Excerpt

The Pirate

Jón Gnarr, trans. Lytton Smith

January 29, 2016 
The following is from Jón Gnarr's novel, The Pirate. Gnarr (b. 1967) was diagnosed as a child with severe mental retardation due to dyslexia, learning difficulties, and ADHD. He nevertheless overcame his hardships and went on to become one of Iceland’s most well-known actors and comedians, publishing the first two volumes in his fictionalized autobiography in 2006 and 2009. In 2010, he was elected Major of Reykjavik after co-founding a satirical political party.

The history of punk is the history of outsiders, of not just not fitting in but more than that—visibly, audibly, socially breaking the molds, making a point of not fitting in. It’s within this world that an unlikely punk hero (or should that be anti-hero?) emerged: Jónsi Punk, an Icelandic teenager who would unexpectedly grow up to become not a leading Icelandic writer and comedian but also the Mayor of Reykjavík, in which role, in 2013, he severed ties with Moscow over its anti-gay laws.

Born Jón Gunnar Kristinsson in 1967, Jón was wrongly diagnosed with severe intellectual and learning disabilities at an early age, and treated in the Children’s Psychiatric Ward of the State Hospital at Dalbraut, Reykavík, as a pre-teen. In the trilogy of autobiographical novels The Indian, The Pirate, and The Outlaw, all translated by Lytton Smith and published by Deep Vellum, Jón recounts his journey to adulthood, in often blackly comic ways. From a childhood spent running away from his mother and hiding under parked cars (which sometimes drove off with him underneath) to a failed attempt to work behind a meat counter, a lottery ticket scam, and a spell as a self-appointed ambassador in Icelandic for Greenpeace and Amnesty International, Jón’s story is a damning indictment of inflexible social and educational systems, and a tribute to the creative will.

In the following excerpt, we see Jónsi Punk—as he was then called—struggling with the injustices of the system and trying, like any teenager, to figure out love and sex. Here, Jón is on the verge of what could be his first sexual encounter—if an overdose of travel sickness tablets doesn’t get in the way.

—Lytton Smith

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Girls & Travel Sickness Tablets

The rumor was that all us kids at Hlemmur were on drugs. That was a gross exaggeration given how limited the supply of drugs was. There was just normal stuff: sniffing glue, markers, and gas. Occasionally maybe you’d get a hit from a hash pipe, but that was rare. One drug we used quite a lot, though, was travel sickness tablets. The tablets were sold in pharmacies, but they wouldn’t sell you more than ten tablets at once. So you’d just go into a pharmacy, say you were really carsick, and ask if it was possible to get something for motion sickness. You’d get sickness tablets. Then you just played the game again, went to the next pharmacy, and got more sickness tablets.

“Hi. I’m going on a trip…with my dad…to Patreksfjörður. And…I get so carsick, and this kid I know said it was possible to get some kind of motion sickness pills.”

“Yes, yes, there are tablets for that. Here: sea- and carsickness tablets.”

“Ahh, okay.”

And so you immediately had twenty tablets, enough to get a good high.You’d swallow some ten to fifteen of them. The effect: hallucinations. Enormously large visual and auditory hallucinations, a strange and alien state.

Like most boys, I was interested in girls, but it was just that I was so timid and afraid of them. Girls were exotic and mysterious beings who thought and behaved according to strange and incomprehensible laws. Moreover, I found that girls did not have any particular interest in me. I had had some conversations with girls, but they were such weird conversations. Sometimes some girl sat with me at Bústaðir and began to ask me about something connected with me, what I was up to and what I was interested in. My mind went flying.Why was she asking me this? Had anyone put her up to it? Or was she just curious? Then it happened one time that a guy who was with me at Rétto spoke to me and told me that these two girls we went to school with had asked him to invite me over while they were babysitting; they would like that. I was astonished.This guy was not an idiot.We weren’t especially friends, but he was a good, decent guy who had helped me sometimes when I was being teased.

“Why do they want me to come?” I asked, cynical.

“I think one of them has a crush on you,” he said.

Crush on me? How could someone have a crush on me? Who could have a crush on me? That was exciting. Some girl had a crush on me.The thought of going and meeting them was exciting but frightening at the same time.What should you do? What did they want you to do? Would we make popcorn and play a game? Or perhaps we’d listen to music and kiss? I’d never kissed a girl but still had seen quite a few kids kissing, even with tongues. I was totally up for it if that was what she wanted. But maybe we were just going to make popcorn. But what were you supposed to talk to girls about? I rarely had any interest in talking to girls and thought they usually just talked about uninteresting and boring things. I had never heard of a girl with knowledge of or interest in anarchism. But I would be so happy to talk about anything if I could kiss her. The more I thought about it, the more nervous I became. This would totally fail, for sure. I would be so nervous and awkward and definitely say something that they found silly. Maybe they would all start laughing at me. In movies, kids are always just doing something and then suddenly they kiss. I did not quite know how this contagion of kissing happened.Wouldn’t it be reasonable to ask people if you could kiss them? But “Can I kiss you?” sounded lame. “Can I make out with you and fondle your breasts?” was even worse.

