This August marks the publication of “Narrator,” Bragi Ólafsson’s third novel on the English language market. As with “The Pets” and “The Ambassador”—Bragi’s previous works in English—“Narrator” is published by US publisher Open Letter Books, home of several Icelandic authors in translation.
The book is filled with Bragi’s unique brand of tamed absurdity, wherein reality seems to be on unstable footing, even if the characters do their utmost to disregard calamities. In fact, his novels form a unified whole; a Vonnegut-esque universe within a setting that feels mundane and familiar, yet slightly at odds with our own world.
Repetition and variation
“It might sound like gibberish, but to me the world that these books access is real,” Bragi clarifies. “All but two of my novels contain recurring characters; they wriggle through because they can’t be contained by a single book. Because of this, I still feel very attached to my older books, like my first novel, ‘Days of Rest,’ which was published almost twenty years ago. ‘Narrator’ has a strong connection to that book. It may seem like I’m just constantly writing the same book over and over again with only slight variations, and that’s probably it.”
Lost and found in translation
An aspect of Bragi’s work that one often finds in English language reviews is his use of humour. A combination of absurdity and pessimism, it is a uniquely Icelandic brand of wit, and praise must be given to Bragi’s translator Lytton Smith for managing to recreate as elusive an element of the author’s voice in English.
“Humour is one of the hardest things to translate from one language into another,” Bragi maintains. “For example, I’ve always thought Halldór Laxness to be one of the world’s funniest writers and yet I’m certain that a big part of his humour gets lost in translation. His strange, cunning yet lackadaisical voice must be extremely difficult to recast in a new language. I’m sure that many things in my own writing are lost in translation but at least in my case other aspects become more enhanced instead. A good translation can make the writing more direct.”
To thy own self be true
Halldór Laxness was, of course, Iceland’s only Nobel laureate. His fiction was seen as capturing the Icelandic national identity, honouring the nation’s independent spirit while also fiercely criticizing its small-mindedness. Such debates concerning politics and patriotism was an intrinsic element of fiction writing for much of the 20th century, but Bragi is uncertain whether authors still hold such powers.
“It’s difficult to argue about an author’s responsibility to his or her nation without dragging in hoary ideas about national poets,” he points out. “Maybe some Icelandic authors boast such a stature in the national consciousness, but I doubt it’s through their fiction, much rather through public speaking or direct social criticism. Today, being a national poet just refers to your work being honoured and admired, rather than your stature as a political agitator. Modern writers and poets are mostly just responsible to themselves. As an author, I demand certain things of myself, one of which is that I must show the reader something only I can see.”
The world of Reykjavík
At a time when the romanticism of unspoilt Icelandic nature is being trumpeted globally by subway ads and pseudo-investigative journalism, Bragi’s books are also unapologetically urban, being entirely set in Reykjavík and its vicinity or on overseas trips to the continent.
“I was in the US recently, and someone asked whether I felt a pressure to realistically represent Icelandic society,” Bragi says. “I said that I didn’t necessarily consider myself an Icelandic author. My area of expertise is Reykjavík, and a very limited and particular version of Reykjavík at that. Then and there, I decided that ‘Icelandic’ was too big a word, and that I was actually a Reykjavík author. Still, I often feel grateful to my foreign readers when they recognise Reykjavík street names in my writing. In such instances, I feel like I’ve done something worthwhile; describing events inside a house where a tourist might just have had the chance of peeking through a window at most.”
I am Legion, for we are many
Perhaps because of this localism, Bragi’s characters are often filled with an equilibrium of social anxiety and petty jealousies that feels very familiar to the capital’s small-town atmosphere. His protagonists are of a kind; neurotic Gregor Samsas doing their utmost to avoid rocking the boat. It might be easy to assume that such archetypes are the author’s means of exorcising his demons, but Bragi maintains that the process is somewhat more complicated than that.
“With each book, I know less and less who’s doing the writing,” he explains. “There are always fragments of me in my characters, particularly my protagonists, but I’ve never gone so far as to look at a character and say: That’s me! Getting so entangled in their lives and inner lives sometimes makes me believe that I’m a more complex person than I actually am, but by now I can’t point at a single character and claim that it originated within me.” He shrugs. “I just don’t know any more.”