Now that I have read something by each of the Iceland Writers Retreat featured authors, I am moving on to the Icelandic authors who are involved in the event. Not all of them are available at my library, but of the ones that are, the first to arrive at my local branch after I placed a slew of holds was The Pets by Bragi Ólafsson, translated by Janice Balfour and published in English by the literary translation press Open Letter.
I have to say, I’m not sure what to make of it.
The premise of the story is that a Reykjavík man who has just returned home from a trip to England finds a former flat mate at his front door. Everyone has a cherished “bad roommate” story from their youth. Emil Halldorsson’s story involves a series of pet deaths, thefts, and a Swedish mental institute. (Actually, now that I think about it, my bad roommate story involves murdered animals, too…) Naturally, Emil doesn’t answer the door, but the old roommate, Havard, comes round to the kitchen window where he spots a pot of water boiling. Naturally, he climbs in the window to turn off the stove, and the rest of the story is narrated by Emil as he hides under his bed witnessing the events that take place in his apartment during his supposed absence. It sounds like the premise for a farce, but doesn’t really play out that way.
First of all, Emil doesn’t actually crawl under the bed until halfway through the book. We are first treated to the mundane details of his flight and the people he meets there (who do at least come back for the second half of the book), as well as the details of Havard’s day wandering Reykjavík while he waits for Emil to get back home.
At least superficially, the book has a lot in common with Sjón’s The Whispering Muse. Both are short, lean novels that say less than they mean. Both books lean heavily on classical literature: the Whispering Muse is in a sense a post-script to the Odyssey, and the Pets is littered with references to Moby Dick. A first edition of that book and a model of the whaler Essex are the stolen items, and the ostensible reason for Havard’s return. The dead pets all were named after characters from Moby Dick. I have absolutely no idea what the significance of Melville’s story is to Emil’s story. Stuck under his own bed while a crazy exroommate hosts a party in his living room is an impossible situation, perhaps a little like being stuck on a ship with a mad captain. But I feel like I’m grasping.
Both narrators share a priggish voice more suited to the common stereotype of middle class Englishmen than to any images of (or real-life examples of) Icelanders that I’ve seen. These self-absorbed speakers give as much attention to the details of their physical comfort and petty preferences as they give to the major events of the story. They rarely ask the right questions about their circumstances. The Whispering Muse is mystical despite its protagonist, while the Pets is more absurd, but neither story seems to be intended to be taken at face value.
The trick is, I’m not really sure what I am supposed to take from the story. The Pets ends abruptly, with no resolution at all. There is some indication that Emil is likely to be found out in the worst and most awkward way possible, but there is no hint about long-term repercussions. It’s like those 60’s movies that just stop. I know it’s an artistic choice and probably supposed to be a statement on how resolution is artificial and life goes on and no story is ever complete, but it usually seems like cheat to me. Especially when a character is in as tight a spot as Emil I can’t help but feel the author painted himself into a corner and couldn’t get out. I’d rather see a floor with footprints in the paint.
I was really struck by a line in Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce
It’s strange to think that our grandparents, our parents, weren’t always old, that they had lovers and drank too much and did horrible things to one another. We children aren’t able to imagine the real and the complete lives of our elders.
I think of that line because Sjón and Bragi and the author of another Icelandic book I read after this one were all born in 1962. Björk was born in 1965. Einar Örn, the mad genius of Ghostigital, and like Björk and Bragi, a former member of The Sugarcubes, was also born in 1962. (Kind of makes you wonder what kind of juice they served in Icelandic kindergartens in the ’60s, doesn’t it?)
Their music was on the radio when I was in middle school, was part of the establishment we reacted against. Especially for Americans, there is an assumption that each generation is bolder, brighter, and wilder than each generation that came before it, peaking with your own generation while subsequent generations are weaker and derivative. Sometimes it’s hard to realize that your own generation might actually be the lull after a peak. I used to listen to Björk and think, “I don’t get it. But I think I like it.”