Translation and introduction by Salka Gudmundsdottir
In early 2009 I spent an entire night reading Steinar Bragi’s novel Konur (Women), a copy of which I’d finally managed to borrow off a friend—following on from rave reviews, the book had sold out in every single bookstore in Reykjavik and, truth be told, I was feeling a tad sceptical and therefore eager to find out whether or not this sleeper hit was more than just hype. It turned out to be a sleepless night for me. When I finished the book around six in the morning, it was still churning in my mind. I found Steinar Bragi’s writing relevant, enthralling and uncomfortably stark. Revulsion mixed with admiration. I devoured the rest of his books in three weeks.
The story featured in this magazine, “The Rafflesia Flower,” was published by Icelandic publishing house Mal og menning in late 2009 as part of an excellent three story collection called Himinninn yfir Thingvollum (The Sky Above Thingvellir). There is a bleak and often painful sense of an inwards spiralling to the story; much like the main character’s grasp on reality, the reader’s grasp on the narrative gradually begins to slip. This is one of Steinar Bragi’s distinguishing characteristics as a novelist; the world of his stories has a tendency to collapse in on itself along with the protagonists’ world. One of the themes which run through his writing is the disintegration of a claustrophobic contemporary reality and the world of the text, coupled with an unflinching rawness and a nihilistic, sometimes apocalyptic sense of foreboding.
Translating Steinar Bragi was an interesting challenge. His syntax is often unusual; sentences develop in unexpected ways along with the psychological world of the story. I have therefore attempted to retain some of the “foreignness” innate to the text, as well as a sense of the individual characters’ modes of speaking. The register is intelligent and sharply honed, yet fairly informal, and I have tried to strike a balance between making the text accessible to non-Icelandic readers and maintaining the atmosphere of the original text.
Steinar Bragi is at the forefront of literary fiction in Iceland and it is an absolute delight for me as a translator to take part in introducing his writing to an overseas readership.
He was standing by the window, looking outside. It had probably been snowing for a few weeks, an incessant all-day snowfall, not just the occasional comma here and there but proper snowflakes—podgy, glowing with whiteness, filling the world with their stillness and silence.
He’d been living there on Ljósvallagata for some months, in a second-floor flat facing Hólavallakirkjugardur, the cemetery by Sudurgata. During all that time, he’d hardly left the house at all. Originally, he had come to gather his grandfather’s belongings, settle the estate, but once that was done he started to write an essay, moved in a few boxes of books, and began to look out the window, sometimes for days on end. For weeks he met no one other than an acquaintance he sometimes had coffee with, a Pole who picked worms in the surrounding gardens. It was a self-imposed solitude. He could break out of it whenever he wanted, pick up the phone or take a walk and knock on someone’s door. His friends were never more than a few minutes away.
But he never went anywhere, never picked up the phone or knocked on anyone’s door. He was alone and would need to be alone for a while, possibly for a long time. He told himself that he needed the privacy to finish the essay, yet he spent nowhere near the entire day writing, not sixteen hours, some days no time at all, and now months had passed and he still had less than a fraction of what he needed to finish. Was he going to spend months of his life in solitude to finish an essay? Sometimes he felt as if the solitude he had so harshly brought upon himself must stem from some other reason, as if something was about to happen—a fairly vague notion that he would somehow be chosen.
And late one Friday night, the wait was over. Emil was lying on the sofa, reading about “the little death” as research for a chapter of the essay, when someone rang the doorbell. The buzzing rang loudly through the quiet flat, and his heart pounded anxiously as he hurried through the living room to the kitchen window. He thought it must be someone coming home from a night on the town who had pressed the wrong doorbell, and what he saw down on the pavement seemed to confirm this: a shadow against the newly fallen, glowing snow, sagging sideways as if having bumped a shoulder on his buzzer by accident.
He decided to ignore it, to keep his presence hidden and simply wait for the person to bugger off or stumble upon the right buzzer. But the ringing went on until Emil could no longer stand the noise, until he hurried downstairs and opened the door.
“Cold,” the shadow slurred, walking past him to climb, or, looking like a large dog, crawl up the stairs. It was a girl, carefully wrapped in a scarf and hat, a small rucksack on her back. He ran after her and asked what she was doing. She gave no reply, and he decided to humor her by following her up the stairs rather than kicking up a fuss.
When they went into the hall, she straightened up long enough to remove the rucksack and coat and kick off her shoes. Again he asked what she was doing there, and she muttered something about names—beautiful names, names that inspired trust, something to do with the names on the buzzers. She then lurched into the living room, lay down on the sofa without removing her hat or scarf, and immediately fell asleep, nothing to be seen of her face but the tip of her nose and her bluish, frost-cracked lips.
He covered her with a blanket, and toward the morning, after much speculation and all sorts of worries, he too finally fell asleep.
That was how he met the girl.
The following day, the girl woke around two. He offered her some coffee, which she accepted, still wearing the hat and scarf. They sat in kitchen and chatted, at first tentatively, and he smiled to himself at her attempts to discover if they’d had sex, where they’d met, and so on. The conversation dissolved into laughter when he told her what had happened, and together they tried to figure out why she was there.
She said the last thing she remembered was leaving a bar and that she’d probably been heading to her friend’s house nearby, on the city’s west side. Then—possibly—she’d seen a light in his window, approached mischievously, and decided to ring the doorbell.
“Or maybe it was the name on the buzzer? But then again, I haven’t got a clue why I walked up to the front door to begin with! I don’t know.”
“You said something about names,” he said, and they laughed some more. She seemed surprisingly perky, considering how drunk she’d been the night before; she praised the view over the cemetery, praised the snow, the light and stillness, smoked some cigarettes, and finally took off the hat and scarf. At a guess, she was just over twenty. She was pretty, or maybe pleasant looking was a better description, and he couldn’t understand what she was doing there, not that he considered himself unworthy of the company of girls, exactly, but according to his experience of the city’s nightlife a girl like that—a girl who liked to drink—ought to go straight from the bar to an after party or to the house of a lover. A girl like her didn’t wander the streets on her own or barge in on a man who lived by a cemetery and thought of nothing but death.
