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A- : grand village-tale, with a very well-presented protagonist
See our review for fuller assessment.
[* review of a different translation]
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Salka Valka opens with Sigurlína Jónsdóttir arriving with her young daughter Salvör Valgerður -- known as Salka Valka -- in the small Icelandic coastal fishing village of Óseyri in Axlarfjörður.
Originally published in two volumes (in 1931 and 1932), the first two of its four parts (volume one) center on the time when Salka Valka is still a child, from age eleven to fourteen; the third part then jumps ahead several years, as the second half of the book (volume two) focuses on a mature Salka Valka, a very independent (if still young) adult.
The village was one of the most prosperous in this quarter of the country; no one starved here, and Salka Valka was fed quite generously at Mararbúð.From when she is first introduced, Salka Valka is presented as a spirited, headstrong child -- "her whole body roiled with unruly vitality". The proud and often surly illegitimate child does not fit in, or try to, very hard. She asserts herself in the few ways open to her -- including taking on jobs as soon as she can. She's dissatisfied with being a girl -- at one point vowing: "I'm going to get some trousers, soon, too, and stop being a girl", and while she does eventually take to wearing pants her feminine side matures with time too. Illiterate when she arrives, she is first tutored by young Arnaldur Björnsson -- already then perceived by her as: "a face shining out of the darkness of the night, radiant with belief in another world" -- and then does start going to school and does reasonably well there.
The Salvation Army is a significant presence in Óseyri when mother and daughter arrive -- a rival to the religious establishment, which frowns upon much of its doings -- and the weak Sigurlína, clearly long at sea, falls under its spell, finding there at least some support. (It's never made entirely clear why mother and daughter left their own hometown, but at one point Salka admits: "I think that we were driven away", though she doesn't know for what reason.) Looking for a hold, Sigurlína succumbs to men, too, however -- notably big-talking Steinþór Steinsson, who abandons her twice, once after assaulting her daughter -- and leaving Sigurlína pregnant; then, after returning (and finding his infant son already dead), just before they are to marry; along the way, Sigurlína is also engaged to another man for a time being, too, but Steinþór also got in the way of that working out.
Sigurlína loves her daughter, but is ill-equipped to do right by her; Laxness nicely captures the mother's helpless distance from the child in a scene where she gazes at her sleeping daughter:
Who knows, perhaps the woman recognized the music of her fairest dreams in her daughter's sleeping breaths as she leaned over her and listened: memories of the promises of another world, made a long time ago. These promises dwell in one's soul like mirages until one's dying day. God makes us promises at times, and keeps them in entirely different ways than he promised. This sleeping face was one such promise -- a godsend quite different from what she had been promised, the fulfillment of a different dream than she had dreamed. Nevertheless, this child was the core of her life and the justification for her existence. And one day in the past, she had decided not to cast herself into the sea. She leaned over the core of her life in grateful joy. Did she have the right to demand anything more ? No -- and yet. More, more says the heart. It is so hard to be human.In another near-perfect passage showing the relationship between the two, Laxness is at his aching best:
In the evenings, she sat down on the rickety box in the corner of the kitchen and carded her unresisting wool, without thought or feeling, just as the Lord carded the unresisting wool of her life. And Salka Valka shot her glances, trying to think of a way to tell her that they were mother and daughter and should support each other through life, but two souls can be so distant from each other, despite having once dwelt in the same body. Then the girl looked back down at her book, because she had decided to earn the highest mark of all the children on her final exam. When it comes down to it, it is as if every person has his own particular goal, and all love is fabrication.Sigurlína succumbs to Steinþór -- but Steinþór also lusts after Salka Valka, and it is this that will ultimately break Sigurlína. Earlier, Steinþór had already assaulted the young girl, clearly with the intention of raping her -- with young Salka Valka falling unconscious at the time and thus never certain as to just what happened, the event coldly summed up by Laxness as: "Salka Valka's first personal experience of love", with the violation a crushing act that continues to haunt Salka Valka. Steinþór had fled afterwards, but he returns to Óseyri, and successfully courts Sigurlína once again -- but she realizes that he also still desires her daughter.
Even later, when he is then ocean's away, Salka Valka can't banish Steinþór entirely from her life -- and she does accept the money that he sends from abroad, allowing her then to also buy the property of Mararbúð and freeing her from at least the most basic worries about survival. Eventually, Steinþór returns yet again to Óseyri, and Salka Valka continues to struggle to free herself from his insistent efforts to get his claws into her. (She does abandon what she can then only think of as ill-gotten Mararbúð, but Steinþór and his then much more significant presence in the village are harder to avoid and work around.)
The first half of Salka Valka -- the first two of its four books -- paint a picture of this village life, centered around but not limited to the lives of Salka Valka and her mother. It might not appear to be any sort of microcosm -- indeed, Óseyri can seem to be a world entirely unto its own -- and yet one comes to realize that much experienced here is, indeed, universal. As Laxness notes: "Perhaps reality is in Óseyri in Axlarfjörður after all".
