The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness
Iceland was great. Blue lagoon. Jokulsarlon. Reindeer on the road. However, even though we were able to see a lot of different parts of the country, I felt like I didn’t get a good sense of the Icelandic people. One problem is that there just aren’t that many of them around. Outside of Reykjavik and the major tourist attractions, human beings were a rare sight. The ones we interacted with, like our Airbnb hosts, seemed decently nice but nothing stood out. I had always thought that Icelandic people were a distinct breed. After this trip, I would say they are just normal northern Europeans (or what I imagine to be northern Europeans, since I’ve never been there). Continuing my tradition of reading to learn more about countries I’ve just visited, I tried to look for one of those books that give a good overview of a country’s psyche. Somehow, I couldn’t find one for Iceland despite the claim that 1 in 10 people in Iceland have published a book (side note: Michael Lewis’ Boomerang has a memorable chapter on Iceland’s financial collapse). So I ended up reading a fiction book by Laxness, who is apparently one of the most famous Icelandic writers.
1) What does the sun cost, and the moon, and the stars? I assume that my grandfather answered it for himself, subconsciously: that the right price for a lumpfish, for instance, was the price that prevented a fisherman from piling up more money than he needed for the necessities of life.
What ends up happening is necessity creep. Saving for medical needs and accidents becomes a necessity. Then expensive dinners and vacations. Then a big house and the newest car. It’s all part of the necessities of life.
2) He paid no more attention to motor-cars than to any other tin-cans rolling along the gutter.
Wow, I’ve never thought of cars as tin cans. To a large extent, I guess they are.
3) “The Bible sticks in my throat like an old piece of fish-skin; I gulped it as quick as I could, And it hasn’t done me much good” – Grandmother
This short verse by the cryptic grandmother is a perfect summary of the importance of fish and Christianity in Iceland.
4) “If I can do something for a person who comes to me, then I am content….I know perfectly well that I am nothing to anyone. But the middle finger is no longer than the pinkie if one measures both against infinity; or if one clenches one’s fist.” – the superintendent
The metaphors are real.
5) Anyone who could decline correctly could also think correctly; and anyone who could think correctly could live correctly – with God’s help.
I had forgotten what declining a Latin word even means. But I’ll never forget the rhythmic recitations that Ms. Durkin drilled into my head. a ae ae am a. ae aram is as is.
6) “Old tunes do not become any worse simply because the new ones are good.” – Pastor Johann
One of the most exciting things in life is that the number of songs I like will only increase over time. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped liking a song because it’s old. I might not listen to it as much, but when I do listen to it, I still know all the words and it’s just as good.
7) “Well, I always thought that the largest population group in the world was the one that knew nothing at all, either about Pharoah’s rebirth or anything else. I was taught that it was only knaves or fools who had ready answers for every question.” – visitor from the south
Yes. I’ve probably quoted passages about this topic a million times. If you don’t know, you don’t know. Don’t make things up and force people to believe you.
8) Once I had been apprehensive about losing the security which reached as far as the turnstile-gate at Brekkukot; now I was apprehensive about the new paths which would open up when I stopped treading the well-worn route up to school in the morning, in a half-circle round the Lake, and back home again in the afternoon. Where was I to go on all the mornings which I had yet to wakeup to after this?
Growing up, leaving home, leaving school. Where to now? (except I haven’t left home)
9) I can at least say to her family’s credit that Iceland had won as regards this woman’s bearing and appearance, and no doubt her very soul as well, because she never wore Danish dresses and never let herself be lured to visit Denmark.
A clear theme in the book is the tension between Iceland and Denmark. The true Icelanders don’t dress like the Danes. According to Wikipedia, Iceland became independent in 1918. This book takes place before then.
10) “And what I am trying to say, my dear children, friends, relatives, and worthy compatriots, is this: salt-fish has to have a ribbon and bow. And it isn’t enough that Icelandic fish should have Danish ribbon and bows; it has to have the ribbon of international fame. In a word, we have to prove to the rest of the world that ‘the fish can sing just like a bird'” – merchant Gudmunsen
There is a giant plot twist in the book tied to the concept of global marketing – which totally caught me offguard given the timing of the story. Even more interesting is how central this concept is to modern Iceland. The country doesn’t have much going for it and makes a name for itself through tourism – and doing a very good job at that. Apparently the fish in Iceland can still sing.
I enjoyed this book much more than I expected. I had low expectations since it’s a borderline high school English class kind of book where you can analyze themes and other random things that the author didn’t intend at all. It ended up reminding me of one of my favorite books – Huck Finn – although the Mark Twain work is much funnier. Laxness’ book starts off slow but picks up, especially in the second half. There are a bunch of interesting characters, and there was a certain level of suspense throughout.