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Halldór Laxness: Brekkukotsannáll (The Fish Can Sing)

If you have read Heimsljós (World Light), you will be familiar with the style Laxness uses in this book, a sort of childish, mocking satire. The narrator is Alfgrim Hansson. His mother had arrived at Brekkukot, the house of Bjorn of Brekkukot, a man generous with his hospitality. She gave birth to Alfgrim – she wanted to call him Alf and Bjorn’s wife wanted to call him Grim so they compromised – and then set off to America, without her son, leaving him in the foster care of Bjorn and his wife, who bring him up. They are good foster parents, though he calls them grandparents. He is destined for a career as a fisherman of lumpenfish but a few things change that.

The first is Gardar Holm, the son of his foster-mother’s cousin, Kristine, to whom Alfgrim carries milk. Gardar Holm has been sponsored by Gudmundsen, the local store owner, in a career as a singer and apparently is having a very successful world-wide career, singing in all the famous venues of the world. When he is rumoured to be visiting his hometown, there is a lot of speculation about him. Alfgrim gets to meet him on his visits and sees how rich, well-dressed and generous he is. Gardar gives him and Gudmundsen’s daughter expensive cakes and even gives Alfgrim his expensive shoes. But, when it is announced that he is to sing, he always seems to disappear at the last moment. It is he who encourages Alfgrim to become a singer and to search for the one pure note. But we soon start to wonder if he really is a famous singer. Miss Gudmundsen is in love with Gardar but flirts with Alfgrim, who does not like women but it is her encouragement that leads him to a change in outlook. The third decisive factor is his education. His foster-parents are happy for him to have an education but only if it leads to a career in the church but he does very well and is top in his class.

As well as the main characters, Laxness peoples his novel with his usual cast of strange characters, particularly those that visit Brekkukot, such as the woman who writes out characters from a strange Himalayan language and used to be Horace’s mistress. Her husband learns everything about medicine and psychiatry as well as about the history of the periods in which she lived to help her but it is Alfgrim’s special touch that finally cures her. This is another fine novel from Laxness, told with wit and charm, peopled with unusual characters but also those that are essentially decent, albeit with their foibles and, as always, Laxness has a good story to tell.

Publishing history

First published 1957 by Helgafell
First published in English 1966 by Methuen
Translated by Magnus Magnusson