Jón Gnarr - this is both a memoir and a novel. It will tell a truthful story of his life, but the only way to do that, with faulty memories, with absence of memories, is through literature


Jón Gnarr, The Indian, Translated by Lytton Smith, Deep Vellum, 2015.

The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then comes sly awareness of the flow from preconsciousness to consciousness, “Murmuring becomes speech and words. Everything gradually clarifies, taking on a fantastic light. You get on intimate terms with your existence.” It is his life story, so why not make God’s creation of the universe culminate with him? This stylistic turn is Gnarr’s immediate signal to reiterate his author’s note: this is both a memoir and a novel. It will tell a truthful story of his life, but the only way to do that, with faulty memories, with absence of memories, is through literature.
As readers, we should interpret it as we do fiction: creatively, poetically, without leaving behind the emotions and the struggles, even the lessons learned, that biography offers. The Indian has everything that people want from mainstream literature: emotions, plot, likeable characters, lessons learned, personal growth, yet it is so much better—the emotions and characters more complex, the writing skillful. This is the type of book that readers deserve, both those who read widely and those who read four or five “popular” books a year.
After the opening, Gnarr leaves that ego aside for a couple chapters to tell us about his family, his parents, his significantly older siblings, his grandparents. He summarizes their lives, tells how they came to live in a suburb of Reykjavík. The Indian will be his life, his story, and he lives it in a private, isolated world, but Gnarr cares for the lives around him.
Gnarr is famous as the comedian who became the mayor of Reykjavík after running a campaign mocking politics, and bringing liberalism and entertainment to his politics. The Indian has nothing to do with his adult life, but the entertainment and compassion is easily identifiable with his future. Instead, The Indian is the story of his young childhood, his struggle with then-undiagnosed ADHD and dyslexia—the reports from the psychiatric ward that break up the narrative show doctors didn’t know what to make of the boy. So, yes, it is a biography of a difficult childhood, of distress, of being sent away from home, of family hardship, but Gnarr handles this differently, and for the best, than many memoirs that fall into these categories. There are no horrors that sell as spectacle.
Gnarr’s finest accomplishment in this book, surpassing others in the genre, is the absolute immediacy of the childhood experience. The first person narration is immersed in childhood, in the reasoning, the emotions, the desperate way that every moment of childhood is overwhelming, and is all that exists. Part of his path to this is the perspective of the narration. There are brief scenes where Gnarr has knowledge of events or changes in his life to come, but most of the time that is avoided. Instead, the first-person is ever the child’s view, reacting entirely as a child would, not judged or even reflected on by a man looking back on his life. But, thankfully, almost heroically, this doesn’t come remotely close to that overwhelmingly popular trope of the precocious, hyper-intelligent child narrator that authors adapt to excuse themselves from writing anything like actual childish thoughts. The narrator is adult and child simultaneously. It’s a style that leads to both beauty and deeply affecting motions. As much as it asks you to relate to young Jón, it becomes impossible to escape your own childhood experiences.
Jón is endearing when he patiently explains the rules of games, “It’s different in shoot and run or cops and robbers. Then if you shoot someone he’s dead. Though some kids never admit they’re dead.” His plain logic is both his way of processing his experiences and sharing them. The conclusions of his reasoning are present in both joys and sorrows. When he breaks his arm riding a bike, it was because he “had just gotten a speedometer and I was trying to set a speed record.” There’s nothing else there. We know the absurdity of the A to B movement, but by leaving it out, child logic is triumphant. It’s impossible not to love that way of thinking, just a little.
