Guest blogger Michael Shaub reviews the novel "The Pets" by Bragi Ólafsson.
With its 99.9% literacy rate (seriously), and a roster of great authors (Halldór Laxness, Hallgrímur Helgason) that belies the fact that it has a smaller population than Bakersfield, the nation of Iceland could fairly be called a book lover’s paradise. (There’s even a "Library of Water" there, which, according to my Icelandic American partner, delivers exactly what it promises.)
It could also be called a rock lover's paradise -- it's home to the acclaimed band Sigur Rós; the world’s most beloved swan-clad chanteuse, Björk; and -- because no nation can claim rock cred if the stiffest available beverage is lemonade -- Brennivín, nicknamed Black Death, an ungodly strong schnapps that tastes like rye bread soaked in sulfuric acid and then set on fire. (I speak from experience here. Bitter, bitter experience.)
With that in mind, it's not entirely surprising that Iceland has given the world one of the best novels written by a former rock musician. Granted, that's not a long list to begin with. If you don't count Jimmy Buffett's mystery novels -- and you really, really shouldn't -- you're left with a pretty sparse hand. (But one with some high cards -- Joey Goebel's "The Anomalies" and Frank Portman's "King Dork," both excellent novels by American punks.)
So enter Bragi Ólafsson, former bassist for the Sugarcubes, the legendary post-New Wave band that made Björk a star. After the band broke up, Bragi turned to literature, writing poetry and fiction, and translating Paul Auster's "The Glass City" into Íslenska. The indispensable Rochester publisher Open Letter released Bragi’s first novel rendered into English, "The Pets," translated beautifully by Janice Balfour, in October of last year.
"The Pets" is not about rock, at least not overtly. The novel follows two Icelanders who have recently returned from abroad: Emil Halldorsson, who's been vacationing in London after winning the lottery, and Havard Knutsson, Emil's former roommate, who's been on a more involuntary vacation in a mental hospital in Sweden. Emil is a mostly nice guy, although he's a mostly nice guy who seriously wants to cheat on his girlfriend with a stranger whom he first lusted after 15 years ago. Havard is a mostly unreconstructed psychopath.