Nov 18, 2007

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness and Reading Across Borders Wrap-Up

I must confess I had never heard of Nobel Prize winning-author Halldór Laxness until earlier this year, when there was a feature on him on a magazine I sometimes read. The article referred to him as “a Gabriel Garcia Marquez from the cold”, and the comparison intrigued me. After reading this book I cannot say I quite see what they meant by it, but I have discovered an author whose work I enjoyed, and that’s what matters most.

The Fish Can Sing is the story of Álgrímur, a boy growing up in early twentieth-century Iceland. When he was a baby, he was abandoned by his mother, so he is raised by an elderly couple he calls grandmother and grandfather. They live in a cottage just outside Reykjavík, and as Álgrímur grows up and tries to find his path in life, his adoptive grandparents offer gentle and subtle guidance and support. The young man’s life is changed when he meets Garðar Hólm, a famous Icelandic opera singer, and a love of singing starts to awaken in him.

This book is not exactly action-packed, but it tells such a tender and gentle story. It's also full of a very subtle kind of humour I really appreciate. The lives this story portrays are simple ones – not the simple lives of those who are not well-learned in the ways of the world, but the simple lives of those who have experienced their share of hardships, and know how wasteful it is to complicate things needlessly.

I absolutely loved this novel’s setting. I’ve always been fascinated by Iceland, and I really like stories that are partially or completely set there, like A.S. Byatt’s “A Stone Woman” or Elizabeth Hand’s “Winter’s Wife”. But, unlike in those stories, the Iceland we find in this book is not a mythical one. It’s not the Iceland of the old sagas, but rather a real place, a country trying to find its place in the world, much like the novel's young narrator. As much as I love mythical places, the change was a nice one.

Still, Halldór Laxness incorporated references to the Old Sagas in the novel. In the early twentieth century, storytelling around the fire was still the most common occupation in cold winter evenings, and so the old myths were very much a part of people's lives.

This book reads more like a collection of episodes, in the fashion of Naipaul's Miguel Street, than like a novel. This lack of an overarching story to make me keep turning the pages made the novel a slower read than a book of this length would normally be. But that was a good thing, because this is a book to be enjoyed slowly. I really look forward to reading more of Halldór Laxness' work.

Other Blog Reviews:
Flippism is the Key

This was my last read for the Reading Across Borders challenge:

Books completed:
I ended up removing Inkheart from my original list - I included it at the time because I wanted an excuse to read it, but later I had to admit it didn't fit what the spirit of the challenge was (for me, anyway): reading literature from several parts of the world and learning about different countries and cultures in the process. But I'll be reading Inkheart for the YA Challenge next year, so no harm done.

Best book I read for the challenge?
There were quite a few I really enjoyed. My favourite was probably Love in the Time of Cholera, followed by The Wonderful Adventures of Nils Holgersson, The God of Small Things and The Salt Roads.

Book I could've done without?
Pinocchio was a bit of a disappointment. For once the popular culture version of a story was, for me, better than the original. I also had mixed feelings about Rainbow and City of Beasts. If on a Winter's Night a Travel didn't work for me, but that might have been a matter of timing. Still, I can't say I actually regret reading any of these books.

Any new authors? Will I read them again?
A lot of new authors, actually. I will definitely read more books by Halldór Laxness, Nalo Hopkinson, Selma Lagerlöf and Joy Kogawa. But even with authors whose books I didn't enjoy all that much, like Isabel Allende and Banana Yoshimoto, I want to read more of their work, because I don't think I can judge them fairly based on these particular books alone.

Best thing about the challenge?
How it felt a lot like travelling without leaving my room. I learned a lot about different countries and cultures I didn't previously know all that much about.


  1. Congratulations on completing the challenge. I love reading world literature but really didn't do enough of that this year.
    I'm finally starting to catch up on reading blogs and just spent a while reading your older posts that I missed while I was away. I've added a few books to my wishlist!
    Glad to hear that you've settled in well and are enjoying your time in England.

  2. Yay for finishing the challenge, it sounds like you really enjoyed it. I am hopefully going to read Love in the Time of Cholera in the next year or two which I am looking forward to. I have Njals saga to read soon too so if I enjoy that I will look out for this book too.

  3. Congrats on finishing up a Challenge. That always feels like such an accomplishment!

    This book sounds just wonderful. And like you, I have never heard of this author. Sheesh. You are single-handedly killing my TBR pile!

  4. Sounds neat! Thanks for a good review. :)

  5. Good job with the challenge! And I had never heard of this writer, either.

  6. tanabata: Thanks :) I'm glad to be contributing to increasing your wishlist :P

    Rhinoa: I really look forward to seeing what you think of Love in the Time of Cholera. I think it's one of those books each person reacts to differently.

    Stephanie: Thanks! Finishing a challenge really is a nice feeling, especially when you feel that it was an enriching experience, like in this case.

    Eva: You're welcome :)

    Dewey: Thanks! He doesn't seem to be very well-known, even though he's won the Nobel.

  7. i agree with you about iceland as a setting - i find it extremely interesting as well. just for that i'd probably pick up a book (if it was good, of course)!

  8. Congrats on finishing! I started blogging too late for this challenge, but if there is something for 2008 I would be very interested. I don't think I've read anything set in Iceland. And Yay! for finding new authors!

  9. Jean Pierre: You must read Laxness, then! I've been told to read "Independent People" next - apparently he describes the Icelandic countryside and way of life in quite a lot of detail in that one.

    Trish: Thanks! I don't know if there'll be a second round of the challenge in 2008, but if there is, I do encourage you to join. Reading all these books with so many different settings was very enriching.

  10. ... By coincidence, my blog-friend Rose and I have posted our impressions of most of Laxness' novels- this link will bring you there...


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