“It doesn’t really matter. It’s nice to occasionally get an unexpected visit,” he said, which was a mild way of saying how he felt. He was almost uncontrollably happy to have someone to talk to at last, someone he immediately took a liking to. The fact that this feeling seemed mutual increased his joy, and he thought he could suddenly see that his life over the last few months had been less like a life than a state. He decided to start breaking out of his solitude as soon as possible, to start walking toward life again.
Without falling into small talk, they talked more about the snow. Then the girl checked her watch and said she’d have to go, apologized for barging in on him in the middle of the night, and promised it wouldn’t happen again. She took off, and Emil didn’t expect to see her again, which made him sad.
“This was fun, a lot of fun,” he whispered to no one and then sat down once more to work on the essay.
Just before midnight, his Polish acquaintance Martin came ’round. The area where he gathered his worms extended from Klambratún and west toward Seltjarnarnes, but he normally kept to the Thingholt area or the west side. In the summer, he sold them to fishing stores or individuals and had made a living off this for several years. He had access to a garage, where he grew worms in chipboard crates, feeding them coffee grounds, rotting vegetables, and meal. During winter, the worms reproduced in the crates, but whenever it rained he would pick worms that were fully grown from people’s gardens.
Martin had moved to Iceland at the age of two, which probably made him a semi-immigrant, but Emil could think of him as such. His Icelandic was better than Emil’s, and it seemed fitting to call him Icelandic when one listened to him speak, but the facial expressions and the inflections were different. There was something exotic about him, and it annoyed Emil that he should associate this with nationality in the first place. He just couldn’t think of anything better.
The Pole seemed to simultaneously live the most attractive and most tragic life possible, just like Emil himself. They weren’t exactly friends; they’d met in the cemetery late at night shortly after Emil moved to the flat, and for some reason he’d invited Martin ’round for coffee. Ever since, Martin would occasionally knock on his door, perhaps because they both usually stayed up during the night.
Martin said he’d grown tired of sitting at home and had wanted to take a walk.
“It’s beautiful outside right now. Haven’t you been out at all? You look tired, my friend.”
Emil said he’d been doing a lot of work, then thought he was going to talk about something else but heard himself blurt out the story of the girl’s visit. He got caught up in detailed explanations, saying he’d grown strangely jolly from their conversation, using the word “jolt” to describe the feeling—a word which made him think of electric chairs and scorched flesh being ripped apart—and then the whole thing induced in him a sense of shame and dread, as if he was about to uncover a horrifying secret.
As usual, Martin gave a hearty laugh and said he could see the jolt in Emil’s eyes.
“Has a light come on in there, my friend? A little white star—”
“Stop talking about it,” Emil said crossly. “Nothing happened. And she won’t be coming back.”
He got Martin to describe the things he saw in the gardens and to tell him the latest story about a minister’s daughter in a basement on Laufásvegur—who would undress for Martin once a week, when she came home drunk just after midnight on Thursdays—and a witty anecdote about the painter Kjarval, whom Martin had read about in a magazine while in a dentist’s waiting room.
“I also read that the Aztecs invented popcorn. Does that sound dubious? I must have thought so as well when I first read it: maize on a pan over a fire in Central America. But why did that sound so far-fetched? Probably because of what I associate with popcorn. Popcorn is something we eat at the cinema during an action flick, the opposite in life to the Indians of Central America, and maybe it’s this thing about their inventing it! There’s no symbolic image more fitting for the collective and passive than the cinema screen, everyone munching their popcorn.”
“Come on now,” Emil said, attempting to immerse himself in the conversation. “Doesn’t that apply just as well to people reading the news, in a collective language in the newspapers, over a bowl of cereal—or in general to most of the things people do?”
“Yes, probably, but what does that tell us? That modern culture is more about participation than creation, encouraging the masses to be passive because it’s necessary? Increased security demands increased impotency or participation by proxy—metaphorical or fake participation, sublimation and image-ism. How can capitalism produce and sell images to an even greater extent than flour or oil? Because our hunger for avoidance from our instincts has never been greater, because our safety has never been greater. At some point we agreed to live a long life in security and boredom, generally speaking, rather than to live a short life in a red-blue dream, full of sex or at least death and violence.”
“But why do you assume we have more security? Hasn’t the world generally been teeming with conflicts and wars, more so during the twentieth century than ever? Total wars, the firestorms, the nuclear bomb, the gas chambers—”
“That’s nonsense. This romantic misunderstanding was born in the nineteenth century—when we started looking around and anthropology came into being—a misunderstanding inspired by Rousseau that the natural state of the human was this innocence and kindheartedness, loincloth-clad children in the jungle who sometimes shook their spears in the faces of nearby tribes, sometimes killing a couple but no more. This is nonsense. In the communities of hunters and gatherers—the social structure most natural to humans, by which we lived for a hundred thousand years—around twenty percent of the population, men, women, and children, are killed by violence. These hundred hunters who met in a field, let out a roar, and shook their spears normally killed no more than one or two from each team, and the Rousseau anthropologists came over all tearful on account of the coziness. But what they missed, or ignored, was the fact this children’s game took place once or twice a month until one tribe was so overpowered by the collective number of casualties that the others felt they could deal with a second-stage attack, which meant invading the opponents’ village under cover of darkness and exterminating everyone in the village, except the occasional woman kept from then on as a procreation slave to boost the numbers of the winning tribe.”
“It’s the truth, my friend. And every year in these communities, twenty percent of the population died from violence. Do you understand this? How big this number is? The Second World War in Europe is what comes closest to this, but that is a singular event in time and nowhere approaches this percentage, let alone if we take the entire twentieth century into the equation—or the nineteenth or the eighteenth or the entire three centuries. It makes no difference. This is what we call civilization! In a sense we’ve conquered death or have at least managed to build around ourselves this fortress of civilization to keep it away. A feat, my friend? Or not? Might we be paying a price? Something we’re not seeing? Something that matters?”
“I don’t understand what you’re getting at with these percentages of yours. Are you saying humankind is evil in itself? Whereas civilization is good?”
