Someone, wearing an anorak, knocked on my door at lunchtime.

The Pets, by Bragi Ólafsson and translated by Janice Balfour

Comic novels struggle to be taken seriously. Howard Jacobson recently won the Booker of course, but that’s a definite exception and as Jacobson himself noted he’d been waiting a fair while for the honour.

The book I’m currently reading is JG Farrell’s Troubles. It’s brilliant (so far anyway). It’s extremely well written and it’s extremely funny too. Why shouldn’t it be? There’s no conflict between quality and comedy.

The Pets is a story about a man, Emil, who returns home from a flight abroad to find an old acquaintance waiting for him. It’s not a welcome reunion. What do you do though when you don’t feel able to say to someone that actually you’d rather not talk to them? That question is the essence of the whole book. 

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.

The flight’s as bad as Emil fears. He’s seated next to a man called Armann Valur who refuses to take the hint when Emil plugs in headphones. Armann insists on conversation but he has nothing interesting to say. It’s not all bad though because an old object of Emil’s desire, Greta, is also on the flight.

Emil met Greta years ago when they were both teenagers. He saw her slip into a bedroom with a boy at a party and come out later with tousled hair. He wanted her but never got her. Now he has another chance – they fall into conversation and she agrees to visit him at home later that night. He doesn’t mention that he already has a girlfriend. He was feeling a bit ambivalent about that relationship anyway.

When he does get home though he gets some disturbing news. A man came round looking for him earlier wearing an anorak and carrying a plastic bag full of beer. He soon realises who that man was. Years ago Emil housesat in London for a friend of his father’s. Emil took along a coworker from home that he’d got to know – Havard. It was only later he realised that Havard had some serious psychological problems.

I haven’t heard from Havard for about five years, since we sat in the kitchen on Brooke Road in Stoke Newington and I gave him four hundred pounds to 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 the 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.

Emil didn’t give him the four hundred more. He should have.

Soon after Emil arrives home Havard returns. Emil doesn’t want to see him so he pretends he’s not in, and when Havard climbs through the window that means Emil has to keep pretending not to be home or explain why he didn’t answer the door. Emil hides under the bed. Havard decides to wait, and in the meantime invites some people over.

Emil isn’t really a bad man, but he is a bit of a coward. His girlfriend wants them to have a more serious commitment to each other. He’s not sure about that, but he doesn’t want to say that to her. He doesn’t pick up the gifts she asked for in London but he doesn’t break up with her either. Armann is a pestering bore, but Emil doesn’t want to tell him to shut up. Havard is profoundly disturbed and potentially dangerous, but all those years ago back in Stoke Newington Emil ignored all the signs until it was too late.

Tragicomedy is tricky stuff, but that’s what’s happening here. Emil doesn’t really deserve to be trapped under a bed as increasing numbers of people come into his home, drink his duty free alcohol and criticise his music collection. Then again, the pets didn’t deserve what Havard did to them either:

For some reason he thought it was highly appropriate to play the ukulele for the iguana. It was meant to be some kind of “Galapagos atmosphere,” as he called it, but the sound he produced was as sad as the fate the Mexican iguana was to meet three weeks later.

I love that quote. It’s so foreboding and yet so absurd at the same time. That’s the essence of this novel. There’s a vein of menace that runs through much of it, but it’s coupled with pathos (Emil, Armann and Havard are all in their different ways a bit pathetic) and Emil’s compromises are ones that most of us make to some degree.

When I was a kid my parents routinely pretended not to be home to unwelcome visitors. We’d sit there, unmoving, waiting for whoever was outside to go away. Often the TV would be hurriedly switched off. Sometimes we sat for a long time, because whoever was outside had heard the TV being switched off and was annoyed at being ignored and so kept on banging to be let in.

I’ve tried to ignore people on planes by focusing on a book, but then put it down when someone clearly wanted to talk. I’ve preferred to be polite rather than assertive. That’s not even necessarily a bad thing. Is my desire to be left alone really more important than someone else’s desire for a bit of company? Is it altruism though that’s motivating me, or fear of seeming rude?

Most of us I suspect have known people who knew their relationships weren’t working out but didn’t want to be responsible for the breakup. I can understand that (though I’ve seen it result in some very unpleasant passive-aggressive behaviour). I’ve been on both sides of that conversation and while being dumped is no fun at all at least afterwards you can blame the other person. If you’re the one doing the dumping it’s hard to feel good about yourself.

Some people, like Havard, never worry about social embarassment. They never pretend to be out, or pretend something is going ok when it isn’t. Others, like Emil, would rather hide how they feel than risk unpleasantness. Most of us are somewhere in between. Here Ólafsson takes the two extremes and brings them together. Havard is a sort of anti-Emil. His nemesis. 

The line between tragedy and farce is always narrow. In a way it’s a question of importance. If what’s at stake really matters then it’s tragedy. If it all ends in blood and ruin it’s probably not going to be that funny (not intentionally so anyway, The Duchess of Malfi though can go that way). If what’s at stake is petty, but important to the characters, that’s farce.

I heard about The Pets over at Guy Savage’s blog here. I don’t think it’s a well known novel in English, and I think it should be. While writing this I also found a review by Stewart of Booklit here which is worth reading for a still positive but less enthusiastic perspective.


