Posted by: biblioglobal | September 5, 2012

Iceland (Book-from-every-country #20)

The Pets by Bragi OlafssonThe Pets by Bragi Ólafsson

The Pets is the novel that I imagine would result if Nick Hornby decided to rewrite The Metamorphosis. Emil is a twenty-something music-snob uncertain about his future with his girlfriend. He spends most of the book hiding underneath his bed, trying to avoid Havard, a former acquaintance who has entered his apartment.

Surprisingly, the book is actually at its best when Emil is stuck hiding under his bed. I found the first section of the book, where Emil and Havard are traveling towards Emil’s apartment rather dull, though the sequence of street names on which they traveled is so detailed that I could probably find my way to Emil’s apartment too, despite having never been to Reykjavik. Once Emil is under the bed however, the book becomes quite funny, and I found myself laughing aloud at several points. The book probably also makes some larger points about drawing boundaries in relationships with others, but today I find that I would rather write about some more trivial aspects.

The Pets takes place on a cold day in February and one thing that jumped out at me was the precision of terms describing the winter jackets everyone wore. One character wore a parka, another an overcoat, and several more wore anoraks. While I recognized these terms as warm apparel I didn’t really know the differences. So, for your edification:

  • Parka- has a hood and a front zipper. Usually extends to knee length


    An Inuit anorak. Image courtesy Wikipedia

  • Anorak- Has a hood but no front zipper. Usually waist length
  • Overcoat- made of heavy material and extends beyond the knee

The Pets was originally published in 2001 and I found it interesting how precisely one could date its setting based on the technology in the book. Households commonly had computers and internet, but in order to shop for the music and books he wanted, Emil traveled to London. In London, he bought CDs, but when he traveled on the plane he was still listening to tapes on his walkman. He bought videos rather than DVDs. Some characters had cell phones, but most phone conversations took place over landlines. I wonder whether books have become easier to pinpoint in time because of the increasing rate of technological change? Or is it just always easier to date a book from the recent past because we are more familiar with it? Could early readers of Jane Austen’s books place their timing to within a few years based on the fashions described or some other features?

I randomly pulled The Pets off the shelf while browsing at the library and saw that it had been translated from Icelandic. I decided to run with it as my book for Iceland knowing nothing more about it. After I read it, the endpages provided me with some quite interesting information. The Pets was published in English by a project at the University of Rochester which aims to publish 15 books in English translation every year. Having come to appreciate how many notable books don’t get translated into English, I’m excited by their efforts. I also learned that Bragi Ólafsson was a member of The Sugarcubes, a band that also included Bjork. (Which explains the music nerd main character.) Most interesting of all, in a strikingly unusual career move, the translator of The Pets, Janice Balfour, apparently moved to Iceland in 1972 in order to study Italian at the University of Iceland.



  1. It’s fascinating that there are so many specific names for winter jackets. Clearly, it’s an important item up there. As for technological references, it seems many authors shy away from mentioning technology because they don’t want their books to be “dated,” but the end result can be confusing for readers wondering when a novel takes place.

    • That’s really interesting that authors would deliberately avoid technological references. At some point, I would expect that books without technological references will seem “dated” for just that reason.

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