Halldór Laxness: The Fish Can Sing aka Brekkukotsannáll (1957) An Icelandic Coming-of-Age Tale

Abandoned as a baby, Alfgrimur is content to spend his days as a fisherman living in the turf cottage outside Reykjavik with the elderly couple he calls grandmother and grandfather. There he shares the mid-loft with a motley bunch of eccentrics and philosophers who find refuge in the simple respect for their fellow men that is the ethos at Brekkukot. But the narrow horizons of  Alfgrímur’s idyllic childhood are challenged when he starts school and meets Iceland’s most famous singer, the mysterious Gardar Holm. Gardar encourages him to aim for the “one true note”, but how can he attain it without leaving behind the world that he loves?

Have you ever read a book and caught yourself smiling almost all the time? The Fish Can Sing is so charming I couldn’t help doing it. It’s also quite funny at times and certainly very intriguing. I’m afraid I can’t really put into words how different it is. As a matter of fact, Halldór Laxness’ book is so unusual and special that I have to invent a new genre for it. This is officially the first time that I have read something that I would call mythical realism. It is very realistic but at the same time it is full of exaggerations like we find them in myths. This is due to some extent to the narrator, Alfgrimur, who takes everything he hears literally. Very probably it also has its roots in Icelandic storytelling.

I really owe thanks to Professor Batty of Flippism is the Key. If it hadn’t been for him I wouldn’t have embarked on my Halldór Laxness journey starting with The Fish Can Sing. The late Icelandic Noble Laureate has written some 60 books. Some haven’t been translated into English but almost all of them are available in German. As he told me, The Fish Can Sing is by far more accessible than any of his other books and certainly much easier than Under the Glacier which I had planned on reading first. I went through a bit of a Susan Sontag phase two years ago and stumbled upon her essay on Under the Glacier. Many of the Noble Laureates aren’t the most easy reads and I can imagine how challenging some of Laxness’ other books must be as The Fish Can Sing, as charming and enchanting as it is, isn’t very easy either.

To give you an impression of how different it is, let me just quote the first sentence:

A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose the father.

This sets the tone nicely. This novel is full of unusual statements and observations. If you want to walk the trodden path when reading a book, chose another one. This is a wild landscape you are entering. A landscape of harsh beauty that – as I can only assume – must mirror the beauty of Iceland itself.

The Fish Can Sing is the story of little Alfgrimur whose mother gave birth just before emigrating to the US and left the baby behind at Brekkukot where he is adopted by the man and the woman he will call grandparents. His mother stayed, like so many others, for some time at the turf-cottage of Björn of Brekkukot. What a world this Brekkukot is. Dominated by the grandfather whose love for people, authenticity and truthfulness are the guiding light towards which so many are directed. The grandfather is the most important person in Alfgrimur’s life. He is the personification of absolute love and security.

But whether I was playing in the vegetable garden, or out on the paving, or down by the path, my grandfather was always somewhere at hand, silent and omniscient.There was always some door standing wide open or ajar, the the door of the cottage or the fish-shed or the net-hut or the byre, and he would be inside there, pottering away.

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.

The grandfather is a real original. He follows his own rules and is not impressed by status or education. Alfgrimur feels that he is profoundly loved. The grandfather reminded me in some ways of Atticus Finch. Another culture, another society but the same aim for truthfulness and tolerance. Only a touch more eccentric. This novel is full of eccentric characters and unusual descriptions like those of the turf-cottage. The grandfather and his hospitality are so famous that people come from all over Iceland to sleep at the cottage. Some stay there always, some are on their way to the States, some are ill and look for a cure, others come to die there.

It would drive one mad to try to tell about all the visitors who ever came to Brekukkot, and indeed such a book would burst all the printing-presses in Iceland.