“Far from it! Humankind is far from evil. Or maybe only twenty percent of it is? Maybe I’m claiming that the ‘natural state’ of the human is peace, love, and harmony and twenty percent violence and war? Whether you fulfill it by watching or participating. You should use this in your essay: Man is twenty percent evil! And of course it’s not a question of being good or evil—”
“It’s one theory, I guess,” Emil said, interrupting him. Long conversations like this made him tired. His thoughts became airborne, revolving around each other.
“It’s the truth, not a theory.” Martin laughed for some reason Emil didn’t understand, finished his cup of coffee, said he was going home to do some painting, and then disappeared into the snowfall. Martin made oil paintings, which Emil had never seen and hadn’t asked to see; he imagined they would depict bluish, frost-laced worms like shiny fluorescent light sticks buried deep in the ground.
After that eventful Saturday, solitude, strangely stubborn as it was, again enveloped Emil, and apart from the weekly stroll to the supermarket out in Seltjarnarnes, where he never saw any customers, the days passed uneventfully.
He worked on his essay, read, and passed time. Just over a week later, shortly after midnight on Saturday, the doorbell rang again. It was the girl again, so drunk she could hardly stand. He helped her up the stairs, and she lay down on the sofa, but this time she woke up earlier the next day and sat there for a while as they chatted about the weather, the native drinking culture, and a hurricane in Burma.
From then on she began to visit fairly regularly, usually every few days but at any hour. The Wednesday following, she arrived before noon, around ten o’clock, so drunk he had to carry her up the stairs, where he put her to bed and pulled the duvet over her. Later that same day, when she woke up, she mentioned the snow.
“Snow?” she said, her voice hoarse and crackly, looking out the window, the same cemetery window where she’d stood before saying the same thing. “It’s so beautiful here!” she cried and laughed a little, maybe because she’d realized she was repeating herself or maybe just from joy.
She accepted a cup of coffee but said she had to run off somewhere and asked what time it was.
“Heavy schedule?” he asked. She nodded and kept looking into the snow, which was unusually dense. You could only just about see across the street, and you could no longer hear the traffic out on Hringbraut.
He asked for her name, and she said it wouldn’t be any fun if he knew.
“Too normal,” she said, a tad pretentiously. “And of course it would be best if I didn’t know your name either. Actually I’ve forgotten it now.”
“You don’t know it,” he said. “The name on the doorbell is my grandfather’s name. He passed away.”
“Ah, passed away. I’m sorry. Is this his flat?”
Emil nodded and couldn’t actually remember whether they’d had this discussion before. Probably not.
“What are you doing in your grandfather’s flat?”
“I came here after he died to clean and take care of this and that. Then the solicitor told me I’d inherited the flat.”
She smiled and looked at him searchingly. Her eyes were blue-green and turbid, like a moat with stale water.
“Our family isn’t particularly big—in case you’re wondering why I’m my grandfather’s sole heir. His only child, my dad that is, lives abroad and they didn’t see each other very often. Granddad owned a few flats, I think, and my dad inherited everything apart from this one. I don’t know why I got it. Maybe because I didn’t own one myself. We’d usually have a meal together when we met up. I cooked. Granddad’s memory had started to go, and the conversation was practically the same from week to week, from word to word. But it’s weird how that didn’t matter.” Suddenly he couldn’t remember what he was going to say but kept forcing the words out. “It’s weird how little it actually matters—what you say.” His eyes started to fill with tears. He felt as if his chest would cave in from a sudden, almost outrageous desire that nonetheless seemed to bear only a distant connection to his grandfather.
The girl noticed nothing and began to put on the clothes lying on the hallway floor, then wrinkled her nose and said, “No offence, but it smells a bit funny in here.”
Emil nodded. “The bird, I suppose,” he then said, after a brief hesitation. He had actually expected this discussion much sooner, even long before the girl so much as stepped into the flat.
“Is there a bird here?”
“Not anymore. It was here when I arrived. An old budgerigar.”
“Was it dead? Because—sorry to be asking like this. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, seriously.”
“It’s alright,” he said. “It feels good to talk. It’s not a secret at all. No, it died later on, the bird. It caught fire. I let it out, like I sometimes did, to fly around the flat. I sat there writing, and there was a candle close by on the table. The bird was waddling around on the table, and once when it turned around rapidly to look up at me, its tail jutted into the flame. And the tail started to burn without it seeming to really notice.”
“Hmm. I see. Then what?”
“Then it noticed. It jumped into the air and jerked its head quickly backwards but then it gave a start, flew off screeching, lurching into the walls, hitting this and that. But mainly it circled the living room faster than I’d ever seen it fly before, which made it even worse. The fire was magnified by the rush of air, stretching up its body toward the wings, and soon it was all aflame, and I lay down on the floor, underneath the table.”
“It might sound silly, hiding underneath a table, but I didn’t know what else to do. The smell was really strong. I assume that’s what you’re referring to, though I might not smell it, not anymore. Then it hit the wall over there.” He pointed to a dark stain in the middle of the wall.
The girl walked up to the wall, put her face up close, and examined the stain, running a finger across it.“You ought to clean it off,” she said. “And maybe air out the flat a bit better. Don’t you ever open the windows?”
He felt a rising irritation at her interference but said nothing.
“You’re weird,” she said. “And I need to get going.” She walked toward the door again and put her shoes on, saying she might see him again later, but then she hesitated and turned toward him in the doorway. “I still don’t understand why I wake up here. Not just once but again and again. It’s as if I’m not in control of myself. I hope that doesn’t sound bad. It’s got nothing to do with you or how I feel about you. I just don’t understand why I always end up here. The things I get up to when I’m drunk! Am I perhaps interrupting you?”
He denied it, but of course she did interrupt him. Her face looked pale.
“Good,” she said. “If I come back and I’m interrupting, then don’t answer the doorbell. Just don’t be mean to me. I can get really sensitive when I drink, even though you might not be able to tell.”
A few days later, on a Sunday afternoon after she’d slept off the drink, she appeared in the bedroom doorway. Catching sight of her from the corner of his eye, he looked up from his book and smiled.
“You stare into books as if they’re doors from a burning building,” she said and giggled. “I’m just messing with you. I read that line somewhere. But still, you have a rather astringent or cold look in your eyes when you read. Don’t you think the books will get frightened, that they’ll collapse under the strain?”
“You’re in a jolly mood. Aren’t you too hungover to think this much? And to use words like ‘astringent?’”