When in sorrow, the directness of his expression leads not to pits of suffering that beg for a response closer to pity than empathy, but to closeness as we move in step with his thoughts. The Indian is so much about the great sorrows that are specific to childhood, to those vulnerabilities that, even if you experience them later in life, are always childish in their timidness, in their inward turning. Jón admits “When I was a kid I would sometimes hide from teachers. I liked doing that a lot but I’ve grown out of it now. I’m not as naughty as I used to be. I also don’t feel as bad as I felt back then.” He states facts and feelings, and we read the links he can’t articulate, that shame or the attempt to assimilate into adulthood keep him from comprehending. His feeling bad is something no one in his life addresses, they only see the “naughtiness” that results from it, so he learns that feeling bad is itself a form of naughtiness. It’s heartbreaking, the more so if you remember such experiences yourself. When he condemns himself for being evil, disgusting, hating himself and everyone, I cried and left the book aside for a day or two, not wanting to remember when I thought those same thoughts.
The realism, in emotion and thought, of this life of a child became the most challenging part of reading The Indian for me. Memoirs of abusive childhoods, of trauma and extreme circumstances far beyond my own experiences, beyond many people’s are the most popular. There, the reader’s reach of empathy and connection is a personal accomplishment, a prideful stretch that is always a step away from their own pains. Gnarr’s memoir has the hook with his specific personal struggle of ADHD and dyslexia, but his isolation is utterly familiar. His expression of that, his understanding of the utterly crushing presence of it, the belief, in the end false, that it is inescapable, would have been life-changing, momentous, to read as a child myself.
He is alone when he cries out in his head “I want to go home and into my bedroom. I don’t want to be me. I don’t want to be here. I want to go far inside myself, further, further, deep down where no one can bother me and no one is mad at me.” He wants nothing more than safety and escape, and there is no one who can offer either, who can even understand him wanting these things in the way he does. In other words, there’s no one to talk to, to help identify and process his feelings. It’s a deep, permeating loneliness. The Indian becomes that person to talk to for people who have or have had this in common with Gnarr. It’s a book that triumphs in making us less alone in this world.
As in that intro, Jón’s perspective, his ego, dominates. He constantly turns inward, as a child hurt by the world does. But he does not want to only turn inward. Those notes from the psychiatrist are not just about Jón but about his parents too. They document the struggle of raising a child like him: he is not the only one wounded, and sharing the notes stretch compassion to his parents. This turns to one of the most poignant aspects of the book: the unbearable shame of a child who hurts his parents, but cannot move past the ways those people hurt him. At one point, Jón recognizes that he has hurt his father, sees “His eyes are full of sadness,” but it’s impossible for him to grasp how it happened. Jón feels his father has no interest in anything he says or wants to share, so he does nothing. When father thinks son will open up, but instead only asks for money because he’s afraid, protecting himself, he is pained by this distance from his son. Jón sees his father’s hurt, and it hurts him too, but he can’t see a way past it.
Gnarr’s recreation of childhood is not just of struggle. He brings out the special form of love children can have for their mothers, noticing things: “Mom smiles. She smiles beautifully.” There is plenty of humor, both in the absurd heights of trouble Gnarr finds himself in and in the moments of lightness with his family. He picks out the explosions of children’s imaginations, the way that a few items—a headdress and a knife—lead to a whole new identity, that of Indian. He expresses that innocent fury, the desire for destruction that the child sees no harm in, just play, experimentation, expression. There pains we are all familiar with, but which adults simply brush off when children encounter them, telling them, “That’s life.” It seems wildly immature to be anguished that rules like going to school must be followed, but that is only in the context of adulthood. Gnarr returns those emotions—all the emotions of childhood—to their context, adding the suffering of learning them, finding new restrictions, fearing ones you don’t know, and we relate to them once again. This is the gift of The Indian, the way that it makes the child, our child-self, alive, close to heart and mind, in all his pain and his happiness. The Indian is brave in this gift, and dares me to be brave too, enough to find the child of my past and make him present. - P. T. Smith


