THE PETS by Bragi Ólafsson: Translated from the Icelandic by Janice Balfour (Rochester, New York: Open Letter Publishing, Literary Translations from the University of Rochester)
Five years ago, when I spoke at in Reykjavik, Iceland was riding high. Its financial boom looked as though it would last forever (sound familiar?) Fishermen became bankers. Rich bankers. Iceland’s three largest banks, Kaupthing, Landsbanki Islands, and Glitnir were lending wildly.
The Wall Street Journal reported that “The banks’ assets reach 10 billion pounds, about 10 times the country’s gross domestic product last year, and their foreign depositors …far outnumber the island’s population.”
But the party’s over. The government has seized the entire banking system. The krona plummeted 40% against the euro in just a few weeks.
So what? What’s this got to do with Bragi Ólafsson’s prescient “novel,” THE PETS . Originally published in 2001, THE PETS was even more presciently translated by Janice Balfour in 2008.
In the heat of the American financial crisis, the University of Rochester’s newly established Open Door Series has published this strangely cautionary tale of greed, passive-aggression—and frankly abusive aggression while nobody minds the store. And nobody seems to care.
THE PETS centers on two ne-er-do- wells with extra money in their pockets, their once-hateful relationship when five years before, they ostensibly took “care” of some pets in London. Failing abysmally, they angrily parted company with one paying off the other.
The two men are Emil, a prim passive who narrates most of this loosely knit tale from under his bed where he has fled to avoid meeting Havard, the loud lout (are there any quiet louts?). For after a welcome five-year absence, Havard has climbed in Emil’s window to find him once again. Searching the house but not looking under the bed, Havard answers the phone, invites Emil's friends for a party, and bathes in Emil's liquor.
Just back from another trip to London, Emil would rather inhale the dust under his bed, feel the springs pushing against him, than confront Havard, who “didn’t seem to be interested in anything, unless it was forbidden or contained the highest percentage of alcohol.”
The house fills with the noise of Emil's friends who wonder where he might be. Meanwhile, lying under the bed, Emil, easily annoyed, recalls all the little irritations of the return flight, particularly his talkative seatmate, Armann, whose glasses Emil forgets to return. The minor annoyances vanish after he meets Greta, whom he knew fifteen years ago. Despite the complications of a present girl friend, Emil has arranged to meet Greta once again at his house.
Initially, the chapters alternate between Emil’s first-person recollections and Havard’s third-person descriptions but the chapters soon shift to Emil’s under-bed perspective, which is pretty dim.
It’s tough to care about these two. Their futures end as they began. With such characters tending Iceland's meltdown, it's easy to see why its glaciers are now dripping from its financial trees. THE PETS can only make us wonder what will happen to us as we huddle under our economic beds and ponder our future.