In 2008, Archipelago Books published the first English translation of Halldór Laxness’ first novel, The Great Weaver of Kashmir. I had started Halldór’s most famous novel, Independent People, shortly before, but hadn’t had a chance to finish it when I started reading Kashmir. So I actually had a rather unusual experience with Laxness (for an English speaker) in that his first novel was the first of his books that I read.
In the intervening years I’ve read Under the Glacier and have come to really love Halldór’s work. It’s rare to find an author who can convey such empathetic observations and theological discussions while still being laugh-out-loud funny. Kashmir is not nearly as polished as Halldór’s later work, but it is a really wonderful read, and highly recommended. (It was shortlisted for The Best Translated Book award in 2008, if that adds to the appeal.)
You can read the full text of my review below, or on Three Percent, here.
If the international community recognizes Iceland for something other than Björk, vikings, and glaciers, it is undeniably the country’s historic and richly diverse literary tradition. Deemed by the Swedish Academy to be the “cradle of narrative art here in the North,” Iceland not only has the legacy of the sagas to its credit, but also a remarkably active community of poets and storytellers. As Icelandic author and journalist Birna Anna Bjornsdottir has noted, bibliophilia is part of the national character, and writing is an activity frequently practiced by “non-professionals”:
We sometimes claim that everyone in Iceland is a writer. Sure, it’s hyperbole, and as such slightly out of character for a literary tradition long characterized by understatement and restraint. Still, approximately 1,000 books are published here each year for a population of about 290,000, one book per 290 persons . . . The mailman moonlights as a veggie chef, and the DJ teaches kindergarten during the day. Both have a couple of books of poetry out . . .
But if Iceland is a nation of authors, it is still a relatively isolated one, with only a fraction of its works translated into other languages each year. Even Halldór Laxness, the so-called “bard of the Icelandic people” and recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1955 (Iceland’s only Nobel Laureate, keep in mind), has faced a relatively sparse translation rate. Of the 51 novels he produced in his lifetime (not to mention the plays and poetry), only a handful have been translated into English. Which makes Philip Roughton’s forthcoming translation of Laxness’s “first important novel Verfarinn mikli fra Kasmir (The Great Weaver from Kashmir) very exciting.
But The Great Weaver from Kashmir should not be mistaken for a “posterity” translation. A novel which captures the conflicting passions and pitfalls of youth into one tragicomic character, Kashmir can be read as a revisionist approach to Siddhartha—a rendering of one man’s search for spiritual enlightenment becoming confused and complicated by the zealotry and naivete of youth. Its protagonist, Steinn Elliði, is a self-aggrandizing, willfully divisive, and talented young poet who leaves Iceland on an impassioned, though obscure, quest. “In search of perfection” and planning to author “fifty perfect poems for God,” Steinn is the embodiment of adolescent enthusiasm—a man-child who believes himself to be uniquely capable and uniquely misunderstood. In a particularly delightful scene, Steinn rhapsodically enumerates his great potential for his foster-cousin, Diljá, who has been in love with him since childhood:
“. . . I’ve made a pact with the Lord about becoming the most perfect man on earth.”
“Why do you want to become so perfect?”
But he would not grant an answer to such an ignorant question. “I have vowed to leave no further room in my soul for anything other than the celebration of the spiritual beauty of creation . . . I am betrothed to the beauty on the visage of things. I intend to travel back and forth through existence like a jubilant monk of the world who beholds the smile of the Holy Mother in everything that exists. My bread and wine will be the glory of God on the face of creation, the image of the Lord on the Lord’s coins. I am a son of the Way in China, the perfect Yogi of India, the Great Weaver from Kashmir, the snake charmer in the Himalayan valleys, the saint of Christ in Rome.”
“I think that you might have lost your marbles!” said the girl, and stopped to look in his face, because she understood nothing.
Rather than resulting in any real sense of enlightenment, Steinn’s journey becomes progressively dispirited and confused. He cuts off already strained relationships with relatives and acquaintances, and travels alone, flirting with debauchery and misadventure throughout England and Italy. Eventually turning to the advice of a Benedictine monk, Steinn is baptized into the Catholic church and plans to join the monastic order himself. This decision reads as a horrible misstep, a tragic act of evasion, where the traditions and rituals of religious faith buffer Steinn from the emotional trials that face him in his life.
When awarding Laxness the Nobel Prize, E. Wessén stated that “All his important books have Icelandic themes.” The Great Weaver of Kashmir, however, should not be read as an “Icelandic” novel, particular to the trials and experiences of an Icelandic man. As a contemplation of the irrevocable mistakes one can make before he understands the consequences, and an empathetic portrait of youth gone astray, The Great Weaver from Kashmir is a novel that should resonate with audiences the world over.