by Bragi Ólafsson
translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith
Open Letter Books, 120 pages
reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
A man walks to the post office to mail his manuscript to a publisher, but he doesn’t complete the errand. Instead, he begins stalking another man, Aron Cesar, through Reykjavik. Hours pass. They watch the World Cup in pubs. They sit in the same movie theater watching La Grande Bouffe, a 1973 film about overconsumption. Aron is probably unaware of G., the stalker, following him everywhere with persistence but no outstanding purpose. After detailed observation, G. goes home without confronting Aron. The next day, G. decides he will after all mail the manuscript, which may or may not be the book, Narrator, which is currently in progress under the reader’s eye.
Narrator is brief and quirky, rich and absurd, metatextual and extremely simple. It’s a walking narrative (in reality, a stalking narrative), which means it depends upon the motion of the narrator in order to go anywhere in particular. However, this book’s range is only within the mind; Aron’s and G.’s movements throughout Reykjavik are completely uninteresting, encompassing mostly pubs and shops of little consequence. But G.’s thoughts circle neurotically around his family, his failures, and Aron’s ex-girlfriend, Sara, for whom G. pined. In this way, and others, the vertical dimensions of the book are much more compelling than its movements through horizontal space.
For instance, the book’s narration changes between third person and first person regularly, and its verbs shift tense from past to present often. There may be a deeper pattern of significance to these shifts, but in practice, on a single read, they bring freshness and chaos to a simple story. The difference between how G. sees himself in the third person and how he sees himself in the first person is not significant. It offers small but essential variation, like switching chairs at a long-running dinner, and it creates a triangulation—a more complex relationship—between G. and Aron, rather than a mere binary. That is, between the first-person G., the third-person G., and Aron, there are multiple connecting threads, instead of a simple back-and-forth.
In a novel in which there’s very little plot, elements that carry the reader forward include characterization, style, and how the text reflects on itself as a text. All these elements are stellar in Narrator.
The book also contains notes of dark humor that break up the relentless self-examination that characterizes G.’s inner weather:
To reward oneself for something that has not yet been achieved is something G. knows all too well. He uses the method all the time to motivate himself to do better, and it works. Because he could never live with receiving compensation for something he has not finished. The only thing that disturbs him in this respect is dying in the midst of an incomplete project for which he has already been remunerated. But would such a death not be a kind of payment?
In a novel in which there’s very little plot, elements that carry the reader forward include characterization, style, and how the text reflects on itself as a text. All these elements are stellar in Narrator. One of G.’s tics is that he “doesn’t care to say” how a particular event occurred. He is protecting himself from the reader’s judgment, and from his own. He also reveals himself as a pretty pathetic figure while expressing hatred for Aron and his ordinariness. Aron leaps forth from the page as aggressively, hilariously ordinary, wrapped up in football and sex and furious at a friend for recommending something as weird as La Grande Bouffe. As for style, Ólafsson (with the help of his nimble translator, Lytton Smith) has assembled an extremely unique voice in this novel, one which teases and aggravates and evokes both pity and laughter, all in the course of a page. It is skilled enough to call to mind Italo Calvino, whose work is at once multivocal and instantly recognizable as his own.
And Narrator is nothing if not self-reflexive. At one point, G. fantasizes about an editorial board considering his manuscript, asking each other questions about it:
Perhaps they will have gotten no further than the point where I have the publisher himself say “But why is he pondering the publisher’s response? Should he not instead be worrying about the reader?” And when the two women, or three, agree, the publisher adds a third question: “Why doesn’t he just continue with the story?”
After a break, the next section opens with “And that’s what he does. He continues.”
The bulk of Narrator’s text is inner contemplation, and that’s exactly the kind of prose that many writing teachers insist is least interesting. Scenes speed a story up, while contemplation slows a story down and bores the reader. But this book, despite containing few traditional scenes, is a very quick read, and it never fails to intrigue. G.’s audacity as a stalker, and his constant lens upon himself, keep the tension high. Whether Aron will discover him or not seems to be the source of the tension, but it really isn’t; the question, appropriate for a novel this inverted, is whether G. will discover himself.