“I’m always jolly. Hungover and jolly. The worst is over once I’m up and about.” She turned away, retching discreetly. The night before he’d steered her into his bed and then slept on the living room sofa. She asked if she could take a shower. He said yes, found her a towel, and kept reading. He could hear her brushing her teeth after turning off the tap. When she came out, she said she had her own toothbrush.
“I’m saying that so you don’t think I stole yours. There’s a limit to what I expect from other people.” She lifted up her toothbrush, which was small, green, and straggly.
“Don’t you live anywhere?” he asked, pouring coffee into a mug and handing it to her. She sat down with him and took a sip. Their interaction had started to take on a slight resemblance to an everyday routine. She would wake up and drink coffee; then they’d chat for fifteen minutes, half an hour, or even an hour, and then she’d leave.
“I think it’s best if you don’t know,” she said. “Same as my name. Besides, I think you like it better this way. You just don’t know it.” She looked up from the mug toward the desk and the papers and asked what he was writing all the time. He said it was probably best if she didn’t know.
“You’re writing about death. You’re a poet who sits and writes for ten hours a day, writing at least ten or fifteen poems about death. A day. And once a year you collect the best ones and publish a five-hundred-page death book nobody’s interested in, and the bookstores won’t even stock it because it’s so destructive, because people tighten up inside just from reading it, and some of them die.” He smiled and shook his head.
“I’m writing an essay. Or trying to, anyway.”
“About death in the works of Halldór Laxness.”
“Hmm.” She rolled her eyes. “Doesn’t sound too good. Why don’t you just write about your own death, my friend? How long do you think you’ve got in this life?”
“You sound like an old woman. I’ll get eighty years, probably. Just over fifty left. Isn’t that pretty good? Plenty of time.”
“Not for Halldór Laxness! I don’t think this is right for you. You’re not the Laxness type. Halldór Laxness won a Nobel Prize; that’s all you need to know. His grave is surrounded by cocky cocktail party geezers sucking out his last adages—probably translated from some Taoist book or other—until people see him for what he was, a pretentious but talented go-getter.”
“Don’t be so naïve. You can’t hate Halldór Laxness just because he won a Nobel Prize.”
“Oh, really, why not? What about all the people who love him for that very reason? The Icelandic people, for example. He’s an institution, a color brochure from the Ministry of Arts. Read one of his books, pay your bills, and then get started on something that matters.”
“So this is a matter of principle, then? You’re against Laxness to balance out those who are for him?”
“Yes. But it’s what I said as well; I don’t like his books. There’s an inhuman tone to them. Like they were written by a robot dressed as a dandy, swinging a quill and pretending to be a man.”
“Ah, come on now.”
“A man who lacks genuine sympathy with the human condition. Loves mankind but not the individual! I’m sorry to say this, but that’s just the way it is. I’m sure he was a kind man, nice around the house and to his wife and kids, but I can’t see it anywhere in his words. He knew all these words and he knew how to put them together, but there’s a hollowness to it.”
It’s almost as if she were describing herself, he thought. How pretentious! Yet another confirmation of the fact that people best describe their own faults when decrying what they dislike about the world or other people. But he said nothing.
“Let’s not start arguing about this,” she said and smiled. “Death and the Nobel Prize! But at least I knew you’d be writing about death. And I’m just as certain you write about death for yourself. Fiction secretly. I can tell.”
“That’s nice. You see something dead in me?”
“No, or maybe I do. In your eyes. Have you ever died? Has your love died, your hopes and dreams? All the beautiful things you once were or meant to become?”
“Isn’t that the human condition you were just talking of? Hasn’t everyone died at least once by the time they’re past twenty?”
“Everyone? What are you on about? Most people have only just managed to memorize the TV guide instead of their textbooks. To have a job which surrounds them with clothes, furniture, cars, and their partners are smashing, all the things that you lack. And it does them very well and horribly badly until roughly the age of forty, when the repression and procrastination begins to totter and people start breaking up. They end up running away from themselves until the final death, or they achieve a strained, delicate balance that can easily be upset. Everything I’m not going to be. I’d just as soon die right now.”
After this they stayed silent for a while. The girl lit up a cigarette, and he felt as if she was trying to calm herself down by staying quiet. Everything she said became in some way personal and probably a little distorted, the opposite of what he was aiming for, at least in his essay.
He poured more coffee into her mug.
“You asked me if I was writing anything,” he said, looking up at the ceiling. It was white. “I sometimes write stories. Once I wrote about a cow that walked into a village.”
“And then what?”
“It was dragging its calf behind, and the calf was dead, hung rotting by the umbilical cord.” He regretted having told her, didn’t know why he’d felt compelled to open his mouth.
“I knew it,” she said and put out her cigarette. “Death. But the city we live in is also suffused with death, repressed or glorified.” She started telling him about an acquaintance she’d met in a bar, a guy who’d come home drunk a few weeks earlier after a boring Thursday night and decided to kill himself, just like that, without ever before having realized this was something he wanted to do. “He decided to just get it over and done with, scanned the flat, and saw it in a new light. Everywhere there was plenty of darkness, breakups, loneliness, and a distorted, pathetic self-image, but when it came to death it seemed remarkably limited. In the end he found himself a necktie, tied it to a clothes rail by the front door, and attempted to hang himself, dangling from the railing and kicking around until the railing broke from the wall and he collapsed to the floor.
“As he lay there sobbing on the floor, mourning how pathetic he was, a knock sounded on the door, which obviously startled him—he wasn’t expecting anyone. The knocking was aggressive. Somebody shouted his name, and in the end he scrambled to his feet and opened the door. His upstairs neighbor was standing in the hallway, a member of the techno band Gus Gus. He asked what the hell was going on, and before my acquaintance knew it, he found himself apologizing (this sniveling, cowering mess of a man apologized for the noise), after which the neighbor, a former dance-jigging, pill-popping freak, started discussing the communal areas—how my acquaintance was keeping his laundry on the clothesline in the laundry room for too long, some completely and utterly trivial everyday crap that didn’t matter in the least, at least not following straight on from his first attempt at death! But still he discussed this, got sucked into the conversation, and when they’d reached some sort of agreement they said goodbye. My acquaintance closed the door again, saw the railing and the jackets on the floor, and remembered what he’d been doing. And do you know what that was?"
