The Ignorant, the Innocent, the Saintly Men; or a review of Haldor Laxness’ Paradise Reclaimed

Iceland is as far away from my subtropical sweltering humidity and heat as the other side of the moon. I have been to Germany, though, and stayed there quite a while on more than one occasion. I remember in winter, around January, everything was so dark and wet and cold. The whole community huddled together over coffee, over warm food, stamping their feet in the walkways. Businesses hung drapes around the front door to keep the blast of cold from getting in whenever the customers entered. It was a makeshift entryway that worked fairly well to preserve the hot, close air in all the shops and restaurants. People wore good shoes, trekked over ice patches in them. When the sun finally broke in early spring, people would go to parks and sit for long stretches in the grass, looking up into the blue with all their friends around them.

In Laxness’ Iceland, it is the nineteenth century, and the weather is even more extreme across the country that is even farther north from where I was in temperate southern Germany. The nights in winter are long and dark and the countryside offers no amusements, no pleasures or luxuries. When the dark time comes, people rush to get everything done that is possible during the brief hours of light, then they hunker down to bed with little oil to light their lamps, and no singing or dancing or laughter. There is just darkness, and waiting for the end of darkness. There is a winter, and there is spring, and the waiting for spring in winter. The beautiful translation, I hope, of the novel of the innocents of that life, out in the country, I hope, is true to the original language of the book.

The farmer at the heart of the little novel, with his daughter, form a core of innocence that verges on foolishness. They are painted with broad strokes, and can occasionally be hard to read as they border on the inhuman. But, innocence is inhuman. It is beaten out of us all. Certainly, the poor daughter of the farmer, craftsman, and bricklayer convert to the Mormon religion, is beaten down by life for her innocence.

The novel begins with a horse too fine for Iceland, a horse worthy of kings. It is a fairy horse, believed to be descended of Selkies by the farmer’s children. This beautiful horse cannot be bought or sold. It can only be given to a visiting foreign king. Steiner, the farmer, seems to do everything with a purpose and direction of a pre-ordained to heaven out of protestant theology. He is a force of nature, whose great mistakes are tied only to his failure to recognize that other great men do not uphold his high standards of behavior. Local officials are a plague of corrupt locusts. One of them takes advantage of friendship and the absent husband to decimate the farm’s pastures in autumn with far too many horses. His daughter is probably raped, impregnated with an illegitimate child that throws her life into a mess.

He doesn’t even know. The only other man that was worthy of Steiner’s admiration for a good, long time is a Mormon Missionary and polygamist from Utah. Steiner goes to Utah, then, becomes Mormon, and a bricklayer, and presents a fascinating portrayal of early Salt Lake City, after the community established but before the federal government came for the polygamists. It is a Utopian vision, and appeals to the perfection reflected in Steiner’s gaze to the mountainous hills. It is very hard to write compelling saintly men, walking the line between ignorance and innocence, but Laxness is a master and the tale he tells is compelling and strange to me, sitting on a bench below a lemon tree, and looking up into the same blue sky that hangs over Iceland, and Utah, and all the paradises of this world.

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