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Guðbergur Bergsson: Missir [Loss]

After reading this novel, you will know that old age is hell, marriage is not much better and that there is nothing more annoying than waiting for the kettle to boil. As in Svanurinn (The Swan) , none of the characters is named. The story is told by and about (an at times confusing mixture of first and third person narrative) by an elderly widower who is waiting to die. He even, with only minimum of irony, mentions that other people, talking about old people in general, basically ask two questions: When is he going to die? and How much money has he left? His day is spent doing very little. He stays in bed till late, with the curtains drawn and earplugs in. He eats little, as he is no longer hungry. He watches the neighbours. Above all, and throughout the book, he waits for the kettle to boil (this waiting is shown every few pages and it only finally boils at the end).

The initial part of the book is about his neighbours. Many of them are elderly which, for him, is good news, as the elderly make less noise. He comments on nearby neighbours who are having double glazing installed on their front window, saying that they are so deaf, they do not need it. However, these elderly people suddenly die or are moved into an old people’s home and are replaced by younger people. Sometimes, this seems to happen overnight, as he suddenly hears young voices. He is critical not only of noisy children but also of young, unmarried couples who seem to keep the curtains drawn all day. He contrasts this behaviour with that of an elderly lady opposite him who seems to keep the curtains open, even when she is undressing. He is particularly critical of the woman opposite him, who has a chihuahua which she continually abuses in English. He reports the matter to the animal protection society but nothing seems to happen so he tells the police. When someone comes round to speak to her, she abuses him. Two days later, the dog is found (alive) in her dustbin.

But he also talks about the perils of old age. He has no-one to talk to, since his wife died. (He does have children but he does not seem to have any contact with them.) As a result his voice is getting hoarse. He remembers his uncle who buried three wives. He envied him at the time for being able to live alone but now realises that living alone is not ideal. He tires easily and gets up and goes back to bed several times a day. He claims that he is losing his memory but he does seem able to recall his earlier life. He worked as a maintenance man in a warehouse, till he hurt his back and had to stop working and remembers details of the job, particularly colleagues who lost their spouses.

Much of the second part of the book is about his late wife. He claims to have loved her and to miss her but he is highly critical of her. We learn first about her later years. She seems to spend much of the time smoking and eating sweets. As a result, she is obese and coughs most of the time. In bed, her snoring keeps him awake, which makes it difficult for him when he has to go to work. She stays on in bed, asleep, while he is tired at his job. One day, she falls because of her weight. The children come home from school and, instead of helping her, tease her about her condition. We later learn that he had originally dated her friend but then switched to her. She went on a date with him, as he was able to get nylon stockings through his contacts at the warehouse. We do not learn too much about their earlier married life but, rather, more about their later life, when she has having not only physical health problems but also mental health problems. He also has another relationship, after his wife dies, with a woman to whom he was introduced by the friend whom he had dated before dating his wife.

But, above all, this book is about ageing. (Bergsson was seventy-eight himself when it was published in Iceland.) There is nothing more unfair than this brutality, this violence, which is ageing. No-one grows old in the same way and there are no two people who do it according to the same rules. He concludes this diatribe by saying that he often wanted to kill his wife. He is miserable, lonely and bitter. He has not even been able to make the trip to the Faroe Islands that he wanted to make. All that is left is to wait to die and to wait for the damned kettle to boil.

Publishing history

First published 2010 by JPV
No English translation
Published in French as Deuil in 2013 by Métailié
Translated by Éric Boury
Published in Spanish as Pérdida in 2012 by Tusquets
Translated by Enrique Bernárdez