Review by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir.
The Pets by former Sugarcubes bassist Bragi Ólafsson, originally published by Bjartur in 2001 and translated to English in 2008, is one of the stranger books I have read in recent years. But judging by the book’s nomination for the Icelandic Literature Award and favorable reviews in Iceland and abroad, this strangeness seems appreciated.
With a straightforward and humorous style, the author manages to catch the readers’ attention from the first pages, even though the events he describes seem rather everyday and not all that exciting to begin with. There is something between the lines, though, hinting that the story is about to take an unexpected turn.
The whole book happens in a few hours, mostly in an apartment in a quiet street in downtown Reykjavík with only a few glimpses of the past to shed light on the present situation.
The story is divided into two narratives, a first-person account by the story’s main protagonist, Emil: a pretty normal guy, presumably in his mid-thirties, who has a son in Denmark from a past relationship and a friend in Akureyri, who he isn’t quite sure whether or not to call his girlfriend. He has a passion for music and therefore travels to London to buy lots of CDs after winning the lottery.
While we follow Emil’s trip back from London, another character is introduced in a third-person narrative. Hávardur is an unpleasant fellow who carries a mysterious plastic bag around Reykjavík while he searches for his friends. As none of them are at home in the middle of the day, he wanders around the city center, leaving a trail of uneasiness.
The two narratives then merge into one as the two characters catch up with each other end the rest of the story is told through Emil’s perspective, who, upon his return from London, finds himself in the most absurd of situations.
Readers then follow as the situation develops, are presented with some peculiar characters and others more likeable, and learn about the back stories of Emil and Hávardur: how they met, what kind of a relationship they have and why that relationship abruptly ended a few years back.
Gradually the first impression changes and readers are given the chance to reevaluate the opinions they formed of the characters when they were first introduced.
The book teaches us that not everything is what it seems and that there are many sides to a story. Yet the story has no definite moral; readers must decide for themselves what they want to make of it.
Many things are left unsaid, there is room for speculation and, in fact, there is no definite ending. The book is like a track on a CD that isn’t played to the end but stopped right before the outro begins.
Whether that is good or bad, readers will have to decide for themselves. I’m a bit square when books are concerned, I prefer an ending. While some might find an open ending stimulating, I find it a bit irritating, as if I’ve been cheated out of something.
But perhaps the author attempts to provoke such feelings among his readers. He certainly provokes thinking.
I’ll give Ólafsson three stars, for being interesting, original and funny. The book never has a dull moment and I never got bored reading it, although I didn’t have any problems putting it down either. The story didn’t get me hooked, craving more (except I am curious about that ending). However, The Pets is a good read for sure.
The Pets is available in an English translation by Janice Balfour on amazon.com.
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Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir graduated with a Bachelors degree in communication studies from the University of Erfurt, Germany, in 2004. In 2006, she graduated with a Masters degree in journalism from the University of Westminster, London. She has worked as the web editor for Iceland Review since October 2006. Eygló received an award for her entries in a nationwide short story competition in 1997, 1998 and 1999.