The basics in the village remain stable, from Johánn Bogesen's economic throttlehold to the Salvation Army; as Laxness suggests: "On the surface this village was arranged like an eternity, where everything stands still". But time does move on, and the world is changing. If much of the outside world remains distant, the ripple effects of change do reach even Óseyri -- and it is notably those who ventured elsewhere that bring the greatest change, specifically Arnaldur Björnsson, who had been sent away to study, and then also Steinþór.
The second half of Salka Valka, jumping ahead several years, introduces a village that has already undergone some changes. Notably, the Salvation Army has quit town -- and a fishermen's union has been formed, with Salka Valka as its president. Much of the remaining story then revolves around the labor struggles and economic changes in their wake that come to Óseyri -- played out in the shadows of the larger Icelandic economic crisis, involving also whether or not the government should bail out the troubled National Bank.
Salka Valka has found some footing:
Yes, she was actually a trifle peculiar, as all lonely people must be. Fortunately, she wasn't dependent on anyone, so she could do whatever she pleased and be peculiar on her own account.Change is in the air, however -- with many locals leery of it, and of any outside influences that threaten to change what has been long so familiar. One person amusingly sums up the worries to Salka Valka:
What do you think would happen if all the foreign trends from down south were allowed to spread in a little fishing village such as this, and people took them as some sort of divine revelation and whirled from one to the next, whatever they are called: Krishnamurti, bobbed hair, influenza, Bolshevism, just to name the ones that first spring to mind from the southern newspapers -- yes, what would happen ? What becomes of a person, what becomes of a village, if he or it loses its self-determination ?Arnaldur Björnsson is active in trying to shift economic and political power, notably with a newly-formed workers' union that then confronts -- and breaks -- the old system Johánn Bogesen had built up. A long and drawn out battle ensues -- and, as Salka Valka sums up for Steinþór, when he returns to the village after eight years away: "We've just had a battle here between socialism and capitalism, and both sides lost".
Salka Valka is moved and won over by Arnaldur Björnsson's idealism and dreams, and the two finally become a couple while the village is in the throes of this continuing economic and political tug-of-war -- but Salka Valka recognizes the personal cost of being so in love:
Before you came, Arnaldur, I was asleep, like everything else in this village, in fact. Then you came and woke me. But ever since I woke to you, I have been only a part of you and nothing myself.Creepy Steinþór also continues to make his play for Salka Valka -- and, more successfully, for economic power in the village. All this -- and also Johánn Bogesen's diminishing role (no worries about him, however: he has a safe have thanks to his Danish wife) -- make for a solid story of social and labor unrest. If everything here seems to be on a very small scale, it nevertheless reflects similar changes roiling the world at large -- and national politics do also ultimately have strong ripple effects here as well.
Laxness always returns to the figure of Salka Valka, however, the central figure here, even if her situation shifts back and forth between significant and peripheral in the local goings-on. Salka Valka is a love story, too, but Laxness only briefly indulges completely in picture-book romance; reality proves harsher, and people weaker -- except for Salka Valka. Here is an author, after all, who, even at the happiest of times, can suggest: "Love and death have so much in common".
This is, ultimately, Salka Valka's book and story. As she tries to explain to the love of her life:
"No, Arnaldur, I'm not against you, you understand -- not you. I'm simply against what I don't understand. Is it my fault that I'm ignorant, maybe, and have always lived in the same village ? You've been in big cities, Arnaldur; you know the ways of the world. But I'm just --"Laxness' novel is a rich portrait of this simple -- and not so simple -- girl and woman, a remarkably stable pole -- and, in many ways, a model -- for and in a changing world. She is determined, and tries to do the right thing, acting bullishly. She is concerned about her community, even if and as she largely remains an outsider to it. Salka Valka walls off enough of her life for her own humble satisfaction, but otherwise gives in whatever way she can to her community. As Arnaldur admiringly also says:
I don't know any girl who looks as much like a Bolshie as you. In Russia you would probably be a commissar.Which pegs her right -- but Laxness also emphasizes her very human side, not least in her concern for the welfare of children. And, while her education may be limited, she nevertheless navigates local conditions adroitly, not least with her union-work. But ultimately, of course, the other forces at play -- not least Arnaldur's opportunities -- are too strong for her to do anything against (and even here she does what little she can not for her own benefit, but for another's).
Laxness' small-town tale depicts a world where life is difficult, but the novel never sinks into deep gloom; there's a variety of resilient spirit here -- with Salka Valka's particularly pronounced and strong (and really only her mother a truly resigned figure). It's hardly an upbeat tale, but there's a surprising buoyancy to it, with even most of the sadness coming across as an accepted part of life. Of course, there is then that absolutely crushing ending .....
Salka Valka is a big and very fine novel, and wonderful character-portrait of a remarkable figure.
- M.A.Orthofer, 11 March 2022
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Icelandic author Halldór Laxness (actually: Halldór Guðjónsson) lived 1902 to 1998. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955.
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