The shadows cast by past disappointments are long. Ancient defeats and buried regrets may sometimes diminish over time, but do they ever truly go away? “Narrator” — the newly translated novel by Icelandic writer and musician Bragi Ólafsson, perhaps best known as a member of the Sugarcubes and thus a one-time band mate of Iceland’s biggest star, Björk — is a book that mines these long shadows of failure, anguish and resentment for jet-black comedic effect.
As he waits in line at a post office in Reykjavik, about to send off his manuscript, our titular “narrator” G., 35 years of age and still living at home with his parents, catches a glimpse of a man he once knew— or didn’t quite know but knew of, from afar, someone around whom he has built a whole network of hostilities.
“More than once, more than twice,” G. explains, “I’ve wished this particular individual did not exist. Or, at least, did not exist in the same space as me, at the same time, with the same people. Of course, this was very foolish thinking, and it was a while ago now. Back then, I even devised strategies to get this man out of the way, take him off the board in some manner, although the implementation of my plans never got beyond the idea stage.”
G. decides — out of curiosity? Out of jealousy? Out of hatred? — to spy on this old bête noire, shadowing him for the duration of the day. We quickly learn that Aron Cesar, the target of this stalking, was once the lover of Sara, the object of G.’s unrequited affections over a decade earlier.
Aron, seemingly oblivious to his tail, goes about his normal day: paging through magazines at a bookstore, picking up food from a supermarket, eating lunch, phoning friends, watching a World Cup match at a bar, even walking out of a cinema in disgust after a character in the film that’s been recommended to him dies from having held in his flatulence.
We learn a lot about Aron as we follow him on these trivial adventures, but these observations — filtered as they are through G. — shine less light on the stalkee than they do on the stalker, revealing G.’s own failings and insecurities, showcasing his prejudices, highlighting his self-mythologies.
One thing we learn about our simultaneously charming and off-putting guide is that he is what we would call, using the buzzwords of the day, an “incel” (involuntary celebate), though the book never uses this exact term nor actively aligns him with that subculture. “Would these people suspect that the young man on the other side of the glass had never been inside another person?” G. questions. “He had come out of his mother, and has not been anywhere since.”
It’s interesting to see this book, which was written a few years ago and published in Iceland in 2015, coming out in the U.S. against the backdrop of a new world — the world of Trump and Brexit and #MeToo and Jordan Peterson. This casts a different sort of shadow on the proceedings.
Another thing we learn of G. is that he is “one who is constantly thinking about form and shape.” Thinking about the form and shape of “Narrator,” I was reminded of the forms and shapes of those classic surrealist novels — André Breton’s “Nadja,” Philippe Soupault’s “Last Nights of Paris,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Her,” and others — in which narrators always end up obsessively following an entrancing figure around a city to strange, silly and tragic effect.
Here, though, instead of the figure pursued being an object of sexual desire, as is the case in those surrealist novels, Aron is an object of sexual jealousy in “Narrator,” a perpetual reminder of G.’s inadequacy in love and, more deeply, in life.
The book is also a descendant of the nouveau roman, taking formal cues from and shaping its particular version of narrative play in the mold of the enigmatic novels of writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor and Nathalie Sarraute.
The world of “Narrator” is the same uncanny world of his previous novels. Characters from one Ólafsson book often appear again as characters in another. His literary influences also seem to flow freely from one book to the next. The Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett influences, which are prominent in previous work like “The Pets,” remain, though they are perhaps less pronounced here than the surrealist and nouveau roman touchstones.
In this deft translation by Lytton Smith — translator of the work of Icelandic literary heavyweights like Jón Gnarr, Kristín Ómarsdóttir and Guðbergur Bergsson — Ólafsson’s voice shines through. The prose is relatively sleek and straight-forward, even as it erratically hops between first and third person, bubbling over from time to time with a dark and dangerous idiosyncratic beauty.
As the story draws to a close, the resolution feels neither tidy nor messy, for it is nearly non-existent, which admittedly may be part of the point. Though unable to achieve the sublimity of his masters — the exquisite sexual obsessiveness of the surrealists, the intricate narrative play of the writers of the nouveau roman, the flawless disjointed nightmarishness of Kafka, or the perfect gallows poetry of Beckett — Ólafsson does manage to take the reader on a compelling journey into the tragicomic world that erupts from man’s inability to adequately process shame and the inevitable narcissism that flows from that ineptitude.
“I think I mentioned it before, but maybe not,” G. confesses at one point, “that I tend to have trouble deciding what I feel about my own feelings, or, rather, trouble assessing whether what I feel is really what I feel, whether it is in general not simply what I think I should feel.”
Each and every day we are the narrators of our own stories — analyzing our actions, explaining our feelings, translating our experiences, to ourselves and to the world. With rare exception, we cast ourselves as the tragic heroes of the stories of our lives, as G. does here. Ironically, because all narrators — yes, even you, even me — are inherently unreliable, this role of tragic hero becomes more accurate than we are ever able to comprehend.
“I wonder how I look in the eyes of the people walking past the screamingly huge window of the store?” G. ponders.
Our tragedy is our inability to assess ourselves with anything approaching third-person objectivity, to see the people we truly are, to get a glimpse, even a fleeting one, of what others see. Luckily, our comedy, of course, is the same.
Malone is a writer based in Southern California. He is the founder and editor in chief of the Scofield. His work has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Literary Hub and the L.A. Review of Books.
Translated by Lytton Smith