Bragi Olafsson in the L.A. Times
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.
(Two quick notes: I have an unopened bottle of “Black Death” that Bragi brought for me during his tour. His description of how nasty—and strong!—Brennivin is sort of scared me off. But if anyone wants to give it a go . . . And secondly, in the category of random promotions, in addition to Björk and Sigur Rós, anyone interested in cool Icelandic music has to check out Múm, especially Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy. Incredible CD. And now back to The Pets . . . )
After describing the plot of the novel—Emil’s frightening old acquaintance Havard shows up in Reykjavik and, through a sequence of events you simply have to read, ends up in Emil’s living room while Emil hides under his bed for hours narrating this novel—Schaub makes his case for The Pets as the great rock novel.
So what we have is 157 dark, scary and unbelievably funny pages, much of which is narrated by a man hiding under his own bed. That might not scream “rock” at first blush, but the novel is infused, in its own way and very much on its own terms, with music. Emil is a borderline-obsessive jazz fan who takes maybe a little too much pleasure in his Miles Davis collection; Havard’s musical tastes run toward playing Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” ad nauseum and, at one point, buying a ukulele for no discernible reason. Kraftwerk’s paranoiac “Computer World” makes a brief appearance, too, at just the right claustrophobic time.
But if you were building an argument for the true rock novel being as unselfconscious about rock as possible, The Pets could be Exhibit A. More than most fiction that concerns itself with music, Bragi’s novel captures the dark side of rock — paranoia, fear, self-doubt and the cowardice that’s sometimes, maybe often, the flip side of rock-star braggadocio.
Of course it’s possible that this is all rock-nerd wishful thinking, and that Bragi didn’t intend to write a slyly great rock novel, but rather just a less slyly great novel. Perhaps it’s just his biography getting in the way. I don’t think so, but either way, we win. So how long do we have to wait for English versions of his other books? Open Letter, get Janice Balfour on the phone. Takk!
Oh, and about future books of Bragi’s, next fall we’ll be bringing out The Ambassador, which is being translated by Lytton Smith as I type. (I’ll post a sample in the not-too-distant future . . .)