The Fish Can Sing

Halldór Laxness

translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson
Harvill Press 2001 [1957]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
Abandoned by his mother, Alfgrimur is raised by a couple he calls grandfather and grandmother, in the house Brekkukot on the outskirts of Reykjavik — only a small town at the beginning of the 20th century. He shares the mid-loft with a collection of strange and eccentric figures, whose peculiarities he accepts as perfectly normal. The regulars include Captain Hogensen, who used to pilot Danish survey ships and still has his naval uniform, the Superintendent Jon of Skagi, a philosopher, and Runolfur Jonsson, a specialist on cess-pools who gets drunk four times a year, for several weeks at a time. And, with Brekkukot famous for its hospitality, there is a regular procession of more ephemeral visitors, from women who come to die or give birth to a purveyor of mystical doctrines and his numinous wife.

Grandfather Björn makes a living fishing, even though he refuses to vary his prices with the market, ignoring the laws of supply and demand, and Alfgrimur wants nothing more than to be a lumpfisherman himself. But he sings at the funerals of paupers in the church next door, takes music lessons, and goes to grammar school — and the world famous singer Garðar Holm is a recurring presence in his life, or more often an influential absence.

Alfgrimur's choice of career and his relationship with Garðar Holm form what little overt plot The Fish Can Sing (Brekkukotsannáll, 1957) has. It consists largely of brief character sketches and isolated episodes, linked by their connection to Brekkukot and Alfgrimur.

"I found Grandpa Jon on my first day in the second class, and he me. He was twice as old as I was and had to shave every day to avoid having a long beard. He came from the Dalir, out west. Through some society which published Christian pamphlets in Norway he had received a higher calling — to convert the Chinese. ... This broad-shouldered, fair-haired man was convinced that people would be improved by reading Christian pamphlets in Norwegian, and that it would benefit the Chinese to study enormous illustrated volumes of Biblical stories printed in Kristiana. People never tired of ridiculing his ideas, on the ingrained assumption of Icelanders that all believers must be out of their minds."

Halldór Laxness is sympathetic to the eccentrics he describes, finding wisdom in the lives of ordinary people; it is the pretensions and affectations of the gentry on which his gentle satire is mostly turned. He also contrasts the realities of Icelandic life with the grand, heroic narratives of the sagas; and traditional Iceland, exemplified by the Brekkukot way of life, with Danish and other foreign influences. The Fish Can Sing does not have the breadth of Halldór Laxness' great classic Independent People, but it is a witty, light-hearted, and highly enjoyable novel. The episodic structure, first-person narrative, and child's perspective are reminiscent of Dickens, but Halldór Laxness has his own distinctive humour.

August 2003

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%T The Fish Can Sing
%A Laxness, Halldór
%M Icelandic
%F Magnusson, Magnus
%I Harvill Press
%D 2001 [1957]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1860469345
%P 246pp