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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Fish Can Sing

Halldór Laxness

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To purchase The Fish Can Sing

Title: The Fish Can Sing
Author: Halldór Laxness
Genre: Novel
Written: 1957 (Eng. 1966; rev. 2001)
Length: 246 pages
Original in: Icelandic
Availability: The Fish Can Sing - US
The Fish Can Sing - UK
The Fish Can Sing - Canada
The Fish Can Sing - India
Les annales de Brekkukot - France
Das Fischkonzert - Deutschland
Il concerto dei pesci - Italia
El concierto de los peces - España
  • Icelandic title: Brekkukotsanná
  • Translated by Magnus Magnusson
  • The US (Vintage) re-issue comes with an Introduction by Jane Smiley

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Our Assessment:

B : charming nostalgia

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 28/10/2000 Isobel Montgomery
The LA Times . 6/1/2008 Richard Rayner
The NY Rev. of Books . 10/10/2002 Brad Leithauser
The Observer . 19/11/2000 Michael Mellor
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Fall/2001 Philip Landon
Time . 14/4/1967 .
TLS . 3/11/1966 Sylvia Clayton

  Review Consensus:

  Not his most impressive work, but quite enjoyable

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Fish Can Sing meanders beautifully, catching at inconsequential anecdotes, descriptions of the narrator Alfgrim's life and the stories of his grandparents and the visitors who stay in their loft at the turn of the century." - Isobel Montgomery, The Guardian

  • "The Fish Can Sing doesn't aim for the grand sweep of Independent People. It's a more intimate book in which Laxness seems to reflect on his roots and the troubling nature of his celebrity. But, like all his narratives, it has a strange and mesmerizing power, moving almost imperceptibly at first, then with glacial force." - Richard Rayner, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Icelanders aren't bleak, so much as blessed with a refined sense of humour and an ability to see the Hand of God in even the smallest things, making for an uplifting novel." - Michael Mellor, The Observer

  • "Globalization is in fact a key theme of the novel (......) The ecological didacticism and stubborn parochialism of the novel, together with its complete lack of spectacular effects and sentimentality, highlight, by sheer contrast, the pervasiveness of the thrill-seeking culture that has since prevailed. Magnus Magnusson's translation is exemplary." - Philip Landon, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "In this novel, Laxness touches with song the most unlikely events, from Jon of Skagi's self-appointment as custodian of the town lavatory to a great debate that raged in Iceland about whether the establishment of barbershops should be permitted. As a storyteller, Laxness shares with Brazil's Jorge Amado an infectious zest for the eccentricities of ordinary people and a genial affection for those resolute fish in humankind who dare to swim against the tide." - Time

  • "In The Fish Can Sing the irony has become more reflective, the satire muted (.....) The novel is shaped very obviously to contrast two systems of values, the honourable, unworldly, timeless standards that apply among simple fishermen living near Reykjavik at the turn of the century, and the capricious instability of an outside world ruled by supply and demand. (...) This uneven book has been translated by Magnus Magnusson in a style that weaves between dated and modern English." - Sylvia Clayton, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Fish Can Sing is set in early twentieth-century Iceland, the narrator Álfgrímur describing life in the quaint backwoods of Brekkukot. It is a Bildungsroman of sorts, as he describes his childhood and adolescence, and must eventually decide on what to do with his life (and whether he can (or should) leave the comforts of the simple life behind him).
       As he explains:

     When I was six, and indeed for some time afterwards, I was like the eminent Candide, quite certain that the world we live in is best at home, and I therefore had no enthusiasm for anything beyond the turnstile-gate at Brekkukot; and as is common among primitive people, higher civilization was hardly likely to impress me.
       Halldór revels in the rustic simplicity of life in Brekkukot, and especially the lifestyles and attitudes of those Álfgrímur -- who grows up without a father or mother -- is surrounded by in his youth. Theirs is a world of simple, generous hospitality and honor, without any pretension. It's not so much behind the times as it is beyond them, making for an oasis of timeless anti-modernity. There, for example:
we did not acknowledge all the concepts which are now all the rage, and indeed had no words for them .
       It goes so far that even words such as 'love' were unheard of:
unless some inebriate or a particularly stupid maidservant from the country happened to recite a verse by a modern poet
       Denmark -- which had long ruled the country -- is the symbol of the suspect and often reviled modern world (both as distant colonial power, as well as simply the most (or only) familiar foreign place), and so, for example, any works of much-derided "modern literature in general, but particularly anything to do with hysteria" are referred to as 'Danish novels'. In contrast, local storytelling -- of which there is a great deal -- is:
diametrically opposite to the method we associated with Danish novels: the storyteller's own life never came into the story, let alone his opinions. The subject-matter was allowed to speak for itself.
       Of course, this places Álfgrímur right between tradition and modernity, as he is a storyteller whose own life figures prominently in this account.
       Going to school, Álfgrímur begins to be exposed to more of the world, though he remains resistant and wary (much as he does in his encounters with girls). An outside figure that complicates matters is Iceland's greatest singer, Garðar Hólm, who has triumphed abroad and whose return to the island is a very big deal (though it also involves considerably more complications than initially expected). He, too, is an influence on Álfgrímur -- who has a decent voice, too.
       The claim: "We live in a new age" is only half-convincing to many of the characters, clinging (contentedly) to their comfortable old and traditional ways. Álfgrímur chooses at least to venture forth, but that's as far as the novel goes: where it will lead him is left unclear.
       Halldór's rambling tale is charming in its portrayal of the quirky and very down-to-earth old and traditional ways -- and how the locals face and deal with outside influences. There's an absurdity to much of this -- which Halldór acknowledges -- but his generosity to and fondness of his characters makes for a charming read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 February 2011

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The Fish Can Sing: Reviews: Halldór Laxness: Other books by Halldór Laxness under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Icelandic author Halldór Laxness (actually: Halldór Guðjónsson) lived 1902 to 1998. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955.

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