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Halldór Laxness: Paradísarheimt (Paradise Reclaimed)

This book is somewhat different from Laxness’s earlier books. It was written five years after he was awarded the Nobel Prize and is written, in some ways, like a fable. Steinar Steianahlíðar is a farmer in nineteenth century Iceland. He is hard-working, conscientious and very competent. He is married with a son and a daughter. He lives in the lee of a mountain and has to spend some time dealing with the stones that come down from the hills during winter. He very carefully fits them into the wall, making it stronger, so much so that he has a reputation for doing this well. He is a man of few words and those words do not include yes or no. He owns a wonderful white foal, which some people said was supernatural. It just appeared one day with its mother. He lets his children ride it.

At the beginning of the novel, it is coming up to the one thousandth anniversary of the settlement of Iceland and, to celebrate, a big gathering will be held at Þingvellir, the traditional site of the Icelandic open-air parliament. The King of Denmark (Iceland was still under Danish rule), Kristian IX is expected to attend and to grant Iceland some limited autonomy. Before the arrival of the King, Steinar receives a visit from two travellers, Sheriff Benediktsson and Björn of Leirur, an entrepreneur, both based, like Steinar, on real people. Both try to buy the horse but he politely refuses both. However, he does agree to let Björn graze on his land next time he is passing through with his animals. Steinar decides to go to Þingvellir for the celebration and takes the white horse. There he will meet the two other people who influence him in this story. The first is Bishop Þjóðrekur, a Mormon. The Bishop was born in Iceland and was soon orphaned. He was treated badly but went to the United States, where the Mormons looked after him and he now has a ranch and family in Utah. He has returned to convert the Icelanders to Mormonism but he is not having much success. He is preaching at Brennugjá, next to Þingvellir, where people used to be burned at the stake but the Icelanders do not accept him. He point out that the main difference between Mormonism and their Christianity is immersion baptism and, as John the Baptist performed this sort of baptism on Jesus, according to the Bible, how can they object? But object they do. He is struck several times but manages to escape. Steinar talks to him and is less critical. The second person he meets is King Kristian. He decides to give the horse to the King and, after some difficulty, he manages to do so. The King invites him to Copenhagen, at his expense. On the way home, he again meets the Bishop, who is this time tied to a stake, after having been beaten up by some Icelanders, who did not like his views on religion. Steinar rescues him.

When he returns home, the family are annoyed about the horse, having been unaware that he planned to give it to the king. That winter, instead of doing the work he normally did, he spent a lot of time in his workshop but would not tell them what he was working on. We eventually learn that it is a beautiful casket, with hidden drawers, which can only be opened by a special combination of levers. He sets off for Copenhagen with the box and, while there, he will meet not only the King but some of his relatives, including the future Edward VII of Britain and Tsar Alexander III, all of whom are very much impressed with the box. He also visits a special spring, which seems to be frequented more by Icelanders than Danes, where he again meets the Bishop. This time the Bishop invites him to Utah and gives him the money for the journey, so off they set.

His family, of course, had no idea of what he was up to and are disappointed when he does not turn up on the last ship of the season from Copenhagen. Eventually, they get a letter from him. He has left them not only to manage a difficult farm, something they are quite incapable of doing, but also to the predations of the Sheriff and Björn. The pair both visit, with over three hundred animals eating up the grass and with Björn with his eye on Steinar’s daughter, Steinbjörg. When she gets pregnant, completely unaware of how this happened (she suspects a virgin birth) or even unaware how anyone gets pregnant, the authorities take an interest. Meanwhile, Steinar (whose name has now been anglicised to Stone P Stanford) is adjusting to Utah and the Mormons. He asks the Bishop, who is travelling to Iceland once more, to bring his family to Utah but the bishop has a long journey to make before he gets to their farm.

This is something of strange book and not entirely satisfactory. Would a man as responsible as Steinar essentially abandon his family, knowing how difficult it would be for them to manage the farm and cope with the rest of the world? He seems almost indifferent to their fate yet, though clearly interested in Mormonism and an adherent, he does not appear to be a fanatic. The entire, relatively long section set in Utah does not really hang together either, as Steinar always seem unsure of himself while making no effort to do anything about his position. Indeed, the most interesting part is the early part set in Iceland and an indication of the Icelanders’ reaction to Mormonism. Even the title is somewhat misleading. The Icelandic actually translates as something like paradise bound but, unless it is something of an ironic title (and Laxness, on the whole, does not do irony), Steinar’s return to Iceland seems neither to be paradise bound nor paradise reclaimed, except, perhaps, in the sense of returning home. A Laxness novel is always interesting but this is not one of his best.

Publishing history

First published 1960 by Helgafell
First published in English 1962 by Methuen
Translated by Magnus Magnusson