BOOK REVIEW: Independent People (Halldor Laxness) A Story for Our Time
By Hasan Zillur Rahim
Literature is replete with characters who give us insight into the mindset of the Bernie Madoffs of the world. We learn what drives the Wall Street charlatans, the greedy bankers and the ruthless hedge-fund managers through their fictional counterparts.
A New York Times article by Patricia Cohen (December 2008) pointed out how Mr. Voysey, in Harley Granville-Barker’s 1905 play “The Voysey Inheritance,” was an uncanny literary predecessor of Mr. Madoff. “You must realize that money making is one thing, religion another, and family life a third,” Voysey tells his son Edward when he discovers that his father, a pillar of society, has been operating a pyramid scheme for decades with his clients’ money.
Same is true of the shady financier Augustus Melmotte in Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel “The Way We Live Now” and the swindling banker Mr. Merdle in Charles Dickens’s “Little Dorrit.” In America, we have novels from the 1920s that revealed the deepening divide between the haves and the have-nots - Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” - that reached its climax in the Great Depression that followed.
But one novel that seems to have escaped our attention is Halldor Laxness’s “Independent People.” The Icelandic author won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955 for his epic. It is a book at once exhilarating, heartbreaking, comic and poetic, in short, a book that makes us understand what great literature is, even if we cannot articulate it.
As you savor the adventures of the book’s protagonist, Bjartur of Summerhouses, admiring his fierce independence while repulsed by his insensitivity, what is also profoundly moving is Laxness’s description of the slow disintegration of the simple life when money managers of various shades infiltrate it. It is almost too painful to read, particularly when wrenching stories of lives wrecked by corrupt financiers continue to appear daily in the media.
“Those who were in debt were given opportunities of incurring greater debts, while upon those who owed nothing … the banks smiled with an incredibly seductive sweetness … In some houses were to be seen not one but as many as four china dogs … womenfolk were walking about wearing all sorts of tombac rings, and many persons had acquired overcoats and wellington boots, articles of apparel that had been previously contraband to working people …”
Notice the words “seductive sweetness.” Has anyone come up with a pithier description of the subprime mortgage?
The catalyst for the destructive lifestyle change in Laxness’s novel is a man by the name of Ingolfur Arnarson. He is determined to transform every backwater village in Iceland into thriving centers of commerce. He promises the “penniless crofters” roads, shopping centers, big houses and, of course, easy debt. With his silver tongue and aura of wealth, people are mesmerized. Here is how Bjartur’s son Gvendur, who fantasizes about marrying Arnarson’s daughter, sees him: “His splendor beggared invention … his face with its compelling eyes shone like a sun over the decrepit peasants assembled before him, and as he began to speak, in a voice sonorous and unforced, his small, snowy-cuffed hands moved in a gesture so smooth and graceful that one did not need listen to his words, it was enough simply to watch his hands …”
Has anyone read a more telling description of hedge-fund honchos or executives of companies like Goldman Sachs?
In the end, the bottom falls out and the farmers, including Bjartur of Summerhouses, lose their house, their sheep and their land. The interest on their mortgages had become impossibly high. In the final poignant scene of the novel, Bjartur is reunited with his estranged daughter and they head off toward a ruined farmhouse that he had rebuilt. “No lamentations – never harbor your grief, never mourn what you have lost. He did not even turn around and give his old valley a parting glance when they reached the top of the ridge.”
Thus he salvages his freedom – at least a part of it - from the wreckage around him.
It is ironic that Iceland was the first nation to declare bankruptcy in October of 2008, victim of the global financial crisis. One wonders what Laxness, who died in 1998, would have made of it. A consequential writer, he could envision the nature of progress coming to his country, borne on the wings of “seductive sweetness.” Still, I think he would have been devastated to see his beloved Iceland, so rich in lore and tradition and inhabited by free spirits like Bjartur of Summerhouses, become the first country to fall financially in the new century.
Here at home, our government is regularly churning out statistics to convince us that the worst of the Great Recession is behind us, that recovery has already begun. The facts on the ground do not match the rosy forecasts and predictions. Thousands of jobs are being shed every month; currently there are more than six job seekers for every opening. Financial killings by a few have literally resulted in the death of many.
American Muslims, particularly our young professionals, have a critical role to play in moving our country forward. To the extent that great literature, like Halldor Laxness’s “Independent People,” opens eyes, I see two parts to this.
First, we must give entrepreneurship a serious try. America is the land of entrepreneurs. It is the land not only of second chances, but of third, fourth and fifth. If we can create our own companies, difficult and risky as it is, and employ at least one American, we will have made significant contributions to the economy. For motivation, all we need to remember is that the prophet Muhammad (saw) was also a businessman.
Second, it is time for us to start thinking on a larger scale. As we continue to feed the hungry and the homeless and provide medical help to the uninsured in places where we live, we also need to organize our philanthropic, apolitical work at a national level. We need to create an American-Muslim Peace Corps whose one and only mission would be to serve our fellow Americans, from inner-city ghettoes to dying townships and from the Ozarks to Appalachia.