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Decio Zylbersztajn


Translated by George Newton

It was through literature that I became acquainted with Iceland, a country of writers. A friend gave me the book Independent People by Haldór Laxness. Don’t they say that friends are there to open doors into new worlds? Well, that was certainly the case for me.

Laxness, a writer born in Iceland, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955. The book that my friend gave me is one of the rare Portuguese translations of the original Icelandic text that was published in Brazil. This book is considered the magnum opus of Laxness’ literary output.

Independent People narrates the saga – a word imported into Portuguese from Icelandic – of Bjartur of Summerhouses, a man that decides to leave the city in favour of living with his daughter on a plot of land in the countryside. He bought the land with money he had saved over the course of many working years, but even still, he could only just afford it. The plot is described as small and on it is a house Bjartur names Summerhouses, the place where he spends his time farming sheep.

This man’s decision to swap a stable job as an employee in the city for a free yet isolated existence far from Reykjavik marks a shift in his life; a shift that makes him seek freedom and independence. Such a decision is not without its implications, he has to pay a price, subjecting himself to living a life without shelter in the bitter cold. Unprotected by the comforts of the urban world, he exposes himself to the threat of volcanic eruptions, epidemics, and solitude.

In the early twentieth century, it was normal for those living in rural areas to be confined to one space for long periods of time without encountering another living thing or exchanging words with another human being. It was normal for people to only encounter a few dozen over the course of a whole lifetime.

The history of the Icelandic people reveals a remarkably resilient national character, for living in those places means that you must learn to deal with the adversity and unpredictability of the elements. This is still the case today. At the beginning of the 20th century, the country experienced tragedies that were marked by the eruption of the Katla volcano and by the Spanish flu that wiped out part of the world’s population in 1918. Reykjavik did not come away unscathed. The devastation caused by the pandemic was addressed as a literary theme. Contemporary authors such as Sjón depict scenarios linked to the pandemic, as in the book Moonstone, in which Sjón recounts the period of lockdown underwent by many during the Spanish Flu. The extreme poverty that was so widespread in Iceland at the beginning of the last century was exacerbated by the Spanish Flu and was responsible for an immigration wave from Iceland to North America. It is this immigration wave that is often associated with the entrance of conservative religious thought into the country. In Reykjavik there is a museum that depicts the trajectories of the Icelandic migrants, some of whom even reached the south of Brazil. As far as I know, they did not leave any traces of their presence there.

The history of the island of Iceland is marked by fruitless colonisation attempts. For instance, in the Middle Ages, Irish monks navigated towards the north and reached the Faroe Islands before arriving in Iceland, or Thule as they called it, before founding monasteries there. There were other colonisation attempts in the second half of the 18th century. The Irish monks left Iceland, perhaps because they encountered unexpected difficulties when it came to surviving on the island, they may have been expelled by other colonisers, or they may have found a level of complete isolation that went beyond the seclusion that they sought. Episodes such as this one, describing attempts to colonise Iceland and later attempts to evacuate it, can be found in Jón R. Hjálmarsson’s History of Iceland; From the Settlement to the Present Day. For those that stayed, survival demanded a constant fight against the elements and the task of living side-by-side with isolation.

In Independent People, isolation and confinement are the integral themes in the novel’s plot. Bjartur of Summerhouses loses his wife in childbirth, he loses one child to the cold with the other emigrating to the United States. With the meagre resources that he gathered throughout his life, he buys the plot where he goes to live with his daughter, Ásta, who never knew her mother. He shares the tiny space of Summerhouses with Ásta, the place where they spend the winters and summers in confinement. Pure isolation, and life distilled into its most basic form.

In Iceland, you can still find typical rural houses with roofs made of turf and small windows that are almost buried in the ground. Other houses are built so that their human inhabitants live above the space where the animals are kept so that the heat of the animals’ bodies helps to warm up the surroundings. This is how Summerhouses is described; the stable where the horse, the sheep and the cow named Búkolla live is under the floor of the house. The hay is harvested and stored in the summer to feed the animals in the winter. With the artic circle dividing Iceland into two, the cold temperatures that rule the island mean that doors and windows must be closed during the long night that is winter. Ásta, Bjartur and the animals, living confined and unable to leave the house during the persistent night of the Arctic winter, are subjected to isolation and solitude. Poverty, ill-health, and solitude are the price that they have to pay for independence.

I still remember the scene in the novel that depicts the end of winter. The arrival of light brings with it the first glimpse of nature, as it is reborn and waiting for the green and the mild temperatures. Summer is when the doors and windows of Summerhouses are opened, the stable door is unlocked, and the animals are allowed out into the still snow-covered fields. The cold and the darkness surrender their reign to the long spring and summer days. As someone with a tropical perspective, not at all accustomed to the shock of changing seasons, there is one particular scene that left an impression on me. In that scene, Búkolla the cow leaves the stable and runs freely through the field. She jumps in glee and jubilation and rolls her body in the snow; upon seeing the light she gives off the energy that she had stored throughout the long winter. The animal’s behaviour is a representation of how one reacts when isolation and darkness give way to freedom and light. While the pasture, that is yet to grow, only provides hope for now, the beams of light are enough to provoke the animal’s joyful reaction in the presence of newfound freedom. The animal’s instinct tells her that the long bright days are not far away.

