referring to the Icelanders; her parents' families had fled Iceland for North America in the 1800s after a devastating volcanic eruption, but she still referred to all Icelanders as "Our People."

And that is how I came to encounter the flinty yet endearing Bjartur of Summerhouses, a gritty, practical farmer who composes poetry as he strides through blizzards searching for lost sheep.

As the novel opens, Bjartur — who spent 18 bitter years as a servant on another man's farm — is surveying the first thing he has ever owned. It is a dark, dank, turf-roofed farmhouse on a glacial moor, where the family members inhabit one common room upstairs and the sheep, horse, cow and dog occupy the entire first floor.

But this miserable hovel is also Bjartur's palace. The character's sole quest in life — and one of the novel's great themes — is to live as an independent man, in debt to no one. It's a desire that comes with a price, especially in a harsh climate where interdependence is the only means of survival; Bjartur's wife, children and neighbors all bear the brunt of his obsession for independence.

If all of this seems too grim, keep reading. One of the great surprises of the novel is the author's deliciously sardonic humor and marvelous grasp of human foibles at all levels of society.

As a devout fan of Independent People, I'm in excellent company. Annie Proulx calls it "brilliant," one of her 10 favorite books of all time. Jane Smiley says she "can't imagine any greater delight than coming to Independent People for the first time."

A bestseller when it was first published in the U.S. in 1946, Independent People eventually contributed to Laxness winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. Yet if you've never heard of this great masterpiece, you're not alone. Sadly, this marvelous book was out of print in English for over 50 years — possibly because of McCarthy era perceptions about Laxness' communist sympathies.

But now it has been reissued in a beautiful paperback edition, and so I find myself repeating to you the words of my late mother: You must read this!

Perhaps the author Halldor Laxness will become one of your people, too.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christina Sunley

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