As the days passed and the evening approached, I became increasingly confused and nervous. I decided to go to the pharmacy and buy some sickness tablets so I could be relaxed on the evening in question.That night, I took a low dose, just right for some small visual and auditory hallucinations.When I was in that frame, I generally found people fun and relaxed.They, of course, didn’t know I’d taken tablets, and just found me interesting and amusingly bewildered. Sickness tablets also allowed me to be free from cares and full of courage.There would be no problem kissing on travel sickness tablets! It would happen by itself, and it would just be fun. I met my friend up at the shops after taking a few more tablets, and I also brought some more with me, just in case. Maybe the other kids would want to do tablets, and also maybe I’d need to take a few more.

After we got to the house, the girls invited us in; they’d already got the children to sleep. We were inside the living room, just chatting. I only knew these girls from Rétto. They weren’t disco freaks, just your typical girls. We talked about the teachers and how stupid they were. The travel sickness tablets didn’t seem to be working. Strangely, the girl who had a crush on me was looking at me, which was both comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time, her eyes searching. She asked me about one thing and another, and I tried to answer as best as I could. Did she want to kiss me? Should I take the initiative? Do guys always take the initiative? I wondered if I should try to kiss her. But she was talking. What would she do if I tried to kiss her? Would she get mad? I was getting so nervous and didn’t know what I was supposed to do, so I excused myself, went into the bathroom, and thought about things. I decided to take some more sickness tablets and get going with it. I saw the other boy and girl were kissing on the other couch. The girl with a crush on me was sitting on the couch and looked at me questioningly. I sat next to her.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

“Sure,” I replied, awkwardly.

The excitement increased.Were we about to kiss? I peeped sideways at the pair on the couch, who were clasped in an embrace, their tongues up inside one another. How had it started? I shouldn’t have gone off to the bathroom. Suddenly a hallucination poured over me. Someone was behind the curtains and whispering to me, but I could hardly make out the words.“Jón,” whispered the voice. I giggled nervously.

“What?” asked the girl and smiled. “Nothing,” I replied.

“Just Siggi the Punk,” I muttered and laughed.

“Huh?” she asked, surprised.

Siggi the Punk was hiding behind the curtains and whispering to me. The room was moving, and the furniture waddled back and forth.The girl looked questioningly and surprisedly at me. I was clearly about to fuck this up.Then everything went black.

All of a sudden I’m inside the kitchen at home, sitting at the kitchen table, and Adam Ant is lying on top of the kitchen cabinet with his hand under his cheek, gawping at me. I glance at Mom, who clearly can’t see Adam Ant.

“Adam Ant?” I ask, taken aback.

Adam Ant begins to laugh. “Stand and deliver,” he shouts at me. I’m starting to laugh, but my mom doesn’t think it’s funny.

“What tablets have you been taking?”

“What? I’ve not taken any tablets.”

Adam Ant disappears, and someone else comes and whispers to me. Mom tries to talk to me, but I cannot hear what she says because of the whispering. My mom has a worried expression. The floor rocks back and forth. Mom stands up, walks into the telephone room, and says something into the phone. There are three people inside the room. Definitely some friend of Mom. I call out to them:

“Hello.”

No answer. Adam Ant is nowhere in sight. The Sex Pistols are standing outside the kitchen window and looking inside. How great that they’ve turned up.

“Hey,” I tell them and wink.

I’m going to bed. I’m tired. I’ve definitely acted fully composed and tricked Mom so she doesn’t realize a thing. I just need to watch my step with the waving and rocking, to take care not to fall on my face when the floor tilts.When Mom comes back, I say firmly:

“Good night, Mom, I’m going to sleep now.”

Did she hear what I said? What did I say again? Did I tell her I was going to go to bed, or did I tell her I was asleep? I repeated the words to be on the safe side.

“Well, Mom, I’m going to sleep. Good night, Mom.”

I was all set to leave and had deliberated it in my mind, calculating the angle of the floor and how I could walk to my room as normally as possible. I set off, except I forgot to stand up and fell over right there and hit the floor. Damn sloping floor. I had miscalculated and couldn’t stand up by any means. It was so ridiculous that I started laughing again. Before I knew it, I was sitting in the backseat of a car and my dad was behind the wheel.The next thing I remember was that some people were running beside the car. Maybe some kids were trying to get the car. Still, it was strange because it was nighttime. It was all incredibly funny and amusing, and I laughed.

The next day I woke up in intensive care at City Hospital. Someone was sneaking about inside the hospital room. Whispers. I didn’t follow what was being said. Sneaky demons shot back and forth. Whispers.

“Huh? What are you saying? I can’t hear.”

