By: Halldór Laxness, Philip Roughton (Translator)
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
Sometimes grim, sometimes uproarious, and always captivating, Iceland’s Bell by Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness is at once an updating of the traditional Icelandic saga and a caustic social satire. At the close of the 17th century, Iceland is an oppressed Danish colony, suffering under extreme poverty, famine, and plague. A farmer and accused cord-thief named Jon Hreggvidsson makes a bawdy joke about the Danish king and soon after finds himself a fugitive charged with the murder of the king’s hangman.
In the years that follow, the hapless but resilient rogue Hreggvidsson becomes a pawn entangled in political and personal conflicts playing out on a far grander scale. Chief among these is the star-crossed love affair between Snaefridur, known as “Iceland’s Sun,” a beautiful, headstrong young noblewoman, and Arnas Arnaeus, the king’s antiquarian, an aristocrat whose worldly manner conceals a fierce devotion to his downtrodden countrymen. As their personal struggle plays itself out on an international stage, Iceland’s Bell creates a Dickensian canvas of heroism and venality, violence and tragedy, charged with narrative enchantment on every page.
I had been eyeing a book or two from Halldór Laxness for a long time but it wasn’t until I travelled to Iceland last year and seeing his books everywhere that I decided to pick a book of his up. I decided to go with this book because of its expansive scope of 17th century Iceland and its ties to the Danish kingdom at the time (Denmark being the other place I went to last year). So here we are 🙂
No kidding this book has that Dickensian feel as the cast of characters that are portrayed here–their lives, their struggles, their social class–are quite varied. It also felt a bit of a whimiscal read as Jon Hreggvidsson finds himself on the run after making a joke about the Danish king, however misinterpreted it was. His evasion of the law takes him pretty far from home, from his hard life in the Icelandic countryside all the way to Denmark, coming across different people from different countries, inadvertently causing confusion and offense along the way. It’s amusing at times as well as informative, but it’s also grim as you see the struggles and hardships that the Icelandic people endure, those who live out in the country and are not members of high society or anything.
Having said that, it can be a bit of a slog to get through. I read this book during my break at work, which might not be the best place as you’re keeping track of a whole array of characters and if you’re trying to unwind, this might not be the best book to read. Sometimes I couldn’t even quite connect with the characters and what was going on, especially the further into the story I went. So whilst I appreciate having finally read a book by Halldór Laxness, I’m left feeling wanting about the book.