Tag Archives: Icelandic fiction

One Station Away: Olaf Olafsson

“But the brain is a maze, made up of so many parts, so much that is mysterious.”

Icelandic author Olaf Olafsson’s novel,  One Station Away arrived at the end of an excellent reading year, and although the competition is tough, this incredibly rich, complex novel easily makes my best-of-year-list. This is the story of a British neurologist, a transplant to New York, whose complex relationships with the women in his life challenge his notions of perception and delusion.

One station away

Neurologist Magnus Colin Conyngham  works in Cold Harbor Connecticut, part of a team of doctors researching brain activity on patients in a vegetative state being kept alive on ventilators. The American team shares research with similar teams in Cambridge and France, and the three teams follow the same procedure: patients are placed in MRI scanners and asked to imagine playing tennis and then walking through their homes. Each of these mental activities light up different areas of the brain, so, in theory, doctors can communicate with vegetative, yet conscious, patients and with some simple training patients can give answers to yes/no questions.

If you think this is far-fetched, then check this out. 

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When the novel opens, Magnus is finding it hard to concentrate on his research which hasn’t been that successful, and his inability to concentrate can be explained by the sudden death of his Argentinean lover, dancer Malena, a warm and yet strangely remote woman. Magnus is sliding into an abyss when two things happen: his father, Vincent, asks Magnus to return to England for his mother’s 70th birthday, and a new patient arrives: a young, unidentified woman with significant head injuries who was left abandoned at the site of a horrendous motorcycle accident.

Magnus returns home reluctantly, and we gradually learn about his relationship with his parents. His mother Margaret, is a pianist, who, according to herself, and her devoted, single-minded husband, has been slighted and overlooked in her career. Magnus, who was the unwanted child of a neurotic, self-focused woman (according to his mother, he’s partly to blame for her failed career) has moved on from his parents and their pathological scene building of the thwarted monumental musical talent, but still, he finds it trying to be in their toxic, delusional company.  He worries that he has inherited his mother’s worse traits.

But the fact was, my mother had never fulfilled her potential, or rather, she had never received the recognition which she and Vincent felt she deserved. Many things, and people, were to blame, most notably the cliques controlling the world of classical music behind the scenes, who had systematically prevented her from enjoying the acclaim she was due. It was they who kept her from giving recitals in the most prestigious concert halls, they who wrote disparaging reviews about her in newspapers and magazines, although without being too harsh, for that might arouse suspicion, they who awarded grants to other pianists, not half as good as she, they who took every opportunity to push her side, knowing that she was indomitable and served no one but art, no matter who they were, what position they held or what the consequences might be. 

Magnus’s co-worker, Simone, who’s secretly in love with Magnus, has covered for him in the past, but now she’s very concerned about his behaviour. Magnus’s new patient sparks new life into this doctor who is beginning to question whether or not his research has any purpose, and soon he’s spending hours alone with this mystery  “Jane Doe.”

I sensed it the moment I saw her face. This wasn’t a suspicion or a hunch–it was an absolute certainty. The woman was conscious: she could hear me walking toward the bed, she could feel my presence. I was expecting her to open her eyes at any moment and speak to me. I imagined her voice echoing in my head, her accent when she asked where she was. I even saw her raise her hand and brush away the lock of hair that had fallen across her brow, before turning to me and smiling. 

One Station Away focuses on perceptions and delusions. Events occur which cause Magnus to question everything he thought was true. Is his mother extremely talented? Is she the victim of a thwarted career as she’s argued for decades? And if that’s true, shouldn’t she be treated with more compassion? Sometimes we manage to block out what is right under our noses, but, as the novel argues, we can also delude ourselves into believing what we want. MRIs reveal brain activity but how does that compare to the depths and intricacies of motivation? Olaf Olafsson explores this brilliantly in this incredible novel through Magnus’s relationship with the four women in his life: Malena, his patient, his mother, and Simone.  I cannot praise this book highly enough.

review copy

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The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson

The Ambassador from Icelandic author Bragi Olafsson follows on the heels of The Pets. The Pets is an incredibly funny story of a man whose home is invaded by a loony from his past, and the sort of humour prevalent in The Pets is also present in The Ambassador, so it’s no stretch to say that if you like one novel, you will like the other. The protagonist of The Pets is a thirty-something divorced male–whereas the protagonist of The Ambassador is Sturla Jon, a 50-something divorced father of 5.

When the novel begins, Sturla, a poet, has just seen the publication of his latest book of poems, and he’s in a shop buying a rather expensive overcoat. It’s an item he’s coveted for a long time, and now that he’s about to leave for a poetry festival in Lithuania, he’s decided to splurge and buy the coat for his trip. The unlined “Italian-made, English-style” overcoat is a somewhat impractical choice, but Sturla, who had to reorder the coat when they all sold out, is treating himself.

