"Hilarious" is not a word that immediately comes to mind when thinking of Icelandic writing. Arnaldur Indridasson, the most famous contemporary writer in Iceland, pens mysteries which are among the darkest, gloomiest, and most haunting ever written, the pinnacle of Nordic noir. Life in Iceland can be tough. So when I stumbled across The Pets, I was amazed to see it described as "hilarious"--a book written by a young author who finds humor, even slapstick humor, in life in this cold, dark country. Nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize in 1999, and first translated into English in 2008, The Pets maintains a bright and breezy style which belies the obvious care and attention to detail with which it is written. Olafsson accepts the weather as a given, eliminating it as a factor in creating mood and atmosphere. Nearly all the important scenes take place indoors, and though the writing possesses a humor which is dark by comparison to that of some other cultures, the novel achieves a kind of universality through the absurdities which dominate the action.
Main character Emil Halldorsson has been away in London, celebrating his million-kronur lottery win (about $8500) with a two-week vacation. Upon his return, he learns that someone wearing an anorak with hood has been looking for him, knocking on his door and then peering in the window. Gradually, the reader comes to know Emil, who is not sure if he loves Vigdis, his lover; Armann Valur, a chatty "prospective pensioner," who appears to be hopelessly in need of attention; and Greta, the pretty woman across the aisle on the plane, whom he hopes will visit him. The man in the anorak is Havard Knutsson, who has been away for several years and who has an agenda of his own. Havard has no idea of boundaries and no sense of responsibility. Gradually, the story emerges of Emil's disastrous relationship with Havard when they were "pet-sitting" in London, five years ago, and when Havard comes to Emil's house once again, this time forcing his way in, Emil hides under the bed, while Havard makes himself at home.
Filled with details which illustrate the dreary "ordinariness" of the characters' lives, the reader quickly realizes that Havard's life, in its totality, is far from ordinary. As he makes himself at home in Emil's house with Emil's friends, Emil finds himself trapped, fearing that revealing his presence may be more dangerous than staying hidden. Irony and absurdity work together, creating scenes which are intensely visual, and which would make great theatre. The dialogue is often hilarious as Havard becomes the "perfect host," using supplies Emil has purchased at the duty free shop. The alternation of music between Mahler's piano quartet and Elvis Presley's singing, the constantly ringing doorbell, the telephone ringing, and various cellphone ring tones suggests a broad panorama of visitors connecting with Havard at Emil's expense (literally). The chaos of reality becomes even more absurd as the party progresses without any limits being imposed.
The author's deliberately vague conclusion forces the reader to consider all possibilities, and Emil's continuing failure to confront this intruder suggests that Emil may deserve whatever happens. With the strange Havard acting as the complete opposite of Emil, the reader ultimately wonders who is the responsible person--if anyone--and whether the ghost of Emil, who may be knocking at the front door, may provide a clue. Mary Whipple