Emil shook his head.
“No? He’d just finished his first so-called recreational suicide attempt, the first casual, almost half-hearted attempt on his own life. Which is very popular today in the city’s nooks and crannies. Kills time, if not oneself.”
Emil kept shaking his head but no longer knew why. He wanted her to stop talking but also to carry on for as long as the world would last, if he could simply sit there forever, keep his eyes closed, and listen—
“If you only knew,” she went on, “how many people in this stark, grey city live a life so tormented they’ll consider killing themselves yet a life good enough for them to muster up the energy to put it into action, people who don’t really want to die but who want to find out what it’s like, as if you can have a taster of death or just the trailer. And when you attempt to hang yourself with a necktie at shoulder height but then rip it off to discuss the communal laundry room, you’re telling more than the story of how members of techno bands become middle-aged. To me, it describes the state central Reykjavík is in and how close death becomes when it’s systematically made as unreal as it is nowadays. And it makes me sad. I have sympathy for everyone who does this sort of thing. I feel sympathy for everyone suffering and withering away in this city.”
She stood up to go to the toilet. Meanwhile, he sat there motionless, looking at the pack of cigarettes on the table. He could feel his fingertips tingling to reach for the pack and light one up, but he didn’t indulge himself.
He heard the toilet being flushed, and then she came back into the living room and walked over to the window facing the cemetery. He opened his mouth to offer her something to eat, but she beat him to it.
“The first dead body I ever saw was my grandmother’s,” she said, lighting up a cigarette and gazing out the window. “I was thirteen. It was winter time, and it had been snowing in my neighborhood. I looked at the body but of course didn’t recognize it as my grandmother. Do you know what I think a dead body looks like, lying in its coffin?”
He shook his head.
“Like a glowing, silent snowstorm.”
In hindsight, he felt the direction their conversations would take was most often incomprehensible, as if the jumps between subjects were random, the conversation nothing but loose ends. The girl had a way of heading off into some direction that seemed to diverge from what had come before but actually didn’t. He often felt as if he was running behind her, however hungover and just out of bed she was, and felt old and stiff, maybe because she always seemed to head directly into the center of her thoughts, never speaking of anything other than the inner layer of things, her logic exotic, evading the words.
On the other hand, this random intensity sometimes came close to being pretentious. But perhaps it was unfair to call it pretentious; rather, it was as if the girl was forever testing her relationship to reality: “If I claim A is true when in reality it is obviously B, will I get away with it?” Or: “If the phone rings in the next five minutes, it’ll all go wrong and I’ll be doing telesales for the rest of my life; otherwise I’ll become a circus master.” As if she was always projecting herself outwardly to fit herself against the surroundings, then pulling back, all in an attempt to confirm where she ended and her surroundings began, something he recalled doing as a teenager but that seemed strange for a person beyond the age of twenty. Probably it was just the alcohol that brought it on.
Thus he attempted to analyze the girl, as if to contain her. And he would have gladly exchanged this pretentiousness for his own tentativeness, which sprang from shyness and a lack of practice when it came to conversation.
“Have you ever been religious?” he asked one afternoon. She’d refused to eat anything but sat there drinking coffee and chain smoking, either looking at him where he sat at the desk or out across the cemetery.
She shook her head. “For a while I quite liked Buddhism. But I don’t know if that has to do with religion precisely.”
“What is it if not a religion?”
“I don’t know. A science maybe. The systematic investigation of an inner reality, experiential science. Not a religion, except maybe to begin with. You trust someone, for instance Buddha, well enough to try out the method he recommends. Then you just sense whether you want to carry on or not.” She took a drag at her cigarette. “And you most certainly don’t lie down on the ground in shame, waiting for a vengeful daddy god to come at you all fizzing and wrathful.”
“Now, now,” he said and smiled. He could tell she was angling for a reaction.
“Don’t now, now me! That’s just the way things are.”
“So did you meditate?” He had tried meditation sometime during his late teens, around the same time he’d attempted to have an out-of-body experience, but had given up.
She nodded. “I meditated according to this method. I can’t remember what it’s called. You’d sit and concentrate on the breathing, zero out your mind. If something came up, you’d label it but not be carried away with the content. For example, you’d say to yourself, ‘Think, think,’ and let that suffice. And then you’d zero it out again. Or if the thought hadn’t yet been formed into words, you’d say, ‘Feeling, feeling,’ or analyze it more precisely down to, ‘Anger, anger,’ or, ‘Joy, joy.’”
“And what was the effect?”
“I did it more or less all day for a few weeks. Two or three times I reached a state similar to what I’d experienced before from swallowing ecstasy. My heart somehow became all fluid and lachrymose, all my senses open, and I mean wide open. Then there are other methods. One of them has forty predecided topics for meditation; Number thirty-nine is meditating on the disgust of food or the disgust of sex. You can also simply meditate on blue if you want to.”
“Why didn’t you carry on meditating?”
“I don’t know. I normally lose interest in most things after a few weeks or months at the most. I just stopped doing it. In Buddhism they speak of taming the monkey brain, the restless, screeching thoughts running all over the jungle. I suppose my monkey still hasn’t been tamed. For example, I’ll sit and read about forty topics for meditation, but then I’ll start adding meditations that the world obviously doesn’t need, but I don’t let that stop me; I’ll add a meditation on mosquitoes, for instance.” She pulled a face. “Or whatever. I loathe having those ugly little creatures suck my blood; it insults my pride. I picture their pricks having just come out of a rat or a dead dog before entering me. But maybe the angst just comes from wondering what kind of a god would have created these insignificant freaks. What kind of a freak god could explain a mosquito? A mosquito is hardly more than a single chromosome with wings. They don’t write poetry; they don’t meditate on blue in their spare time. They suck blood, and inside their little arses the blood turns into small offspring, more flies, who then fly out of their mummy’s arse to fetch more blood to create more little freaks to fly out of even more arses.”
“I thought women were used to it,” Emil said.
“Used to what?”
“Being penetrated by pricks.”