A dilapidated, creaking stair with seven steps connected the passage with the mid-loft in our house. It was here that  and my fellow-residents lived. This mid-loft was the centre-space of the upper storey, partitioned off from the rooms on either side; we were in effect a sort of vestibule for those who lived in the east and west ends of the loft as well as for anyone who went up  or down the stair. When my grandfather did not give up his bed to a visitor, he slept in the part of the loft that faced south, but which was actually called the west end; otherwise he would lie on a pile of nets out in the store-shed, and would think nothing of it. Often our living-room was full, and people were tightly packed in at both ends of the loft; there were sleepers in the passage and sleepers in the doorway, and sometimes during the autumn trips, when we had the largest crowds, they would bed themselves down i the store-shed and the hayloft as well.

The book is told in a sequence of short chapters that could almost be read independently like short stories but it is still a novel. Some of the characters and stories that are told are quite funny.

It is a small and protected world in which Alfgrimur grows up and the outside world and foreign countries are only brought to his world through the figure of the somewhat mysterious Gardar Holm, a world-famous Icelandic singer who mostly lives abroad. There is a special connection between Alfgrimur and the singer and it is through him that he discovers his own voice and will choose to follow the same path.

The first real pain in Alfgrimur’s life comes from the need to go to school. To leave the safe haven of Brekkukot is terrible for him. All he had been deaming of was staying there forever and becoming a fisherman. This can of course not be and the end part of the novel is therefore almost melancholic.

All in all this was a great discovery. I really liked it a lot and think Laxness has a wonderful imagination. Professor Batty has dedicated his blog almost entirely to Iceland. If you are interested in Halldór Laxness or other Icelandic authors, also crime authors, you will find a lot of information and reviews there. He has reviewed many of Laxness’ novels and done several posts on the translations that are available.

Here is his Top Ten Laxness in translation review.

35 thoughts on “Halldór Laxness: The Fish Can Sing aka Brekkukotsannáll (1957) An Icelandic Coming-of-Age Tale

  1. I have one of this author’s books sitting on my shelf–as yet unread. Someone recommended the novel years ago, and I came across a copy in a used bookshop and bought it.

    The plot of this novel reminds me very much of a film, but I can’t remember the title. If it comes to mind, I’ll be back.

  2. I have this one (like Guy–also unread!) and am happy to see it is a charming sort of read. Of course even the blurb on the cover says enchanting. I’ve not read much Icelandic fiction (very little really) but often the stories seem to borrow from myths, which I think are very important in this culture?

    • Yes I think mythology is extremely important. I could have written much more about it but the post was already quite long and I wanted to include quotes as no mater how eloquent you write about him, you cannot capture how unique it is. The only thing I know, I will read the next one in German.

  3. Laxness was a Nobel Prize winner who definitely won the award for the body of his work rather than one magnum opus. Independent People is often cited as his greatest novel, but there are several other of his books which have been thought of as being on the same level, Fish being one of them. I’ve read it three times and as my understanding grows, it is like reading a new book each time! I have read various Icelandic commentaries which have mentioned World Light, Salka Valka, The Happy Warriors and Iceland’s Bell as being better than Independent People. It’s like trying to choose a favorite child. Anyone interested in Laxness’ body of work are welcome to check out the link to my site that Caroline posted- there are numerous additional links in that post which lead to other opinions. As Caroline mentioned, the Icelandic background in these books can be somewhat challenging- Icelanders have a unique history that is not in the mainstream of Western Culture. Deciphering these riddles is part of the fun of discovering Laxness; his writing, even in translation, is in my opinion as good as any of the best authors in fiction.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this book, Caroline.

    • And I am glad you recommended it. I will probably read it again but in German as I will read his other novels in German too. This book is like a treasure trunk, there is so much in it, it definitely calls for re-reading. I couldn’t even say which is my favourite part, there are so many.
      Maybe, as you mention so many other novels, I should still postpone Under the Glacier. I will also try to get a French copy for my father and already sense another fan being born soon. In German speaking countries Iceland’s Bell is considered to be his best.

  4. I love the idea in this book,as you have mentioned:
    “The book is told in a sequence of short chapters that could almost be read independently like short stories but it is still a novel”
    He must be a good writer to be able to put a story in that kind of form.