The room rocked back and forth and turned in circles. I was dizzy. A doctor came walking towards me, and I poked him to see if he was real—he was—but I didn’t understand what he was saying and struggled to distinguish his voice from all the other voices.

“What’s your name?”

“Jón. Jónsi Punk.”

He took my hand.

“Do you know what year it is, Jón?” I knew that.

“Nine hundred and eighty…” I couldn’t remember.“…something,” I added and giggled.

When I woke up next it was evening. The hallucinations were gone. What had happened? What was I doing here? I thought about Tintin. Did they have any Tintin here? The nurse came and asked how I felt.

“All right,” I replied.“Do you have any Tintin comics here?”

She didn’t answer, and I let my eyelids droop. Endless pictures of Tintin flicked past my mind’s eye. I vaguely heard the nurses who came and went, taking blood pressure, saying things to me, then going ahead. I tried to open my eyes but couldn’t. My eyelids were as heavy as lead shutters.

“Do you know where you are, Jón?”

“In the hospital?”

“You’re here in intensive care at City Hospital, you came here with your Dad last night—don’t you remember?”

“Sure,” I said, but didn’t.

“You’d taken a lot of pills and had them pumped out of you.” Pumped out of me? I didn’t remember it. How were they pumped out of me?

“We gave you some drugs which should counteract the poison you ingested.”

“Okay.”

“What pills did you take?”

“Travel sickness tablets?” I asked, with eyes closed.

“Travel sickness tablets, okay.”

“Do you think there’s someone here with Tintin?”

The effects of the sickness tablets persisted through the course of the evening. I received a sedative, and that felt good. Tintin continued to haunt me. I tried to get the nurses who came and talked to me to talk about Tintin and read me Tintin books. I told them about my favorite book about the adventures of Tintin and then asked them what their favorite Tintin book was and so on. When I changed the subject to Tintin’s friends Thomson and Thompson, I couldn’t keep from laughing. The bed I was lying in was on wheels. Someone came and said something to me, and I was moved into another room. There was a closet, like inside all hospital rooms. When I was alone I crawled out of bed over to the closet, curled myself into a ball, squeezed myself into the closet, and closed the door on myself. The closet was a rocket. I was in the hospital, but it was still a rocket. But maybe this was just my own nonsense? Maybe I was just an idiot inside a closet? I heard the voice of Captain Haddock: “A hundred thousand blistering barnacles.” The closet took off and shot into space. I felt the whole cubby shaking. I slept. Outer space was infinite. Someone came and opened the closet. I took a breath. Then I was back in bed where someone gave me medicine.

When I woke up the next day, I was in yet another room. I staggered out of bed, opened the door and went into the hall. I only vaguely remembered what had happened. I was filled with terror. What had taken place? A doctor or nurse came walking towards me.

“How are you feeling? “

“All right. Is this a hospital?”

“Go back to bed.”

“Where am I? “

“You were brought here last night.You are in Department A2, which is in the psychiatric ward in City Hospital.”

The woman followed me back into the room.The psychiatric ward of City Hospital? Was that true? Was I going to be sent to Klepp? When the woman was gone, I snuck back down and found the person on duty.

“Can I make a phone call?”

They gave me a phone. I called Alli, who I knew had some Tintin books.

“Hi, this is Jón.”

“Hi.”

“Would you bring me your Tintin books?”

“Tintin books? Why?”

“I’m in a mental ward.”

“You’re in a mental ward?”

“Yes.Would you bring yourTintin books to me in the psychiatric ward at City Hospital?”

I said goodbye to Alli and went back into my room. He came later that day with the Tintin books.

“What happened to you?”

“I don’t know? I took travel sickness tablets.”

“But why are you here?”

“I don’t know. I just really want to read Tintin.”

“Okay.”

I chose The Black Island and began to read it. Alli sat with me for a few moments, then stood up and said goodbye.

“Bye.”
“Bye,” I said and did not look up from the book.

Later that day my mom came. It surprised me that she wasn’t angry. She was just happy and said:

“I’m simply glad you’re okay. You must never do that again, my darling boy.”

“No.”

We didn’t have to discuss it further. I’d never do that again. “I’m just going to read Tintin.”

Mom stroked my hair and sat silently while I read Tintin. Several days went by, and I regained my equilibrium. I occasionally went out and sat in the lounge and chatted with other patients. A few days later, Mom and Dad came to get me. I learned later what had happened. I had run out of the babysitting party all of a sudden. I had probably gotten very weird, but they did not know what was affecting me. Mom was then woken up in the night and summoned outside by a kid who knew me and had found me lying under some car. It was freezing cold out, and he realized that I wasn’t okay and decided to take me home. Neither Mom nor Dad discussed it ever again. We never ever discussed it.

 

From THE PIRATE. Used with permission of Deep Vellum. Copyright © 2016 by Jón Gnarr. Translation copyright © 2016 by Lytton Smith.




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