I reviewed Icelandic author Bragi Ólafsson’s comic, existential novel, The Pets, for The L Magazine when it was translated into English in 2008. It is a wonderful book, and one which I still find myself thinking about years later. The original review isn’t available on The L website anymore, but the full text is below.
(It bears noting that at the time of this review, I didn’t quite understand how Icelandic patronymic names work, so I refer, in error, to Bragi as ‘Ólafsson’ within the review. This is not actually correct, as Wikipedia will explain in delightful detail.)
By Bragi Ólafsson, Translated by Janice Balfour
October 2008, Open Letter Press
The Swedish Academy’s Horace Engdahl recently asserted that “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature…” The statement may have ruffled those hoping to see Roth or DeLillo finally honored, but Engdahl makes a valid point. Out of the 290,000 books published in the U.S. last year, only about 350 were new works in translation. (This is, of course, a loose estimate—no one’s keeping exact records.)
In response to this longstanding trend of literary xenophobia, the University of Rochester launched Open Letter, a press dedicated entirely to translated literature. Their first season of releases is an excellent primer for the reader looking to expand her horizons, particularly Bragi Ólafsson’s absurdist comedy (and possibly the funniest novel to be narrated from under a bed), The Pets.
Emil S. Halldorsson is a man beset by happenstance. He’s just happened to win a million króna in the Icelandic lottery, just happened to meet a woman on a plane who he’s “adored from a distance for nearly fifteen years,” and just happened to walk off with the eyeglasses of an eccentric linguist. But none of these random occurrences are nearly as disruptive to Emil’s apathetic existence as the arrival of Havard Knutsson, an Id-fueled persona non grata who literally drives Emil into hiding.
As Havard wreaks havoc on Emil’s life—breaking into his home, rifling through his belongings, inviting strangers over, and compromising his romantic relationships—Ólafsson creates a strangely sympathetic Catch-22. Having hidden from Havard rather than confronting him in the first place, it becomes increasingly difficult for Emil to take any action at all. “I have become the guilty party…” he laments, even as his invader helps himself to cognac and cigars.
And yet, the reader is also forced to consider Emil’s complicity, the responsibility that he bears for his own undoing. “Why on earth don’t I do something? What is wrong with me?” Emil bemoans, a pitiful (but certainly relatable) picture of self-loathing inaction.
Delightfully funny and unexpectedly complex, The Pets introduces American readers to a fresh voice and perspective, and provides ample incentive for us to crawl out from under the bed.