    All the names here are a bit difficult to pronounce. I have never read any Icelandic story before

    • He certainly is a fantastic writer. And funny as well. There are so many stories intertwined that I will have to re-read it. The names were quite challenging they are quite different from any other language I know.

  5. I’d always thought Laxness was supposed to be a dour sort of fellow, Caroline, but something about this “mythical realism” you describe reminds me of Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees. In any event, another book for the ever growing list (thanks for the rec!).

    • There might be the one or the other book that could give that impression but with a prolific writer like him I’m sure there are various sides to be expected. I can assure you this is as from dour as could be. Impish would be a better word. It’s simply wonderful and you would love the long sentences. Have you ever seen a photo of him on which he is older? Such a cute little man and definitely a future choice for your blog header. I haven’t read that Calvino… Oh, the pile, the horribly growing tbr pile. Mine is nearing K2 sizes. I’m in the middle of Nada, btw. and like it a lot.

  6. I’m not familiar with Icelandic literature.I should try this, I’ve seen the French translation. (same cover than your English book, btw).
    This first sentence is one of those that make me want to read the book immediately.


    I understand why Richard thinks of The Baron in the Trees.

    PS: Have you read Wassmo?

    • I hope this will work well in a French translation. Interesting that they chose the same cover. This first sentence is one of the greater ones I have read. Sets the tone and is very intriguing. It would be interesting to hear what you think of it. The book is so rich, I think different readers will read it in a very different way.
      I haven’t read Wassmo but I got a book. I need to have a look at the Calvino book. It’s been a while since I last read anything by him.

      • I can’t find a paperback edition. I’m not a fan of hardcovers and I can’t find a used copy and it’s not in my local library. I’ll watch in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

        I really liked Wassmo (Le Livre de Dina and its sequels), it’s bleak and harsh but good.

  7. Your review makes me want to order the book immediately, Caroline. Is the genre like magical realism, à la “Like Water For Chocolate”? If so, you may enjoy Alice Hoffmann. Her “Turtle Moon” and “Seventh Heaven” are my favorites.

    • I love Alice Hoffmann! I like both books you mention a lot. And I love magical realism but that doesn’t exactly do it justice, it has much more influences from myths but there is something similar. I just think in a novel of magical realism there are really magical things happening, here it’s rather the exaggerations in his storytelling, nothing out of the ordinary happens. It’s more like when people go fishing and every time they tell what they captured, the fish gets bigger and bigger. In a novel of magical realism they might capture a huge fish. I’m not sure if this makes sense. In any case it is lovely but nothing like Hoffman or Esquivel. It’s hard to compare to anything really.

        • I’m not very familiar with Dickens and I agree, there is a spiritual dimension in Laxness. I was just not a 100% sure what to make of it and thought I need to read another novel first. But that is actually also what I wanted to capture with the term mythical, I guess. I chose it because it felt very right and magical realism wasn’t exactly what it is.

  8. I’ve read Iceland’s Bell and have Independent People on deck. I think I can safely say that Laxness is not an easy writer (the word “dense” comes to mind…), but he’s certainly captivating. I’d love to get a glimpse of his more purely imaginative side… seems like The Fish Can Sing might be a good pick.

    • From what I understood looking at Professor Batty’s reviews there are a few novels that are not very accessible and also this one isn’t what you would call a beach read at all but it did have a lightness.
      Especially if you are familiar with him you might enjoy this.

  9. I have browsed through your recent posts this morning and have found some interesting books – this one looks well worth seeking out, and you have reminded me that I have yet to read any Rebecca West.

    • I was lucky with my last book choices. Laxness is quite a discovery although not an easy read but worth the effort. Carmen Laforet is great to but so was William Maxwell and Francine Prose, if you’re in the right mood.

  10. Pingback: Best and Worst Books 2011 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  11. Pingback: The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness – Farm Lane Books Blog

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