American estimations of Halldór Laxness, winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature, typically come down to impressions of Independent People. Fifteen years ago, I traversed Iceland on foot with little knowledge of the country but what I had gleaned from that book and a few other Laxness novels. A week into my hike, I came across a sheep farm and asked the farmer if I could camp in a pasture. He invited me inside for coffee and, seeing as how Laxness’s masterpiece Independent People is set on a sheep farm, I casually dropped that it was one of my favorite novels. The farmer replied, “The one that came before it is even better.” I wrote down the title, Salka Valka, and repeated it in my head for the next month as an incantation, a hocus pocus to make the valley floor solid or the next day’s water near. Unfortunately, I could never actually read the farmer’s favorite until now.
This month Archipelago Books publishes this masterwork of social realism. Salka Valka initiates a debate on whether independence is not solely a virtue, but a failure of community—a theme central to Laxness’s subsequent work. The depth of feeling in the scene excerpted here, I think, brilliantly proves the sheep farmer’s point: Salka Valka is a major novel.
From the doctor’s pharmacy wafted an incredible stench, a mysterious odor that could leave one feeling like a stranger, a foreigner, with respect to the substances of one’s own planet. And in the midst of that little world of vials and bottles, jars, urns, and glasses bearing labels with incomprehensible inscriptions, the doctor stood like a magician in a white smock, weighing out medicines on the wafer-thin pans of a balance and pouring the portions into small envelopes: a tall man, big boned and with a red moustache, smiling to himself, bowing to himself, and letting his eyelids droop as he regarded mother and daughter, as if he knew them and all their secrets and was implying to them that he would keep those secrets safe.
“Precisely,” he said, smiling at them sweetly, meaningfully, humbly, magically, yet his body language unmistakably displayed the stoic awareness of the futility of it all possessed by a person accustomed to facing the great disease in its most egregious forms and who knows that despite all his mighty and mysterious medicines, there is only one true panacea; because of this, he came across as somewhat sardonic with regard to that world of his, in which the aromatic essences of earthly substances wafted in the name of the pharmaceutical arts up from jars and glasses, without it being certain whether they could actually ease people’s ailments.
“One seat,” he said. “Two seats. Precisely.”
And he was quite right; there were two seats for the mother and daughter.
Several minutes then passed in silence as the man continued to weigh his powders and smile and bow and droop his eyelids and reopen them and fill his envelopes. Upon completing his work, he stepped over to his visitors, bowed deeply, smiled and held out his hand to them. His gaze was peculiarly sleepy and lackluster, almost like that of a drunken man, but now and then it flickered with sense, giving the impression that this was just an act, after all, and that from behind his mask, he saw at least all that he wished to see, and perhaps much more.
“I am delighted, extremely delighted,” he said. “I hope, you hope, we hope. The stomach, the lungs, the heart, the liver. Just as you wish.”
“Thank you,” said Sigurlína. “We are not ill, fortunately. I am here on other business. My girl and I have just arrived here in the village, you see.”
“Just arrived, yes. Quite right. I see. That is, you have just arrived in the village. Heh heh heh. Certainly a pleasure. I might almost say . . . truly. A little village between mountains; a pretty little village, is it not? That is, just entirely as you wish. Heh heh heh.”
He laughed humbly and genially, his eyes closed, and rubbed the backs of his hands as if he were either cold or very keen to curry favor with them.
“But it must be quite uncomfortable for two unknown, wretched females who are completely on their own to come to a village where they have never been before, in weather such as this, and look for work, let alone without having a determined dwelling-place for the night. Let alone that,” said the doctor, smiling widely and bowing and standing there before them in that pose, head bent, for several long moments. “Must be uncomfortable. Quite right. Quite extraordinary. Life, you see— a little village, bad weather, on your own, difficult to find work, undetermined dwelling-place, heh heh heh. Precisely— I understand, you understand, we understand. I know that I need not say more.”
“I was at both the merchant’s and the dean’s this morning, inquiring about work, but it’s as if there’s no work to be had here and no one wants to take in newcomers. Someone mentioned you, that you might perhaps need a maid.”