She looked at him with a smile, then suddenly leapt across the floor and started to tickle him. They rolled around the living room laughing, pinching, and tickling each other. Then she lit a cigarette, and the fight came to an end as quickly as it had begun. He didn’t know how to act and became awkward, but she inhaled the smoke and put on a serious, distant face. It surprised him how rapidly her mood could change, like a kid’s.
“I doubt Buddha had any problems with mosquitoes, though. Or that he thought mosquitoes were certain types of soulless beings or machines and put that into a million meaningless words. They were simply there. But in the Bible they’re probably denounced by some raving prick or other as the Whore’s Winged Drops of Blood, how everyone should come together and cleanse them from the earth and throw them down to hell into the eternal fire, spread out mercy and freedom, and while you’re at it, why not convert the cannibals of the Caribbean to hamburgerism? Christianity is a child’s religion. Or all religions are. I just think it’s so funny when you see these grown men with their fat egos furrowing their brow, spurting all this nonsense, and seeing people kowtowing to it. As if it even matters.”
“It doesn’t sound like you think it’s funny. More like you’re angry.”
“Of course I’m angry. How do you spot a Christian?” She stubbed out her cigarette and then lay down on her back on the floor, looking up at the ceiling. “He’ll always do the exact opposite of what his religion dictates. Every single time. And do you know how to recognize a mosquito?”
He shook his head. “I don’t.”
“It’s quite similar to a midge and to the fear inside you. Did you know that the mosquito has killed more people than any other animal since the beginning of time? It’s been with mankind since the beginning of its history. Have you ever wondered about the purpose of human life? We’re the mosquito’s domestic animals. Two million dead every year, children, bankers, whores, and artists dissolved into winged drops of blood and drifting away.”
He’d never been particularly sensitive to faces or anything to do with appearances. What he sensed about her most strongly was her smallness; she made him think of labyrinths, mandalas, and crystals, anything that was simple enough, complicated and repetitive enough, to contain the world. Which he didn’t feel she did—not from day one but then gradually.
One morning as she lay sleeping on the sofa, he sat by the desk on the other side of the room, fitting her into his hand; her entire body from head to toe could fit between the thumb and index finger of one hand, which induced in him a strange sense of elation. Maybe this only served to illustrate his hidden arrogance toward her, that he considered himself to be further along—where to?—in life than she was, the child, her psyche both too small and too big to be able to play a single role at a time. He was conscious of this attitude of his. He was conscious of every possible attitude, origin, and approach, every single thought of his in the past and present and its probable development in the near future—at least up to the point that he couldn’t picture a solution.
But no, if arrogance was anywhere to be found, then it lay in his sense of feeling small in comparison with the girl, her impulsiveness, the courage to throw herself off the precipice he considered life to be, to not accept the tepid or the uneventful, and if life didn’t live up to her expectations then to force it toward a result, be it good or bad, never caring which it would be.
Probably this was an iconic image he had created for himself, but at least she fascinated him for now. And he had nothing else. He could help the girl line up her thoughts and put them into order, which was easy, but in return she could push him out of the hopeless rut he had perhaps never chosen for himself, which was difficult, and nobody else seemed capable of it, let alone he himself. Nothing he had done during the thirty years he lived had brought him any particular joy or freedom from himself; the unhappiness was constant. But he hadn’t yet become so eccentric he considered himself unable to live without suffering. He could, and he wanted to but didn’t know how.
It would probably soon be over. He found it hard to place a lot of hope in her or to trust her. Eventually they would start arguing, and she’d disappear into the snow again one silent, stale morning. He could picture it: the argument and then the deep, loaded silence in the flat, the stairs creaking, the door slamming, a rustling in the snow, and that would be it, yet another person out of his life.
Why was he so afraid? He’d never done anything particularly evil. He had the best of intentions. He hated no one, not like that, but sometimes he felt as if he’d collapse under this vague, cumbersome feeling that would well up inside him, fill his entire being, and spread across the whole world, an uncomfortable mix of love and hatred that he’d been unable to grasp or put into words. This thing that he felt had always been there inside him but had increased after the girl came into his life and became almost uncontrollable when he snuck in to watch her while she slept.
The next time he saw Martin it was just before midnight on a Monday night.
Emil was standing by a window drinking hot chocolate when he spotted a small light in the cemetery. The light moved slowly between the headstones, disappearing or bouncing off the snow blanket, and he immediately felt sure it was Martin tinkering around the graves.
The situation made Emil think of a spotlight his grandfather had owned and used on jeep trips around the highlands. He climbed up to the small storage attic above the bedroom, found the spotlight, and dragged it down to the kitchen along with a battery and some cables.
The spotlight’s face was bigger than his. Emil smiled to himself over what he was planning to do. He connected the spotlight to the battery, and the kitchen was bathed in bright white light. Then he turned it off, opened the window wide, and leaned out. He used both hands to direct the spotlight across the cemetery until he found the shadow between two tree trunks, and then he turned on the light. A sheer white line dissected the darkness, and Martin’s shadow disappeared into the circle of light.
Emil’s stomach hurt from holding in the laughter, and for a fleeting moment he wondered if he was on the edge of insanity.
Martin stepped out from between the trees, raising one hand to cover his eyes from the light.
“Hello!” he said. “Is that you, my friend?”
“Nooo!” said Emil and tried to make his voice hollow but couldn’t. He forced himself to turn off the spotlight, deciding to try and behave like a man. When the light went off, Martin rubbed his eyes, and Emil asked what he’d been doing.
“I’ve seen the light!” Martin laughed. “Which is what happens to everyone who goes into the cemetery. Or at least one can hope. I was going to visit you later, but I might as well do it now.”
Emil let him in, poured hot chocolate into a mug, and offered him a seat.
“No coffee today?”
“I forgot to buy some.”
Martin looked at the spotlight. “This would be good for worm picking in springtime, before the summer light.”
“I’ll lend it to you. I only just remembered it up in the attic.” He could still feel the laughter inside wanting to break out and tear up the flat and the house, spit him back into life, but he kept it inside.
They sipped their chocolate.
“How’s the minister’s daughter?” Emil asked after a short silence.
“All is well.” Martin laughed. “But I reckon you’re just asking because you’re thinking about your girl!”
“My girl? Who’s that?”
