For some time now, I’ve been itching to write something about this wonderful, funny, lyrical, all-encompassing book. And now that I have a few moments to devote on it, I realize that I cannot put into words my love for this. The only thing that I can do is to keep shoving this to people with whom I share the similar taste in books.
But really, how can I justify the magnificence of this masterpiece if all I could tell them is that this book is all about sheep? It’s about farmers discussing and debating the different aspects of sheep farming while drinking coffee. It’s about them figuring out how to get rid of lungworm from the flock while discussing a little politics here and there. It’s about them worrying about the coming winter and hoping that their sheep will survive.
And oh, it’s about the fierce battle of the unwavering independent spirits of a father and daughter. It’s a war waged between these two independent people. And I’d like to do a little background.
Bjartur of Summerhouses, the father that I mentioned, works his way out of servitude by saving money for almost two decades. When he earns enough money, he buys a piece of land that is believed by the townspeople to be cursed by some mad, evil, crazy woman. Bjartur, being one of the most iron-willed characters that I have ever encountered, ignores this. He builds a little house, starts raising sheep, marries a not so bad dame, and builds a family.
And the struggle for independent living goes on. Independent people, like myself, know the ups and downs of having to rely on your own resources to survive. Sometimes, the odds are with you. The good times keep rolling. You have coffee and sugar and dried fish in your stock. Sometimes, things are just bad. Sheep get lost, sheep get lungworm, sheep die.
But when things are good again, the kids get some home schooling. They study literature, geography, and catechism. A funny thing that I remember is that Little Nonni, the youngest son of Bjartur and my favorite character, imagines apples as red potatoes. Aren’t there apple trees in Iceland? The matter of apples was brought up when the kids’ teacher taught them all about Adam and Eve.
Fourth day: “Then why did God allow sin to enter the world?”
At first the teacher seemed not to have heard this question; he lay for a good while staring blindly in front of him, as if in a trance, a thing that occurred more and more frequently every day now; then suddenly he sprang up with a startling abruptness, gazed intently at the girl with huge eyes, and repeated questioningly: “Sin?” then he burst into a long fit of coughing, a deep, toneless, rattling cough; his face grew red and finally almost blue, the veins swelled in his neck, his eyes filled with tears. And when at last the fit was over, he dried his eyes and whispered breathlessly:
“Sin–sin is God’s most precious gift.”
So you see, this is not only about sheep. There’s a little talk on God and existence and the universe and who-are-we-what-is-our-purpose. There’s also some war in it, but since Iceland is mostly an observer when the world staged wars in the past, you get this feeling that our sheep farmers are isolated, only discussing among themselves the economic advantages that they might reap out of it. With coffee, of course.
And lest I forget an important character, I’ll introduce her now: Asta Sollilja. She is the cross-eyed stepdaughter of Bjartur, and the only person left to Bjartur thanks to his stubborn fight for independence. This is a strangely beautiful thing for me. You see, Bjartur has three sons, but he chose to let them go and favor the daughter that wasn’t his own in the first place.
Aside from his iron will, Bjartur also has a stone heart. He can get on your nerves, what with his repetitive talk that hey guys, I’m an independent person, I bought this land, I bought my sheep, I feed my family, I serve you coffee that I bought with my own money. And he would never ask anyone else’s help, even if it would make his family sacrifice and suffer, and even if it would cost them their lives.
But I am drawn to him. He is a poet! He recites Icelandic poetry. That, I think, is Bjartur’s most redeeming quality. And he is like a crustacean of a father; hard outer shell, soft innards. For why would Asta Sollilja, another stubborn spirit, finally go home to him and seek that soft spot on his father’s neck? Yes, at the end, Bjartur loses almost everything, all his three sons, but he has Asta Sollilja, a name that has something to do with a flower. Yes, I cannot remember what exactly that is. Perhaps the flower of his life?
And can one be truly independent as Bjartur is obsessively trying to be? I don’t think so. People are supposed to help each other, to be there for each other. Especially family. And we are social beings, for crying out loud. We cannot do it all by ourselves.
Bjartur learns his lesson and realizes the flaws of his ways. It’s always like that, isn’t it? We only realize our errors when everything is said and done. But we do not mock Bjartur. We do not tell him it’s all your fault, you and your goddamn pursuit of independence.
Instead, he earns our respect. We root for him even though we know he is prone to acts of stupidity. We forgive him for the things that he lack. We hope that he could still raise good sheep despite the harsh Icelandic landscape. And I think he could. He is one tough sheep farmer after all.