“And at the same time I wonder why the hell one ever gets to know other people, or let them take advantage of oneself. One feels sorry for some poor fellow who happens to work in the same place, invites him to come abroad, and pays his keep, and the only thing one gets in return is ingratitude, rudeness, and the experience of being trampled on–quite literally.”
I’m not sure that I’ve ever read an Icelandic novel, and if that’s true then I started with a blast when I picked up The Pets from Bragi Olafsson. It’s a simple enough plot that revolves around the relationship between two men: Emil and Havard.
Emil is divorced and the father of a young son. He has a long-distance, vague relationship with Vigdis: “My girlfriend or lover (depending on how you look at it)” . When the book begins, Emil is returning to Reykjavik after a trip to London. He won the lottery and went on a spending spree, returning with cigarettes, whisky and bags full of CDs. Also, rather significantly, he did not get the items Vigdis requested. On the plane back home, he sits next to a middle-aged linguist named Armann Valur who bores him by constantly talking. On the up side of the plane trip, he runs into fellow passenger, Greta. He saw Greta years before at a party and she’s occupied his lustful fantasies since that time. Emil can’t believe his luck when he strikes up a conversation with Greta and she agrees to come to his apartment later that night.
Emil returns home looking forward to listening to his cds and drinking some of his duty-free whisky when he’s warned by a neighbour that a strange man wearing an anorak and carrying a plastic bag has been hanging around and asking for Emil. The strange man is Havard, a former co-worker and one-time co-housesitter–a walking disaster of a man Emil has every reason to avoid. Havard, who’s spent the last few years in some sort of institution is, at the very least, bizarre and eccentric, but he’s also possibly a great deal worse than that. With Havard knocking persistently at the door, Emil hides somewhat humiliatingly under the bed, but Havard, who’s anything but predictable, breaks in….
The novel runs on two storylines. One hilarious plot thread follows what happens as Havard takes over Emil’s apartment and starts inviting people in (and over), and the second tragi-comic story thread goes back in time detailing what happened years earlier between Emil and Havard when they housesat for some poor sod, a friend of Emil’s father, who owns a flat in Stoke Newington:
We had only known each other for about a month when we went off to London together. And it was by complete chance that Havard, whom I didn’t really know at all, accompanied me. I had just started working in a hardware store when a friend of my father, a former professional footballer and joint-owner of a soap factory in England, invited me to stay in the flat he owned in London for six weeks and take care of some animals that lived there: a cat, a rabbit, a guinea pig, and an ancient iguana.
Since the housesitting disaster five years before, Emil hasn’t seen Havard–not since Emil paid Havard 400 pounds to get out of the house and go away:
Go away as far as possible, much further than just out of London, preferably to another country. And he said–with a grin fueled by two or three pints of Special Brew he had drunk before lunch–that if I could give him four hundred more then he would never show his face again.
I should have given it to him.
Olafsson tells us that relationships are dangerous. Once we let someone into our lives, all bets are off. This idea starts on the plane, and as the story plays out, we see that Emil has problems with setting boundaries in relationships. The first hint of that comes from Emil’s acquaintance with fellow passenger Armann. We’ve all been annoyed by fellow travelers at some point or another in our lives, but the problem runs deeper with Emil:
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 all over you–and the only place of salvation is the toilet.
On the plane, Emil is conned into buying alcohol without being quite sure how it happened, and in spite of the fact that Emil has ear plugs in while he’s listening to music, Armann, an “overdressed” perpetual lozenge consumer, refuses to take the hint, repeatedly engaging (or bothering) Emil until Emil gives up trying to listen to music:
Armann didn’t seem to have understood that I wanted to be left alone. I had shut my eyes and was trying to look as though I was concentrating on the music in the headphones, but it didn’t seem to make any impact on my neighbor; he nudged me again
Similarly, Emil isn’t quite sure where he stands with his girlfriend Vidgis, a woman who’s all ready to play Happy Families while that idea makes Emil a bit uncomfortable. Then there’s Havard. It’s purely a matter of personal opinion whether or not what Havard does is motivated by dominance, deviance or just from the fact that disaster follows in his wake. In both significant occasions between Emil and Havard (in Stoke Newington and back home in his flat), Emil could stop what was happening, but he’s driven by hope (that the bad situation either won’t occur or that it’ll end) and he’s also hampered by polite behaviour. The strongly drawn characterisations of Armann and Havard are in contrast to Emil–a man who wavers indecisively at crucial moments. But there’s one sentence that tells us a great deal about Emil:
It took less energy participating in something boring than trying to struggle against it, especially when there was no possibility of avoiding it.
This deceptively comic novel says a great deal about avoidance and tolerance of aberrant behaviours. The Pets is great literature for the way in which it forces us to examine our own lives as we recall the Havards we have known, the point at which we realised that these relationships were invasive and destructive and just how much we took before giving our own personal Havards the old-heave-ho. Emil relieves his past in a nasty no-exit-existentialist sort of way through the invasion of his own home (instead of someone else’s), the misuse of his property, and the resolution of his past thoughts about Greta.
The Pets is delightful, comic, and original, and its abrupt ending lingers leaving a bitterly hilarious taste behind. Finally a quote that shows there’s a great deal going on underneath the humour:
If time has some special role then I think it is two-fold: to take things away from one…and to give one something else instead…-something that doesn’t replace the loss, but helps one to forget now and again what one has lost.
Translated by Janice Balfour
Review copy from Open Letter Books