“Come on! First I saw one star, then another, and now the stars are everywhere, all around your head, and the eyes are like two spotlights. Now you’re in love.”
“I wish you were right,” Emil said and shook his head. “But we’re just friends.” Martin smiled but said nothing. He reached into his jacket and pulled out the little box of cigars, offering it to Emil, who declined. “I don’t even know her name,” Emil continued in order to fill up the silence. “Or where she lives.”
“Won’t she tell you anything?”
“I don’t want to know anything. She was right. It’s more fun this way. As if we’re not part of the world, not the official world at least, where everyone is—it’s hard to explain.”
“I have time. Have we got anything better to talk about?”
“Maybe this is it: If something doesn’t have a name, or you don’t put it into words, then it’s like it starts to come alive on another level of being, as if it becomes itself to a greater degree, or the emotion or the urge or whatever it is becomes stronger.”
“It? Are you still talking about the girl?” Martin laughed. The smell from his cigar filled the kitchen. “This sounds a bit dangerous, though, floating too far into a world without words. But if you’re talking about love, I guess it’s okay.”
Emil decided to stop trying to say what could not be said, nor could he be bothered to engage in a debate on the relationship between language and reality. He taught Martin to work the spotlight, then packed it into a bag together with the battery and placed it by the door, despite Martin’s objections.
“Of course you’ll take the spotlight. I have no use for it. You can hang it from a tree and clean up entire fields. Maybe you’ll point it at the minister’s daughter next time she dances for you.”
“Maybe.” Neither of them laughed. From the corner of his eye, Emil could see Martin looking at him. Then he finished his hot chocolate and said he needed to get going. They walked out into the hall.
“Are you still writing your essay?” Martin asked.
“Yes. I’m hoping to finish it soon. I don’t know, though. Sometimes it seems as if the theory isn’t going to hold.”
“It’ll work out somehow. And anyway, theorizing is always a good thing as such; it makes your mind bright and alert. While I was growing up in the Árbær area, I didn’t hear a single theory about anything, except from my parents, I guess.”
“What theories did they tell you about?” Emil asked, suddenly glad to change the subject after all this talk of death.
“Theories on anything you could think of, how to discuss politics or sports, how to make candles, build your own fridge during a power cut, or the best dance to make someone fall in love with you, advice on insomnia and heartbreak, how to tell a story. All this from the impoverished villages of Poland.” He smiled. “All part of the culture that isolated them from their neighbors and made them second-class citizens in the small concrete alley that is Árbær, or Iceland. The same culture that kept them alive.”
“Were they unhappy living here?”
“I don’t think so. People in political exile normally die in less than five years. I can’t remember where I read that. But poor people who have no money to get home don’t have such a great life either. I guess it’s one thing to be far from home if you make that choice yourself, but if you can’t go back home. But no, at least I don’t think my parents were ever any worse off than the average Icelander. At least they had each other. And the fact that two poor, miserable Poles could have more culture in their heads than an entire Reykjavík suburb, the entire Icelandic middle class, is a pity for the Icelandic people. No offense. It’s just a pity.” He put on his jacket, opened the door into the hallway, and then turned around in the doorway. “Have you heard the story of the long worm?”
Emil shook his head.
“Once there was a man who saw a worm that was about to disappear into the ground. The man flew into action, grabbed the worm, and started pulling on it. He pulled and pulled, and more of the worm kept coming out of the ground, but he could never see the other end of it. Toward morning, dozens of meters of worm had come out of the ground, and the fuss was starting to attract the attention of people in the surrounding houses. Little by little, more people gathered around the man to help him tackle this unusually long worm, each of them grabbing hold of a part of the worm and pulling. And still the worm grew longer, and more people joined in, until this incredibly long stroll of worm people reached the street, whence it coiled through the streets of the city and all the way out of the city. The worm filled up the city, and its weight was such and the void inside the earth so great that earth collapsed, becoming a great dark pit where the sun could not be seen, and from then on, everyone was hungry, tired, and sad in the darkness.”
Martin picked up the black plastic bag with the spotlight and the battery.
“Is that the end?” Emil asked.
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know. What’s the meaning of the story?”
“It’s about Iceland. That’s what Icelanders are like. They work too much, take out too many loans, and have too many longings that just want fulfilling but don’t give anything back. And soon there’ll be nothing but worms wherever they look.”
“Have you ever seen a ghost?” she asked.
“Once. It was nothing spectacular.”
“I was walking through the cemetery at night. This was years ago. I was sort of looking around when I saw a man not far from me, not more than two or three meters away. Of course I flinched because I was certain he hadn’t been there a moment earlier.”
“What did he look like?”
“I didn’t really notice. He was wearing a uniform of some sort, like what a bus driver wears but no hat. The jacket was tattered and covered with dirt, as were the trousers.”
“But I was only startled for a second. Then I saw the man’s face and started to feel sorry for him. He looked so puzzled and sad—”
“As if he was at a complete loss?”
“Exactly. Baffled, lost, and sad, I thought, and wanted to put my arms around him and hug him. I don’t exactly feel like that very often, but I was overcome with this sympathy. Then he asked if I could help him, in a childlike voice, and asked where he was. I think I said something about being in a cemetery. ‘I just want to go home,’ the man then said, and as I reached out toward him he disappeared, just like that. Poof .”
“The dead bus driver,” she said and took a sip of her water. She was strangely quiet that day, an anxious tension in her face. Maybe that was why he kept talking, almost as if he was striving to cheer her up.
“I know a better story, though. My mate Martin told me, he heard it from a minister’s daughter in Thingholt, or at least that’s what he told me. I think he sometimes lies.”
“How does the story go?”
“It’s about a man who always appears to people when they masturbate or actually at a really precise moment, just as the orgasm has taken over and is going to have its way, no matter what, at that moment. It’s as if people can see something out of the corner of their eyes, a man crouched beside them by the side of the bed or wherever, right next to their faces. And what’s more, the man always holds both his hands up to his face, the thumb and index finger of each hand forming a frame around his eyes as if he’s holding a camera. But there is no camera to be seen. And the only picture that gets taken is that which will stay with the masturbator for the rest of his life: those lifeless, staring eyes inside the frame, lifeless, maybe not least because the man died a long time ago. In his time, he became known around town, or infamous more like it, as one of the fallen sons of the bourgeoisie, an educated, bright lad from the Thingholt area whose life went down the drain not because of drink but because of the perversity that seemed to have gradually taken over. People began to talk of how he’d seek out people in need of money, whether it was for drugs or to feed their kids, and would pay them to masturbate. It didn’t matter whether they took their clothes off or how they did it. They just had to come, and when that happened he’d photograph their faces.”
