Nobel Laureate. This time it’s an Icelandic farming epic. The switch in locales isn’t a great improvement, and the movement in authors is only a slight improvement. There is a fair bit more drama and basic quality of interst in the narrative. It also benefits from a more complex provision for the main characters. I even won’t deny the high quality of writing for the story and some considerable subtlety in showing the movement of modernity and politics onto an agricultural community. Nevertheless it shares the same basic aesthetic problem of Growth of the Soil; in binding the plot to the development of agriculture it makes for a pace much to slow to drive consistent interest. Under the stress of little happening beyond interaction with the characters, these individuals are forced under a level of depiction that doesn’t benefit them. It’s not that they’re overly simple, rather they are unpleasant, being too dysfunctional and strongly petty to have much interest in rooting for them. That makes the continued long term presence of them with little that they do to take the novel outside of them rather exhausting.
I’m ambivalent as to the effectiveness of the main and titular theme of the novel. A lot of the book is about putting forth notions of freedom, and the protagonist’s desire to live as a free man against all obstacles. To a large extent this ambition is contextualized and deconstructing, making some rather satisfying representations of it as petty and largely incapable, showing wider social complexities and government moving in beyond any sort of juvenile Heinlein-esque focus on the rugged autonomous individual. In the moments of showing contradiction, and the way this independence can be born on the subordination of others, the novel achieves some strong insights and real interest. Yet it seems at the end to come down on some level to admiration of this desire for total independence taken as a behavioral approach and ideal. I may be misreading it, and to an extent my frustrations with the aesthetic experience may have blunted my grasp of the subtlety of the ultimate message. Still, as I see it presently the story appears to side uncritically with the rather disjointed individualist view in a way that undermines itself. Not least due to how unplesant the protagonist is.
Better than: Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun
Worse than: The Forgotten by Elie Wiesel