Read from April 27th till May 24th 2015
“Where fish leaves off in Iceland, Latin takes over”
I know I am unjust with my three-star rating, but The Fish Can Sing is one of those books I’ve instantly recognized the literary value of, but I couldn’t care much for. Moreover, it constantly reminded me of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (I hear some very loud, very heartfelt protests here!) in a bizarre, twisted kind of way, not only because I had the same mixed feelings about that one too, but also because it is its total opposite: instead of a rich, overcrowded, overcoloured narrative, a severe, grey and angular one; instead of an aggressive magic realism an apparently naïve, primitive one; instead of a complicated, postmodern structure, the medieval form of a chronicle, instead of a chaotic, devouring city, a quiet and uneventful village. What connects them, however, is the same search of identity, be it social like in Rushdie’s novel, be it artistic, like in Laxness’s one.
Whereas Satanic Verses seems to speak about alienation through immigration and loss of religion, The Fish Can Sing is supposed to illustrate (at least according to the author’s notes) the alienation through glory and uprooting. The title could thus be interpreted like a pleading for the beauty of the ordinary life, ordinary people, whose silence speaks to the soul better than any masterpiece could, like the iconic image of the grandfather:
He never gave any sign of knowing that his grandchild was nearby, and I never paid much attention to him either, and yet somehow I was always involuntarily aware of him in the background. I would hear him blowing his nose with long pauses between each blow, and then taking another pinch of snuff. His constant silent presence was in every cranny and corner of Brekkukot – it was like lying snugly at anchor, one’s soul could find in him whatever security it sought. To this very day I still have the feeling from time to time that a door is standing ajar somewhere to one side of or behind me, or even right in front of me, and that my grandfather is inside there, pottering away.
And indeed, there are enough memorable portraits of those “unspoilt” people, educated at the “Icelander’s university”, which was a quiet gathering around a good reader that read sagas aloud for an entire household in the evenings: people like the narrator Álfgrímur grandparents, with a grandmother who was never seen to sleep in a bed or a grandfather whose moral law concerned fish sale that was not to accumulate money, only to gain enough to live; nameless people like the woman from Landbrot who came to Brekkukot to die and who writes (through the narrator) an endless letter to her children to teach them how to take care of their cow Lykla who was about to calf, or like the man who loves his wife so much that he forgets to take care of her while preaching about her and their love all over the village; local people like little Miss Gú∂múnsen who stalks both Álfgrímur and Gar∂ar Hólm, or Pastor Jóhann who thinks that there is one single note, and it is pure, or Ebenezer Draummann, who wears no socks in order to save money to buy stamps and send letters to philosophers asking them the meaning of obscure words in Sanskrit:
“For example, what does the word prana mean? Or karma? And maya?”
Obviously there was no one at Brekkukot who could answer this.“And you don’t know either, young man – and you a pupil at the Grammar School?”“No,” I said.“There you are, then,” said Ebenezer Draummann. “Everyone wearing socks, and no one knows what prana is. Not even this young man from the Grammar School.”
If there is an equation for happiness, all these stories seem to tell, it could be found in this simple triangle people – fish – singing, that is simple life elevated to art. This is why the narrator insists saying to whoever asks that his dream is to become a lumpfisherman, to continue to live a life unchanged from immemorial times, when the value of a Bible was, as it is now, the same as the value of a cow.
However, this interpretation is only partial, since the people of Brekkukot with their stories are only the background for the complicated, strange and not in the least ironic relationship between Álfgrímur and Gar∂ar Hólm, that reveals the real theme of the novel: the artist’s condition, his continue struggle between individuality and universality, together with his obsession to find that pure, unique note that could reconcile both. As Gar∂ar Hólm teaches Álfgrímur:
"Always sing just as you sang that day. Sing as if you were singing over a sea-scorpion. Any other singing is false. God only hears that one note. Anyone who sings for other people’s entertainment is a fool, but not quite such a fool as the man who sings for his own entertainment.”
This relationship, reinterpreted in that irony I was talking about and that prevents both sentimentality and tragism in a very postmodern way that contradicts the apparent simplicity of the narrative, this relationship, as I said, is the novel’s core and Laxness’s masterstroke, and I think that the key of lecture can be easily found by answering a simple question: what is Gar∂ar Hólm for Álfgrímur? Is he his teacher, revealing him the secrets of art, and encouraging him to find his place even though it means replacing him, like in his final public evasion? Or is he his father, who left him as his own father left him, since they are both named Hansson (His-son), like all fatherless children in Iceland? Or maybe, instead of being Álfgrímur’s spiritual or biological creator it is he who is the narrator’s creation, his artistic projection came into life and who never tires to wonder at their resemblance whenever they meet in person:
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Álfgrímur,” I said.“Ah, so it wasn’t a lie after all?” he said, and smiled at me out of his dark brooding. I stood nailed to the road. Finally he walked up to me very simply and stretched out his hand:“So you really exist after all. I thought I had dreamed it.
The most seductive hypothesis is that they are in fact one, emphasizing the dual condition of the artist – the ephemeral human being, and the eternal genius but in a more complicated way, since neither represents only the man or only the genius, but the same artist in two timeframes: the image of maturity comes to haunt the adolescent with contradictory information about artistic and social accomplishments bewildering him even though it won’t stop his way. It is significant that Álfgrímur leaves his village and his grandparents and his past after he sang at Gar∂ar Hólm’s grave, over a body he never saw. He buries his ephemeral being for a while, knowing he will recreate it and finally return to it through his art, for he is finally aware that the voice of his grandfather’s old clock cannot be stopped:
For some time no one had heard our clock, any more than if it had not existed. But for these last few days the living-room was quiet, and then I heard that it was still ticking away. It never let itself get flurried. Slowly, slowly went the seconds in my grandfather’s timepiece, and said as of old: et-ERN-it-Y, et-ERN-it-Y. And if you listened hard enough you could make out a sort of singing note in its workings; and the clear silver bell struck.