Sturla, who earns a living as a super in his apartment building, has resolved to stop writing poetry; he’s thinking of perhaps turning to fiction instead, and in an art-imitates-life-way of settling old grievances, he has an idea for a short story:

It was, he thought, basically about everything he’d done in his life in the past fifteen minutes: a middle-aged poet goes into a bookstore to see, for the first time, his newly-published book sitting with all the other newly-published books, tightly-wrapped  in glistening cellophane, on display with its price tag facing the literary minded folk and other customers of the bookstore. This book has become a commodity to be bought and sold, the value it acquires becomes destined to be measured not against a price tag stuck on a copy, but against each individual reader’s opinion as to whether it was a worthy item or not.

In Sturla’s opinion, there is an irony to this that results from a deception the poet himself perpetrates; when it comes down to it, his value is only ever evident from the price tag on the book, and every year will bring a new sticker and a lower price until, in the end, when the last copies of the book finally sell at the Icelandic Discount Book Fair, twenty or thirty years later, the price on the sticker will have dropped under 100 kronur, down as low as double-digits. Because of this, and in order to make the distance between the author and his subject matter clear–or else the reader might somehow start imagining he was describing his own experience–Sturla had come up with an idiosyncratic character, a poet, who gets very angry in the bookstore because his newly-published book isn’t on display at the front of the store with the other brand new books.  

The novel’s humour comes from the mild insanity of the slightly off-kilter events. It begins in the shop when the assistant tells Sturla that there’s a discount “with plastic” not with cash (which makes no sense whatsoever), and it continues from there. We see Sturla interacting with his divorced parents–father Jon Magnusson, a librarian/frustrated film maker who’s full of sage advice for his son: “Perhaps you shouldn’t get too close with womenfolk in general; it’s not worth taking the risk of ending up with a sixth little bastard,” and Fanny, Sturla’s alcoholic mother who is developing “new methods” to get booze, can’t stop showing off a topless photograph she had taken decades earlier to anyone who stops by.

Then there’s Sturla’s ex-wife and his 5 children. In adulthood the children have all gone their own ways, and Sturla really doesn’t understand or relate to any of them. One of his sons, in particular, seems to grown increasingly like his stepfather and another is addicted to exercise. And then everyone Sturla meets is an artist of some sort even as they work a variety of day jobs. Sturla finds this incredibly annoying, but there’s a subtlety here as while Sturla tells everyone he’s a poet, he makes his living as a building supervisor–a fact he fails to mention to most people. From the novel’s beginning something doesn’t seem quite right about Sturla and his poetry, and just what the problem is is revealed as the plot develops and Sturla’s ruminations of discontent continue.

Naturally since Sturla is dogged by such strange family relationships, you’d expect that he might find himself surrounded by like-minded people at the Lithuanian poetry festival, but once in Lithuania, things go downhill. He’s stuck in a shitty hotel, spends an evening at the Old Town Erotic Centre, turns to theft and has an encounter with a local prostitute. But in spite of all this, there’s even worse to come….

 This is very low-key, off-kilter humour. If you’ve ever had one of those days when every encounter you have has some sort of bizarre streak to it, and you find yourself wondering if it’s a full moon, then you know what I mean. The book’s title, by the way, could refer to three things:

Sturla’s grandfather was an ambassador

Sturla is an unofficial ambassador for Iceland at a poetry festival held in Lithuania

The name of Sturla’s shitty hotel is The Ambassador.

This should give a hint about the sorts of connections that run through the novel.

And here’s another quote just to give another taste of the book. Here’s Sturla wailing about the navel-gazing egos of poets and the poetry contest to be held during the conference:

And then, as a way of concluding this tragicomic presentation, all kinds of reading groups take over the program. We poor devils will be arranged into groups according to some rigid system one of the festival committee members  has been devoting months to, and I’m assuming that these groups will perform an autopsy on one of the poems.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up choosing a messy effort by one of the American house-wife poets, or by the Meierhof Phenomenon, it certainly won’t be a poem by that drunkard Bush or by me, who is from the back of beyond.

And finally, when we’ve all been over-stuffed with the art of words, the organizers will reveal to us who is the idiotic winner of the poetry contest they announced on the first day of the festival.

After this second title by Bragi Olafsson, I am now sold on trying more Icelandic fiction. I’ll have a go at Icelandic crime fiction and I also have 101 Rejkavick to read. Armann Valur, btw, who appeared in The Pets, also has a cameo appearance in The Ambassador.

Review copy from Open Letter Books read on my kindle.

Translated by Lytton Smith

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The Pets by Bragi Olafsson

“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

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