The way I understand Búkolla’s reaction now is different to what I felt when I first read the book. Living through a pandemic, we too are moved by hope that the lockdown, the darkness, and the isolation will end. We understand that there is still uncertainty surrounding what we will encounter when we reopen the doors and windows of our own summer houses.

Laxness’ literary production is prolific, it goes far beyond Independent People. Given that it is so striking in Iceland, Laxness also explores the contrast between winter and the light in another work entitled Under the Glacier. The author again takes up the idea of contrast, and the text transports us to the same moment of freedom. In the book, which still hasn’t been published in Brazil, the author sets the 11th May as the end of the winter fishing season. It is the period known as the ‘between hay and grass’ time, when the hay that was stored away has all been eaten and the pasture has not yet grown. Times like that expose the fragility of humans. It is described in the English translation of the novel as ‘often a wearisome time for ruminants: indeed, spring has always been the season in Iceland when animals and people perish.’[1]

The message is that animals and humans are fragile and can die in times of transition between confinement and freedom. Once again, I think about the experience that the pandemic has brought upon us, many of us still locked down and dreaming of being free, and with small freedoms that we once had being discussed in the past tense.

By the time I finished reading Independent People, I was set on getting to know Iceland. I would leave the tropics to visit the country in the North Atlantic that had the Arctic Circle running through the middle of it and that was positioned halfway between Europe and the American continent. Academia helped me get there when a colleague, a professor at the University of Reykjavik, became president of a scientific institute of which I was a member. Since he was the president, he suggested that our yearly scientific conference take place in Reykjavik; it would last four days and would end on the first day of summer. I was also able to return to Reykjavik (a UNESCO City of Literature) with my writer’s hat on, to attend some literary events.

When the conference finished, my wife and I continued to travel around the country. We visited a village with twelve structures, eleven of them houses and the twelfth a museum dedicated to a writer born there. In Iceland, writers are very well respected. We visited the house where Haldór Laxness lived, which is now a museum. It was summer and the sun did not allow night to appear, a nightmare for anyone wanting to maintain a sleep schedule.

We travelled along the road that goes right around the island, we stopped off at guesthouses owned by families that usually live in isolation, which is made easier in the modern day by the worldwide network that is the internet. In one of these guesthouses there was a stable built into the hillside on which the family home was constructed. Seeing this reminded me of the image of Summerhouses in Laxness’ book.

The resilience of the Icelandic people is inspirational. They built a country that has one of the best GDP per capita in the world, that gained independence from Denmark in 1944, whose national symbol is a collection of manuscripts, the Sagas, and whose capital is one of the UNESCO cities of literature. According to the author Sjón, Iceland, despite having been a Danish colony, never lost its national character; the country remains proud of its language, Icelandic, which is its pièce de résistance, as well as of its booming literary output. The symbolic act of independence was achieving the return of the Sagas.

Iceland and the work of Laxness show us that independence and freedom are non-negotiable values, even if nature imposes epidemics onto us, or if political leaders impose self-declared or hidden dictatorships onto us under the guise of seizing democratic institutions. The worst darkness is not caused by nature, but rather by human perversity.

Living in Brazil in the middle of a pandemic and with democratic freedoms suspended, I understand Búkolla’s reaction upon leaving isolation: running in the field, rubbing her face in the snow, breathing in fresh air, feeling the wind, encountering other animals of her species. A reaction that is, more than anything, truly human. It is worth remembering the author’s quote, that the time in which freedom is recovered is also the time in which animals and humans tend to die.

I’m writing at a time of social isolation imposed by the pandemic. As I’m writing I’m seeing democratic institutions crumble, both in my country and in other countries around the world. I am still writing, and more than anything, I am writing because I believe in the power of words, while dreaming about being like Búkolla.

[1] Laxness, H. translated by Thompson, J., 2008. Independent People. London: Vintage, p.13.

Aldór Laxness

Works by Laxness cited above:

Under the Glacier, translated by Magnús Magnússon, introduction by Susan Sontag (New York: Vintage, 2005; originally published 1968).

Independent People, 2008. translated by Thompson, J. London: Vintage.


A writer, Decio lives in S. Paulo, Brazil, and studied at the universities of S. Paulo, North Carolina and Berkeley, in California. He’s a Senior Titular Professor at the University of S. Paulo. He published the books Como são Cativantes os Jardins de Berlim, Acerba Dor and O Filho de Osum. He writes essays on literature and arts and is a curator at the Literary Festival Além da Letra. He’s a member of the Polígono Sul-Mineiro do Livro and the creator of the Book Club of Gonçalves-MG. He received a medal for scientific merit at S. Paulo. He believes that art and education are the foundations of a balanced society.

George studies Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Oxford. Translating for French family on their visits to the UK, George quickly became interested in translation and the nuances and power of language and its social role. Since then, George has learned several languages and engaged in the study of literature and linguistics at university.

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