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The Pets by Bragi Ólafsson

One shouldn’t let others into one’s life
Intertextuality took a bump when it came to The Pets. I was idly browsing the shelves of my former employer when its tastefully minimalist but near electric blue cover caught my eye, and then I read things like dark and funny (when used in the same context, possibly my two favourite adjectives) and I was sold. It jumped up the ‘to read’ list straight to the top, once I’d gotten Harry Harrison out of the way. At that point, I knew next to nothing about the author or the book.

So, here are some things I didn’t know about Bragi Ólafsson before that I do now:
1) He was bass player for The Sugarcubes, the Icelandic pop band which launched Bjork into mainstream and avant garde pop stardom
2)      He is from Iceland
3)      He translated Paul Auster’s City of Glass into Icelandic

Is any of that important? Probably, but maybe also not, although reading around the bloggers and reviewers there are a few people making comparisons between this book and some of Paul Auster’s stuff. True also, the somewhat pompous and overblown narrator Emil does bang on quite a bit about music: not as much (or to the same tedious lengths) as some other unsympathetic narrators do, notably between gruesome murders in American Psycho. Gah, okay, the book is set in Iceland and there are some language puns (possibly filtered through the excellent translator’s own sense of humour) which are probably hilarious in the original. But not much else of importance.

So, on to the premise/précis – Emil is rich, having won a modestly grotesque sum on the Lottery. On returning from a shopping spree in London he finds himself subject to the random visit of a phantom from his past, “the misogynist, alcoholic, compulsive gambler and, most recently, burglar Havard Knutsson”, who lets himself into Emil’s flat through the kitchen window when Emil fails to answer the door. Unfortunately for Emil, uncomfortably ensconced beneath his bed, Havard decides to make himself at home, playing Emil’s music and drinking his duty-free booze, all the while answering phone- and house-calls from Emil’s friends and acquaintances and generally having a good time.

The rather silly but entertaining back story is filled in during lulls in the growing farce by Emil’s recollections, including the meaning behind the title. All the action of the present is inferred from beneath the bed, each image drawn from audible and olfactory cues, like the fresh creeping of cold external air when the door is opened, the sounds of bottles opening and water splashing, the fug of cigarette smoke, the teasing and arguing of his friends and other guests, and one-sided telephone conversations. From his limited vantage point he can also see Havard defile his bathroom sink, and his other unlikely guest, Armann the professional linguist, who proffers an amusing diatribe over the plural form of Sony’s Walkman, drunkenly urinates over the toilet bowl, floor, and his own trousers. The only place of salvation [from other people] is the toilet, he suggests on the plane home from London. Not so. There is no place of salvation for Emil.


What develops, over the course of a short but immensely fun novella, is a picture of a weak man whose failures have left him pinioned beneath his own mattress, onto which his nemesis Havard tempts the girl Emil himself invited home, the springs pressing into the place where his spine should be. A word of warning, however– if you like your narrative arc to be resolved, you’ll be disappointed. Emil is left where he lies pressed into the dust-bunnies. He makes his own bed and now has to hide underneath it in literary perpetuity. 

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