Book Reviews, The Noble Nobel Project
Comments 11

A Quiet Lullabye – The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

The Fish Can Sing is the coming-of-age tale of Alfgrimur Hansson, a boy orphaned since birth and left to the care of grandparents unrelated to him. Although he is the narrator, the novel does not merely revolve around him. The chapters shift between the different events in the town of Brekukkot and the people that are etched in Alfgrimur’s memory particularly Gardar Holm, an Icelandic opera singer with worldwide fame. We witness Alfgrimur’s relationship with the singer grow thanks to his own developing singing talent, but what happens when he finds out the story behind Gardar’s fame?


My first encounter with the Nobel laureate Laxness is through his epic novel Independent People. It’s still unknown to me why I bothered to read it; perhaps it’s the cover art painted by Louisa Matthiasdottir that features a house on a knoll with sheep grazing about. I’m very grateful that I did read this because otherwise I wouldn’t bother to explore his other works.

This second encounter seems, strangely, both a similar and different experience. The Fish Can Sing lacks the grandeur of Independent People but it has a quaint intimacy that slowly builds itself chapter after chapter.

“There is only the one note, which is the whole note,” said Gardar Holm. “And he who has heard it does not need to ask for anything. My own singing doesn’t matter. But remember one thing for me: when the world has given you everything, when the merciless yoke of fame has been laid on your shoulders and its brand has been stamped on your brow as indelibly as on the man who was convicted of the worst crime in the world — remember then that you have no other refuge than this one prayer: ‘God, take it all away from me — except one note’.”

[How did it ever come about, I wonder, that I got the notion that in this clock there lived a strange creature, which was Eternity? Somehow it just occurred to me one day that the word it said when it ticked, a four-syllable word with the emphasis on alternate syllables, was et-ERN-it-Y, et-ERN-it-Y. Did I know the word, then?]

Fame versus obscurity: which one will you choose? The former option seems like the easy choice but for Alfgrimur, this is a dilemma that would trouble him for most of his adolescent years. It is easy to note in the remembrance of his youth that he dearly loves his home and that he does want to be a fisherman like his grandfather. Modern people can dismiss this as backward thinking: why give up the chance to become a famous singer side-by-side a national figure just to become an ordinary man who will catch, sell, and dry lumpfish all his life?

[From time immemorial it has been the custom in all sizeable forms in Iceland to have a good reader available to read sagas aloud or recite rimur for the household in the evenings; this was the national pastime. These evening sessions have been called the Icelanders’ University.]

And this national figure, Gardar Holm, is as much an enigma as a household name of the whole Iceland. He may be the greatest singer to captivate every royal audience in the world, but ironically, no one from his homeland has ever heard him sing.

[It is not very pleasant to be so deaf that one can no longer argue with people because one cannot hear what they are saying — not to mention when one cannot even understand the little one does happen to hear.]

Even so, we can still hear the quiet humor and sarcasm of Laxness pervading the pages. He can even make fun of the sacred without turning it into blasphemy. This is something that the readers will delight themselves especially if they are looking for something that reminds him of his other works. I don’t know much about Iceland and her people, but it seems like they can be both funny and contemplative at the same time.

[If people adhere to the doctrine that words are spoken in order to hide one’s thoughts, that words mean something entirely different, sometimes even directly opposite to what they are saying, it is possible, occasionally at least, to reconcile oneself to them and to forgive the poet …]

This book was written when Laxness’s novels were beginning to get huge attention from the rest of the world. His more popular works were already translated into different languages, hence, he turned to be the great voice of Iceland. Fame was inevitable for the writer, but instead of wallowing in it, he longed for the blessed serenity of everyday living.

[For some time, I had felt in my heart a certain uneasiness, as all guilty people do; I felt I had done something against my better conscience, something which was not worthy of my dignity. But what was the value of Better Conscience if it forbade people to bring others better health and a little romance? And what did the Dignity of a stupid slip of a boy matter?]

His self is reflected both in Alfgrimur and Gardar, and he ponders on the levels of existence that the ordinary man and the famous man may achieve. The novel asserts that what may look like an easy life can even be more turbulent than a life of poverty, that profundity and dignity can be attained even by the most ordinary of people, that getting a living is not always about getting money, and that going back to one’s roots can be a most rewarding spiritual experience.

This novel can really sing, not in the manner of pop stars but in the tradition of a mother singing your childhood lullabye. And you might ask why and how the fish can sing. Try to figure it out with these lines, in the traditional Icelandic saga:

The fish can sing just like a bird,
And grazes on the moorland scree,
While cattle in a lowing herd
Roam the rolling sea.


Dates Read: January 12 to 25, 2013

No. of Pages: 246

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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11 Comments

  1. You are right. Basing from the selected quotations here, this fish really can sing. I remember having some Laxness novels entombed in my parents house. Perhaps its time to dig them from the shelf.

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    • I started lugging my books and book shelf everywhere since some of my books were eaten by termites at my parents’ house. They prefer old MMPs.

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  2. Hehehe. I wish I could do the same. That would be ideal. But as it is one can’t carry too many books hopping around slum shanties, offices, boarding houses, and rural poor communities. Most of the time, it’s even better not to bring them at all!

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    • It’s possible. I’ve been to shanties and boarding houses. I think it’s also a security measure because people wouldn’t think of stealing from you since they see that all you have are books.

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  3. Hehehe. Of course that’s possible. But impractical if you don’t stay in any of them too long before leaving for the next one. Best leave them somewhere permanent.

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  4. Monique says

    I was just about to jump over to the comments section and ask what kind of name “Alfgrimur” and “Gardar” is when I read “Iceland” on your sidenote. Okay. :)

    And I love that last passage, even though I’m not sure exactly what it means? Haha. I love how poetic it sounds. :D

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