“Quite right. As if spoken straight from my own heart. Precisely my own experience. The merchant, the dean, no one, simply no one. The village is perfect. The village needs nothing. Someone mentions the doctor. Heh heh heh. The doctor, the pharmacy, if you please— ” and he bowed, laid one hand on his chest, and pointed with the other hand at the walls and recited: “Tinctura digitalis aetherea, Tinctura nucis vomicae, Tinctura strophanti, Salicylas physostigmicus, Chloretum ammonicum sublimatum, Hexamethylentetraminum, Acidum salicylicum, Acidum sulphuricum, Acidum nitricum . . . I know that you understand me perfectly. I know that no shadow lies between us. And my young friend”—he placed his fingertips under Salka Valka’s chin—“may I? Like a young flower in the orchard of youth. I would say twelve.”
“No, she just turned eleven, the poor thing,” said the woman.
“Eleven!” shouted the doctor, moved and joyful, folding his arms over his chest. “Wonderful. Glorious. I might almost say overwhelming. What a face, so strong, so vibrant. The eyes, eyelids, lips, all in such rapid motion! For my own amusement, I would call it tremor pubertatis. As the poet says: Now the fair rosebud wakes. You look, listen. You see, hear. A shore. A little village by the sea. We walk into the village and shout, that’s life, we shout and walk out of the village— death. Doctor, says the lady. Medicine, says the doctor. Nonetheless, just one shore. I mean. I pray. I give thanks. You hope. You understand. You forgive.”
Nothing of what Sigurlína had heard that morning bewildered her as much as this did now. There she stood, completely baffled. This man’s ways of speaking and thinking were, at the very least, as incomprehensible to her as the mysterious smells emanating from his jars. And it frightened her to think of the shadow lying between her and this man, despite his assertion that there was none. Perhaps she considered resorting once more to the excellent remark about a Canaan of God’s glory and the cross of Jesus, but then probably presumed that such a reply would only make the matter even more complicated, because at the next moment, she made yet another attempt to break free from the dark entanglements of abstract thoughts, where individuals have so much trouble finding each other, and took up the thread where she had left off.
“I’m not certain that you understand me. The fact is, I have come from the north and am on my way south. But I ran out of money, and was forced to come ashore here to seek employment. Might you, by chance, know of a vacant housemaid position, either in your house or someplace else? For at the moment, I am completely out in the cold. Which makes little difference to me, but is far worse for my blessed little innocent girl . . .”
“Yes, yes, yes,” the doctor interrupted, “that is exactly what I am saying. I see that we understand each other perfectly. So innocent. So little. Exactly what I was trying to put into words. That is, the cold, as you say. Heh heh heh. Nothing but cold. It is this incomprehensible redundancy. First cold and nothing but cold. Then warmth and nothing but warmth. Cold and warmth. Winter and summer. Spring and fall. No one understands it. Yet we two understand each other. From the north, you say. South, you say. Just as if spoken from my own heart. We are all on our way south. Imagine it: there is a girl— ulcus uteri, you see. We decide to operate, on the off chance. Certain parts of her needed to be removed. Only a month ago. She was no longer a woman when she came to. For three days, she spoke of nothing but marrying. She was on her way south. The doctor helped her, heh heh heh, he understood her and did everything he could. Then she died. She is lying there in the cold. She has come to the south.”
“I don’t know if I understand you correctly,” said the woman. “Are you suggesting that I walk out of here and take my own life?”
“Oh, never, never, never. Now we misunderstand each other for the first time. We must never let that happen again, never, never. I am only a doctor. All I do is heal. All I can do is heal. But forgive me for asking—just, just one question: Have you ever known of death behaving as anything but a gentleman? I look at the lines in your face and know that an old lover slumbers in them. Perhaps he does not slumber. Perhaps he is awake. A woman in love knows how her lover merges with her own person. She has imbibed the energy and habitudes intrinsic to her lover’s being. Have you heard of spousal resemblance? A biological phenomenon, to tell you the truth. I understand you perfectly. I see you perfectly. No shadow lies between us. I know that you have had a lover. I can see his face in yours. I know that he is still your lover, to this day. And I am convinced that you will be able to go to him in the south. I congratulate you. I wish you a good journey. Now we both know where we stand. I am grateful to you for having honored me— at this shore. I hope that I might have the pleasure once more—”
He opened his arms to them, smiled, and bowed. These courtesies being concluded, he reached up to one of the shelves for a glass jar of peppermints, poured approximately one mouthful of them into a cornet, handed it to the girl and patted her cheek with a smile.
“I am delighted that we understand each other, like friends, true friends. Thank you so much. I hope that you do me the pleasure, you understand, the pleasure of looking in on me again. As the old folk said, I would be delighted to be able to turn to you, heh heh heh. So then, God’s peace. And many thanks.”
Then he opened the pharmacy door and showed his visitors out into the cold.