“So he still appears to people to this day?”
“And only around the Thingholt area?”
“I think so.”
“Phew. Who is this Martin character, by the way?”
“He picks worms.”
“He picks worms, right. And who’s the minister’s daughter?”
“This girl who lives on Laufásvegur. I don’t know much about her except that she undresses for Martin when she comes home drunk, usually on the weekends.”
“Hmm. Good for her. So when do they talk?”
“I don’t know, through the window, I guess, afterwards.”
“After what? Do they masturbate? Or just him? Does she undress, lie down on the bed, and masturbate? Or does she get enough of a kick just from undressing?”
“I’ve obviously not taken enough interest in this. Maybe you should meet him yourself. But I guess that would somehow violate your anonymity rule, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes. And it’s probably enough for her just to undress, regardless of what he does. That’s what girls are like. More worried about servicing their man than themselves. Afterwards she’ll put on a dressing gown, walk up to the window, and they’ll smoke and talk, quietly and by candlelight. They might be in love. I think their relationship is different from how you’ve imagined it.”
“And what else has he seen through people’s windows?”
“Once he saw a suicide. A man sat down on a chair and taped a plastic bag round his head.”
“Did he see the man kill himself?”
“Yes. He was in a garden by this detached house in the middle of the night. Suddenly a light came on in one of the basement windows, and he could see straight into the room. He saw a man stumbling through the door into some kind of a room with a chair, a television set, and shelves stacked with movies. The man was obviously drunk. He staggered across the room holding a bottle in one hand and a plastic bag in the other, sat on the chair, turned on some cop show or other on the TV, and drank from the bottle. Martin was about to leave when he finally saw the man fetch a roll of tape from the bag and some more bags, which he pulled over his head, then wrapped the tape around his neck. Then he just sat there, the roll of tape dangling at his chest, until he clenched his fists and started drumming at the air and shaking himself, almost as if he was filled with a desire to dance. Eventually he stopped moving and sat motionless on the chair.”
“Dead presumably. And what did your friend Martin do?”
“Nothing. He claims people have a right to kill themselves if they want to. He left.”
“Fuck.” she hissed, and he couldn’t tell if she was surprised or shocked. “You’ve got to stop doing this!” she yelled.
“Stop doing what?”
“You think about death too much.”
“No more than you do.”
“It doesn’t matter which of us does it more often. You think about death too much, and you need to be careful; we can discuss me later if you want.”
They both stared silently at the ceiling until the girl asked, “Why don’t you write a story about the Rafflesia flower?”
“Maybe because I don’t know what it is?” He faked laughter. “Why don’t you write about it?”
“I have no concentration. You have the concentration and the composure. I may be able to talk, but I can’t write.”
“What’s a Rafflesia flower?”
“It comes into bloom once a year, always just after midnight on a rainy night. It’s a parasite living off tree roots, and when it’s in bloom—which lasts a few days—it gives off a strong scent, reminiscent of a human corpse. It was given its name by Thomas Raffles, the founder of Singapore, one of the most prolific designers of the British empire, named after himself. Maybe we both think about death too much,” she added after a short pause. “Or perhaps death thinks about us too much.”
“Then let’s stop talking about it,” he said, becoming annoyed.
“You just have to be careful. It’s dangerous to think about death too much while neglecting life. Your attitude toward death might turn into the dog’s attitude toward its master. You think you understand something and that you’re even in control of your own behavior, but really you’re all deference, your relationship a mixture of fear and submissiveness, at least for your part. And the understanding is nothing but the loss of your own self, an old and forgotten conditioning. You don’t understand the longings or the nature of your master; you were simply forced to see how he behaved and when, not why. That’s how much understanding you have.”
“God!” he cried out, throwing his hands up in the air. “Obviously I’ve got to do something else!” The fucking pest, the little prattling, droning machine, he thought, and for the first time since they’d met he wanted to get rid of her and be on his own.
“Yes, God! To confront death as an equal is impossible unless you have a firm grip on life or believe in life at the very life. You can’t despise it, like you do. As do I probably.”
“Who said I wanted to understand death?”
“Well, why else would you be constantly discussing it and writing about it? Or does your essay have more to do with the works of Halldór Laxness than with death? ‘About death in the works of.’ Wasn’t that what you said? You must be doing something more than stating how he understood death.”
“You can’t understand death!” he shouted. “Nobody can! Nobody understands death. But you can still write about it. You can write about anything, anything else! But still you’re forever writing about death. You can write about nothing but fucking life and still be stuck on death and only ever talk about death, no matter how hard you try!” He could feel himself starting to flush, the blood burning his face, and couldn’t remember the last time he’d shouted like that, probably as a teenager.
“So you’ll write the story for me? About the flower?”
He shook his head, reached for a cigarette from her pack and lit up.
He thought about what she’d said. He also thought about writing but knew he couldn’t, let alone by commission. Everything he’d managed to write during his lifetime had been built on some misunderstanding or other, having meant to write something else. Once he discovered what was coming out, he’d lose his courage and give up after one or two paragraphs. He would never have the guts to decide on becoming a writer or to write more than a few furtive, sheepish sentences.
But a few days after this conversation of theirs, during the long-awaited introduction of the small death into one of the chapters that stood out like thorns from the bulk of the essay, he began to note down something about a bud bursting up through the earth, the size of a cabbage. Then it wasn’t a flower anymore but a church, and in the church there was a bell and a clapper with a dead child hanging from it, then another child and the third one, and somehow the story came bursting out of him and was over and done with in one sitting. By then it was morning. The girl hadn’t come, and he went to bed feeling as if he could hear the snow crackling, white and glowing, could hear the snowflakes touching each other as they fell through the air.
The second half of this novella will appear in our next issue.