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Halldór Laxness: Salka Valka (Salka Valka)

This is the first novel that Laxness wrote that was translated into English. It is set in the 1910-1920 period in Oseyri, a remote fishing village where most of the inhabitants are very poor. At the start of the story, the boat arrives bringing two passengers from the North. We know no more than that about their origins. The passengers are Sigurlina Jonsdottir and her daughter, Salvör Valgerdur, known as Salka Valka, who, at the time, is eleven years old. As we later learn, the two are hoping to go down South but Sigurlina has run out of money and has to stop at Oseyri. She knows no-one there and, as the place is very poor, is not made welcome. She finally stays in the Salvation Army though, even there, where most of the inhabitants are men, they are not made particularly welcome. However Sigurlina embraces the Salvation Army creed and is accepted. The two need somewhere to stay and eventually have to accept lodging with the very rough and ready Steintor Steinsson, who drinks heavily, despises religion and is opposed to Johann Bogesen, the ruling merchant and patriarch of the village. Steinsson tries to rape both Sigurlina and her daughter (Salka Valka repulses him but the mother accepts him) and then leaves when Sigurlina is pregnant. He will later return, after their son has died, claiming to be reformed, and proposes marriage to Sigurlina. A marriage ceremony is arranged but he again disappears, this time just before the wedding. In her distress, Sigurlina drowns herself.

The next part of the book moves on a few years. Salka Valka had already shown us how resilient and strong she was in the first part of the book. She had been mocked for being a tomboy, dressing in men’s clothes, though having a crush on Arnaldur, a young man staying with Johann Bogesen, who teaches her how to read. She is now the secretary of the Seamen’s Union, has her own fishing boat and lives alone, Arnaldur having long since gone to Reykjavik. But labour agitation is rising. The Russian Revolution has had an effect on Iceland and Bolshevism is spreading to the consternation of many. When Arnaldur returns, it is to help the land-based workers, who have lost out in the arrangement between Bogesen and the Seamen’s Union. Arnaldur rallies the troops but he is opposed not only by Bogesen but also by Salka Valka, who seeks to defend the rights of the individual fishermen. Inevitably the two have an affair and, inevitably, it does not work out. Arnaldur is set on his mission to change the world while Salka Valka merely wishes to protect the rights of her fellow workers and let them operate in peace. Matters are complicated when Steintor Steinsson returns from America with some money, possibly the proceeds of a bank robbery, and proceeds to set himself up as an entrepreneur, in opposition both to Bogesen and to the fishermen, though with the aim of marrying Salka Valka.

The key element to this book is the character of Salka Valka, a strong-willed and determined woman, even as a young girl, but nevertheless a woman with a heart and concern for her fellow men and women. The incompatibility of a generalised socialist outlook with her view, that of merely doing the best for her fellows in the local community, is stressed by Laxness, but no satisfactory outcome is reached. Salka Valka goes her way, Arnaldur his. Ultimately, as Arnaldur points out, the great crime is poverty and that has to be resolved before there can be love.

Publishing history

First published 1931 by Menningarsjódur
First published in English 1936 by Allen & Unwin
Translated by F. H. Lyon (earlier editions); Philip Roughton (Archipelago)