Books: Against the Tide

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THE FISH CAN SING by Halldor Laxness, translated by Magnus Magnusson. 286 pages. Crowe//. $5.95.

Iceland, a few generations ago, was hardly more than a storybook land ruled by the Danes—a seafarer's outpost cut adrift from the rest of civilization. Dandelions and buttercups grew on the turf roofs of cottages. Even hens' eggs tasted of fish. The people seemed dour, except when drunk on words or alcohol, and the only way that one could effectively insult a native was to call him a Dane.

It is this period that is warmly evoked by Novelist Halldor Laxness, 64, who won the 1955 Nobel Prize for such works as Independent People, a story of immemorial peasant life, and Salka Valka, a sociological study of corruption, lust and politics in an Icelandic fishing village. In most of his later novels, Laxness seems to be reliving incidents from his own past. In this book, his narrator is a boy named Alfgrirn, who was born near Reykjavik as the 20th century dawned. His mother, a young woman bound for America, had paused in Brek-kukot at the friendly cottage of Bjorn, a fisherman, and there gave birth to her child. Then she went on her way; as the book says in the terse language of the sagas, "she is now out of this story."

Netted Lumpfish. There were seldom empty beds in Bjorn's household: vagrants and strays of all sorts wandered in and out. One such stray was Gardar Holm, who had the loudest voice in Reykjavik, and who accordingly was sent to Copenhagen to become a singer. Another was a woman from across the island who came to Bjorn's cottage to die because her own children "would never expect me to be so unkind as to die before their eyes."

Alfgrim grows up regarding Bjorn and his wife as his grandparents. It is a lively existence—going out at dawn with Bjorn to net lumpfish, playing in the nearby churchyard, lending a hand and his voice at funerals and, above all, skirmishing with such terrifying girls as Blaer, the choirmaster's daughter, and little Miss Gudmunsen, with her red gloves and fiery temper. When at last he is ready to cross the sea to the university in Denmark, his shawled "grandmother" says: "If you should meet a poor old woman like me anywhere in the world, give her my greetings."

Shared Zest. Author Laxness admits that he is a rarity in Iceland: an enthusiast. His passions have carried him into and out of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Communist Party. His politics appear rarely in his books, but his poetry often. In this novel, Laxness touches with song the most unlikely events, from Jon of Skagi's self-appointment as custodian of the town lavatory to a great debate that raged in Iceland about whether the establishment of barbershops should be permitted. As a storyteller, Laxness shares with Brazil's Jorge Amado (TIME, May 28, 1965) an infectious zest for the eccentricities of ordinary people and a genial affection for those resolute fish in humankind who dare to swim against the tide.