McKenzie's Reviews > Iceland's Bell

Iceland's Bell by Halldór Laxness
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Jul 15, 12

Read from May 07 to July 15, 2012

I think I've officially become an Icelandophile, or at least obsessed with the works of Halldór Laxness. Iceland's Bell is written in the tradition of the sagas, presenting strong, stubborn, and independent characters whose paths intertwine over the course of many years as the result of seemingly innocuous occurrences. Set in the 17th and 18th centuries while Iceland suffered egregiously under the rule of Denmark, Iceland's Bell follows the actions of three main characters: Jón Hreggviðsson, a cord-thief and supposed murderer with a miraculous ability to evade authorities and keep his head, whose journey is reminiscent of The Odyssey; Snæfríður, the most beautiful woman in Iceland and daughter of the magistrate; and Arnas Arnæus, a man committed to preserving the great literature of Iceland and finding a way to save its people from their current destitution. Hreggviðsson often ends up tossed about in the power struggle between the lovers Snæfríður and Arnas Arnæus, as their interactions and especially legal and criminal cases stretch out over the expanse of some thirty years.

Laxness writes this historical novel with such passion, honesty, and dark humor that the result feels like a complex love declaration, for a country whose people were everywhere despised as "that collection of lice-ridden beggars on that shithole up north", but who persevered and preserved their literary traditions out of pride and something deeper, as exemplified by Snæfríður's speech:
"Why won't the king of Denmark leave us our names? We have done nothing against him. We deserve no less respect than he does. My forefathers were kings of land and sea. They sailed their ships over storm-wracked seas and came to Iceland at a time when no other race on earth knew how to sail... Do as you please, take my foremothers' silver, take all of it. Sell us like livestock. Send us to the heaths of Jylland where the heather grows. Or, if it suits you, keep beating us with your whips back at home in our own country. Hopefully we have done enough to deserve it... Excuse me for speaking up, excuse us for being a race of historians who forget nothing. But do not misunderstand me: I regret nothing that has happened, neither in words nor in thoughts. It may be that the most victorious race is the one that is exterminated: I will not plead with words for mercy for the Icelanders. We Icelanders are truly not too good to die. And life has meant nothing to us for a long time. But there is one thing that we can never lose while one man of this race, rich or poor, remains standing; and even in death this thing is never lost to us; that which is described in the old poem, and which we call fame."

Iceland's Bell was only translated into English in 2003, and it deserves to be more widely read. I will admit that at times I struggled with this novel, at times I thought I would never finish it, but now that I have finished it I feel exactly how I felt when I finished Laxness' more widely known Independent People: I cannot wait to read this masterpiece of literature again.
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