Filed under Ólafsson, Bragi, Comic fiction, Icelandic fiction

16 responses to “Someone, wearing an anorak, knocked on my door at lunchtime.

  1. I heartily endorse your axiom that there’s not conflict between comedy and quality. I don’t know if its your bag, but I recently read (and reviewed – (cheeky plug)) ‘Wild Abandon’ by Joe Dunthorne, which is one of those rare gems that merges the literary with the comic in an utterly amazing way.

    Great review, as ever.

  2. You make a good point about comedy not being taken seriously. That’s my main beef about Shakespeare. All the classes I took on S overlooked the comedies while we dissected Hamlet to death.

    Glad you liked this one. I thought it was hilarious.

  3. Some great, honest insights about life as well as the book itself here. I agree that quality and comedy can go together but it’s always helpful to have the best examples pointed out by trusted sources like yourself.

  4. Great entry.
    This one has been on my list since Guy’s review. I’m waiting for the French paperback edition.
    We could make a list about people meeting in aeroplanes, like in Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie (the scene when Vinnie tries to discourage Chuck to talk is hilarious) and the recent Jonathan Coe.

  5. Self-styled ‘comic novels’ usually cause me some apprehension. Whilst I Iove the grim humour of Cormac McCarthy, certain Russian novels, etc, PG Wodehouse and similar leave me cold.

    But I do like the sound of The Pets. Your perceptive review suggests to me a balance that would comfortably avoid invoking my grousier tendencies.

  6. Tomcat,

    I’ve read that review, I just haven’t commented on it yet. I suspect since you remind me of it that it was probably there I got the idea about comedy not being taken seriously. You wrote about that at some length didn’t you?

    To others reading this Tom’s site is well worth visiting. There’s some lovely reviews there.

    Guy, thanks for bringing it to my attention. I wrote this weeks after reading it which for comedy in particular risks the impact being lost, but if anything it’s grown with time passing. I’ll definitely read The Ambassadors now.

    mrtsblog, thank you for the kind comments. As I write this Troubles, by JG Farrell, is shaping up to be an absolute triumph of the genre.

    On which note, I’ll be surprised if you don’t take to Troubles Sarah. Desperately funny, with the emphasis on the desperation. There’s a darkness to the humour here which is appealing, though I admit I do love Wodehouse.

    Emma, do such meetings ever turn out well? They do seem places fraught with danger airplanes. If you don’t crash (Fearless) you end up with people who do you no good at all…

  7. Well in the two examples I give, it is a life-changing meeting in that airplane. And a good one. The scenes in the airplanes are funny but will lead the characters to important changes in their lives and perception of themselves.

  8. Clearly I need to refresh myself. Foreign Affairs, that one I really do need to refresh myself on actually.

  9. gaskella

    I read this book a couple of years ago, (reviewed here). I enjoyed the black comedy which veered into complete farce as Emil was stuck under the bed.

  10. Thank you Emma. Most timely.

    gaskella, thanks for the link. Nice review. I thought this:

    “Emil returns home from a trip abroad to find that Harvard, a certifiable lunatic he shared a house in London with for a while a few years ago is looking for him. When Harvard turns up, Emil hides under the bed rather than let him in. What he doesn’t bargain for is Harvard climbing in through the open window to wait for him, and then when various other friends and acquantances turn up, Harvard invites them all in and entertains them with Emil’s record collection and drinks cupboard. Emil elects to stay under the bed, hoping they’ll all go….”

    a very punchy way of summarising the core situation in the book. I’m glad actually to find someone else who’s read it. Before Guy reviewed it I’d never heard of it and I don’t think Ólafsson’s getting quite the attention he merits. But then besides possibly Indridasun what Icelandic writer is?

    Right, now I have to read your Laxness review.

    Edit: gaskella, I couldn’t find the Laxness review. Did you write one?

  11. gaskella

    Max – I got the Pets through the Librarything Early Reviewers scheme, else I’m sure I wouldn’t have spotted it and missed a treat.
    The Laxness was pre-blog – but I wrote this in my library notes: “Everyone says what a great comic novel this is … I found it to be deeply unfunny! Susan Sontag’s introduction goes on about how brilliant it is but I found it turgid, clunky and slow. The very stylised writing made it hard to get into, although it did pick up in the second half. A typical fish out of water scenario – the Bishop’s aide is sent to investigate the state of Christianity in a remote Icelandic village, and encounters odd people and odd goings on. It’s like a unfunny comedy version of the ‘Wicker Man’ without the sex and violence, with a bit of a Frankenstein/ghost story thrown in for good measure.” But you might enjoy it – we read it for our book group, and to be honest, it wasn’t a hit, but did provoke a great discussion.

  12. I had no idea the Laxness was supposed to be a comedy. Hm. I wonder if I’ll like it more than you did.

    Well, it’ll be a while before I get to it sadly either way. Thanks for coming back though. I was very curious to hear how you’d found it.

    Iceland and christianity is an interesting topic. It was converted by extortion – the Norwegians (I think it was them) kidnapped members of local families and threatened to kill them unless Iceland converted. They did so to save their own kin. A troubled time, and arguably not the most Christian conversion method out there.

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