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Theatrics in Reykjavik

September 26, 2013 14 comments

The Pets by Bragi Olafsson. 2008 French title: Les animaux de compagnie.

September proved as challenging as predicted. Every year I swear I’ll be better organised and every year I’m as overwhelmed as the year before with school, things to buy, activities to schedule, etc. The Pets was our Book Club choice for September. It’s as crazy as the month and it kept its promises of entertainment. You may have noticed, this book is filed under the category Beach and Public Transport. I use this category for books that don’t require much concentration. It doesn’t mean they aren’t good books; they’re entertaining. The Pets sure fills the bill but reading it on the beach or in public transports might win you strange looks for the constant chuckles and reading it during a flight might give you the creeps. After all, as Olfasson mentions it:

Really it’s no small risk one takes, boarding an airplane. For three hours (not to mention on longer trips) one is locked in a tight, uncomfortable space, way above any civilization, with unpredictable people, who could drink themselves senseless or spill their food and drink over you—and the only place of salvation is the toilet.

Olafsson_petsSo we’re with Emil S. Halldorsson who is flying back to Iceland after a shopping trip to London. He comes home with CDs and books and gifts for his family and friends. As he settles on the plane, his neighbour starts talking to him. He introduces himself as Armann Valur, linguist. The guy is a complete nut case and he invades Emil’s privacy. Of course, Emil can’t get rid of him. On the plane and later in the airport, he also chats with Greta, a woman he had a secret crush on years ago. He has the opportunity to chat her up and he manages to have a rendezvous at his apartment later in the evening.

At the same time Emil is flying back to Reykjavik, we follow Havard Knutsson who has just come back to town after a long stay in Sweden. He intends to meet with Emil with whom he had spent a fateful summer in London five years before.

Arriving at his apartment complex, Emil learns through his neighbour that someone has tried to visit him just before he came home. Then he realises that he has accidentally taken Armann’s spectacles with him. So he leaves him a message on his voicemail to let him know where his glasses are. After that, he’s preparing coffee when he sees Havard coming over and hurriedly decides to hide under his bed to avoid him. Havard notices the coffee in progress, climbs through the window and settles to wait for Emil’s return. Emil dreads meeting with Havard and doesn’t show up.

Acquaintances (Armann, Greta) and friends arrive at Emil’s and Havard opens the door, welcomes them and starts a party while they’re all waiting for Emil’s return. Surely, he can’t be far away, since he was making coffee? That’s where Sartre proves right “Hell is other people”. Or perhaps it’s a remake of Goldilocks and the three bears with reversed roles. Havard, Armann and Greta make themselves at ease at Emil’s while Emil is hiding under his bed and listening to everything. Emil doesn’t lack a sense of humour or lucid self-analysis:

I pause for a moment over the word supernatural. Here I am lying under my own bed, recalling the ridiculous death of several animals which my companion and I were paid to look after five years ago, and now this Havard, whom I thought had cleared out of my life and was under careful supervision in an institution abroad, is back to haunt me, standing just a partition’s width away in the living room. Am I imagining all this? Am I all right? Is something strange going on in my brain, just as I imagined a few hours ago was the case with Armann Valur? Am I experiencing what I felt earlier today, that I don’t really belong here, that this isn’t my own home? Is the eccentric up there playing with me?

That’s Emil in all his glory. The first part, relating the trip back home, is already funny, the second part can be hilarious. It shows a lot about Emil and his immature doormat attitude. Things happen to him, he never leads the dance. He’s thirty-something and has a son who lives with his mother in Denmark. He doesn’t see him very often. He has a girlfriend, Vigdis, who works in a hotel in another town but he doesn’t really miss her and doesn’t hesitate to invite Greta over. He’s a bit naïve; during his first trip to London, he expected to find books at bookmakers’:

He discovered that one could walk into certain offices—that I initially took for printing firms because bookmakers was printed on the signs—and bet on horses and dogs, amongst other things.

You’d want to give him self-help books and urge him to grow up. He’s afraid of Havard and when he unravels the events that took place in London five years before well, you can understand why he’d rather dodge out of seeing him. Honestly, I couldn’t pity Emil’s predicament. He had brought it all to himself with his cowardice. However, who says “Sorry, I don’t want to talk” to someone who starts up a conversation on a plane or a train? Who is able to go out politely but frankly of a relationship they don’t want to pursue? Don’t we all know people we’d rather avoid and whose presence we dutifully bear? I’m a quiet person and for me, hell is chatterboxes who want to make me talk when I don’t feel like to. They exhaust me especially when they relate mindless stories about acquaintances or colleagues I don’t even know. I know someone like this. When I say it doesn’t interest me, she says I’m too intellectual and not enough interested in other people. It makes me want to isolate myself in a bubble of silence. Perhaps I should try hiding under the bed?

Anyway, it was funny to imagine Emil under his bed, witnessing everything that was happening without intervening. Olafsson has a wicked sense of humour and has a way with words, as you can read it here:

 “But I am asking you, Armann,” Havard interrupts. “Do you think I’m ugly?” Armann hesitates for a few seconds and then says: “I think you harmonize quite well”

Or

The smell in there was the smell of yesterday, or all the yesterdays that had been since it opened—stale cigarette smoke that seemed somehow to choke any possibility of good memories.

olfasson_animauxI couldn’t help imagining what a great theatre play this book would make. It has everything to be staged. Not too many locations, lots of comic effects and funny dialogues, this seems a good recipe for a comedy. Once again, this book was on my TBR thanks to Guy’s review. Thanks Guy! You can also read Max’s review here.

PS: An anecdote about names again. Emil S. Halldorsson. When I thought about him, it reminded me of a comic film by Les Nuls where one character named Emile is constantly urged to have a chewing-gum because of his chronic bad breath. (“Prenez un chewing-gum, Emile”) One day at diner, I mentioned this book to my family and that Emile brought back memories of that film when my daughter said. “Me, it makes me think of Emile Zola”. Before you go straight to cloud nine thinking how nice it is that a twelve-year old mentions Zola, let me bring you back to Earth: she only knows Zola because he’s a street name. She knows he’s a writer, sure, but she remembers him for the street name. We have this strange habit here, we name streets after writers, musicians, poets and less bucolic, war heroes. Some writers are eternal more because of their street name than because of their literary merits. And they become garages, cafés or driving- schools because owners name their business after their address. I’ve seen a Zola car workshop and a Balzac driving-school.

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