This week’s Translation Tuesday features microfiction by Gyrðir Elíasson. “The Viola Couple,” translated into a familiar monologue style by Mark Ioli, renders a melancholic protagonist in the throes of loss and ennui. What begins as a mindset typical of a sort of modernist masculinity slowly morphs as the character’s observations reverberate through the prose, changing the concerns from a self-conscious banalness into a metaphoric repose. The change in mood is expertly reflected by the expanding sentence length and conceptual language that increases in complexity. The story seems to suggest that what we focus on can help to shape thought and that singular problems appear different depending on the objects that we hold close to our psyches.
Dedicated to ÓJS
My cat isn’t dead, but he is on a hunger strike. It’s taking a toll on him. I bought him this premium food that was insanely expensive, but he wants nothing to do with it and demands his generic Bónus food back. It’s been several days, and we’re both locked in a battle of wills. No resolution is in sight. The cat mainly lies around inside on the couch, casting accusatory glances at me if I walk past him.
These have been trying times for me, both on account of the cat and various other things. I am alone (apart from the cat), and only those who have endured being alone for an extended period of time can understand the effect it has on your psyche.
The weather was nice today, sun brilliant and winds calm, plenty warm even though it’s September, and I spent the better part of the day sitting in the garden looking at the yellowing edges of the birch leaves, and the partially wilted flowers on the plants. I felt a particular sense of guilt about the garden, as I knew I had neglected it all summer. But it seems to have managed just fine without my help.
The door leading from the front room to the garden was open, but the cat didn’t budge from the couch, just lay there with closed eyes and a clear look of acrimony on the downturned corners of his mouth.
As dusk began to fall that evening I headed back out to the garden and sat there a little while. Although it had turned a bit chilly, it didn’t matter, as I was wearing a decent sweater and had lit a fire in the large brazier at the corner of the deck. The sky was a peculiar dark blue, like in a Whistler painting. Something about this tone made me somber.
I lit a cigarette and drank Budweiser from a can; it was ice-cold and a pleasant counterpoint to the hot tobacco smoke and the warmth of the brazier.
Then I heard the music.
It carried between the aspen trees on the western side of the garden, soft and mesmerizing. It was two violas playing in unison. I wasn’t familiar with the composition. But it was so beautiful that before I knew it, tears had welled up in my eyes. I sniffled like a fool, let my cigarette fall into the empty beer can and stared out into the twilight.
I knew who was playing. It was the couple next door, who were both violists. I had yet to meet them since I moved in, but had seen them in their backyard grilling together, laughing together, gardening together. They did everything together. This was the first time I had heard them play together. I had been told they were outstanding musicians, and while I wasn’t knowledgeable about such things, I had to agree as I sat listening to them play. These were the first tears I shed since divorcing. Separation is a bit like when a ship hits an iceberg at night—at first everything seems fine, the ship and the iceberg go their separate ways in the darkness, but then the sea begins to flood in through the tear in the plating. If the ship makes it to port in time for repairs, perhaps it will be all right, though some scars from the welding might always remain visible on the hull.
They played another piece, and then another. The tears had stopped flowing, and I just savored sitting by the fire and listening. The rustling of the aspen leaves wasn’t a distraction, but instead became like a part of what was being played.
“Here, kitty kitty,” I called in through the doorway to my cat, who was still lying on the couch. He didn’t move. It was then I discovered a strong coffee scent wafting out of my house. There was no question—it was the smell of freshly brewed coffee. I had trouble comprehending this, as I lived alone, and what’s more my coffee maker was broken, so I had been without coffee for as many days as the cat had been on his hunger strike.
The viola performance fell silent all of a sudden. I got up from the wooden chair on the deck, accidentally knocking over the empty beer can with my foot. It tumbled over with a chilly, hollow sound. I stirred around in the brazier until it was completely extinguished. I’m afraid of fire. Then I went inside, latching the door behind me. I didn’t turn on the light in the front room, but could see the outline of my motionless cat on the couch. I headed toward the kitchen and found the coffee smell growing stronger. And there in the darkened kitchen, the red button of the previously out-of-order coffee machine glowed brightly, as the last of the coffee dripped down. I stared at this sight for a moment but couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Outside the trees stood silhouetted against that dark sky, groping upward as though trying to pull it down to them. The kitchen window was open, and again I heard violas playing on the other side of the fence, emerging once more through the aspen leaves. Now I recognized the music. It wasn’t a classical piece they were playing, but a song by Bob Dylan. One More Cup of Coffee—for two violas, and also for me.
Translated from the Icelandic by Mark Ioli
Gyrðir Elíasson was born in Reykjavík in 1961 and is one of Iceland’s most well-regarded contemporary authors of poetry, short stories and prose, as well as being a prolific translator in his own right. Gula húsið (The Yellow House), a collection of short stories, won the Icelandic Literature Prize in 2000, and Milli trjánna (Among the Trees) won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2011. Skuggaskip (Shadow Ships), his tenth short-story collection, came out in October 2019. Further information on the author and his work can be found at https://bokmenntaborgin.is/en/literature-web/author/gyrdir-eliasson.
Mark Ioli was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1970. He received a B.A. in Russian from the University of Pittsburgh in 1992, where he also studied Polish and Spanish. In 2019 he completed a B.A. in Icelandic as a Second Language at the University of Iceland, where he is currently enrolled in the Master’s program in Translation Studies.
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