Jón Gnarr, Gnarr! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, Trans. by Andrew Brown, Melville House, 2014.

In the epicenter of the world financial crisis, a comedian launched a joke campaign that didn’t seem so funny to the country’s leading politicians . . .

It all started when Jón Gnarr founded the Best Party in 2009 to satirize his country’s political system. The financial collapse in Iceland had, after all, precipitated the world-wide meltdown, and fomented widespread protest over the country’s leadership.
Entering the race for mayor of Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, Gnarr promised to get the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park into downtown parks, free towels at public swimming pools, a “drug-free Parliament by 2020” . . . and he swore he’d break all his campaign promises.
But then something strange started happening: his campaign began to succeed. And in the party’s electoral debut, the Best Party emerged as the biggest winner. Gnarr promptly proposed a coalition government, although he ruled out partners who had not seen all five seasons of The Wire.
And just like that, a man whose previous foreign-relations experience consisted of a radio show (in which he regularly crank-called the White House and police stations in the Bronx to see if they had found his lost wallet) was soon meeting international leaders and being taken seriously as the mayor of a European capital.
Here, Gnarr recounts how it all happened and, with admirable candor, describes his vision of a more enlightened politics for the future. The point, he writes, is not to be afraid to get involved—or to take on the system

What do you do when you’re an out-of-work actor and your country’s economy goes bust, the political system is in shambles, and riots grip the streets?
Why, you take over and sort things out, of course.
In the case of Jon Gnarr – former mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city - that’s exactly what he did. His new book, which is part memoir, part political manifesto,  chronicles his experience growing up in Iceland and the events and ideas that eventually spurred him into politics, a field which he openly admits to detesting when he was growing up.
A self-professed anarchist who bears a large tattoo of punk band Crass’ logo on one arm, Gnarr has written a book which is also a call to action: for more people from all different backgrounds to get politically involved. Gnarr is determined to break politics wide open, which is really just another way of saying that he wants to expand and enrich democracy. “To save democracy, politics must attract a wider range of people,” he writes. “We need quite ordinary people who think slowly instead of quickly. People who admit it when they don’t know something, instead of pretending they know everything so they won’t be ousted from their jobs.”
People who pretend they know what they do when they don’t are a particularly sensitive topic in Iceland. The country’s economic and political system nearly collapsed in 2008 as irresponsible financial and political decisions bankrupted the nation’s major banks, leading to a lengthy financial crisis.
Who brought this state of affairs about? Gnarr is blunt and to-the-point. “We did. All of us. We have neglected democracy, we haven’t been paying attention and in some ways we’ve let ourselves get taken for a ride.”
Gnarr is also highly critical of the education system. He notes that the mistakes which led to the financial crisis can’t be pinned on any specific ideological program – they were the result of something much deeper and more systemic. They were made by both right-wing and left-wing politicians. The one common pattern underlying all the actors, he notes, is their educational background.
The education system, from primary school up to and including universities, he says, discourages creative and critical thinking. This contributed to a self-assured faith in ‘experts’ who turned out to be nothing of the sort. The world of politics needs less ‘experts’, he argues, and more people who are willing to think critically and creatively. People who are willing and able to think for themselves, and also to work collectively as a team. Icelandic politics – and one can easily make the argument for democratic society more globally – is lacking in these vital character traits, which is what he believes schools should concentrate on instilling in students.
Gnarr would know. His own background is an indictment of that system. His book describes a childhood as the son of a Communist father and a mother who voted for the right (and who consigned his father’s portraits of Soviet leaders to the pantry). Challenged by the conformity of school, Crass and Nina Hagen helped him through: he discovered anarchism and punk rock as a youth and it contributed to shaping his own critical and non-conformist attitude. He even played in a punk band, whose named translated as ‘Runny Noses’.
After high school he found himself driving cabs in the streets of Reykjavik; and yet he also found he had a sharp knack for humour. He began building a career for himself in the arts, doing comedy, writing and starring in television and film. He also came into work in advertising. He recalls at one point sitting across from John Cleese, who was slated to play a role in an ad his company was producing.
“John Cleese was my childhood hero, but sitting opposite him, I realized that I too was basically nothing more than a cog in this giant machine,” he writes. He realized that the single commercial they were producing “…was more expensive than a complete comedy series that I was filming. What the hell was actually going on in this country?”
When the crisis broke and unemployment skyrocketed, he voluntarily left his job with an ad agency and decided, at that point, enough was enough and it was time for him to do something. He’d been to anti-government protests, but never as an active participant; more because, he recalls, it was simply the place to be at the time. And much as he shared his countrymen’s scathing disgust toward the politicians and bankers who had put the country in crisis, he didn’t care for the militant and populist anger he often witnessed at protests either. His ardent individualism convinced him that there must be a better way.
Or even, perhaps, a best way.
The Best Party, which he formed to compete in the 2010 municipal election, was initially planned as a parody party. With a campaign video that has received more YouTube hits than there are people in the country, and commitments such as free towels in swimming pools, a drug-free Parliament by 2020, and a commitment to eradicate hidden corruption by doing it more openly, the party elicited laughs across the nation (and globe). But it also fired the public imagination in a way nobody anticipated.
Amidst the humour, several key themes emerge in Gnarr’s political activism, and these are outlined in his book, which chronicles the rollicking election campaign. One is the need for people to get involved in politics and reinvigorate democracy. The western world has become dominated by “political inbreeding”, he says, and that’s not what democracy is meant to be. In a democracy, people who don’t like what’s happening around them should be fully empowered to either get involved in an existing party (and contribute to changing it if they feel it has serious problems) or start their own. Like he did.
His manifesto is also a demand for politicians and public alike to recognize their responsibilities in a democratic society. “Without responsibility, freedom turns into chaos and power to dictatorship,” he writes. Everybody bears some of the blame: media make too big a deal when politicians make simple mistakes or run into problems, thereby creating the damaging impression that politicians should be infallible superheroes. Politicians in turn refuse to accept responsibility for their mistakes, or admit their uncertainty. Angry activists don’t help things by battling police in the streets instead of developing constructive alternatives, he says. “The only realistic way to change things is direct participation in democracy.”
Gnarr’s account is deeply honest and personal at points. He admits to the grave uncertainty and fear he had when he realized his party actually had a shot at winning. Losing confidence, and under more aggressive scrutiny from media and rival parties now that everyone realized his party was a real contender, he almost pulled the plug. But it was his own sense of responsibility – to all those who had committed time and energy to the campaign, and all the members of the public he had met who earnestly wanted the chance to vote for them – that he decided to stick it out (he did announce the party’s dissolution shortly before the election, but followed it up quickly with: “JOKE!”).
And then the unthinkable actually happened: the Best Party received the best percentage of votes of any party. It wasn’t enough to win outright, but Gnarr negotiated a coalition with a social democratic party (on condition of their leaders catching up on all episodes of The Wire). The result: he became mayor.
For Gnarr, fun and humour has always been more than just a job (or a way to get elected mayor). It’s a character trait he deeply and firmly advocates.
“Only when humor has been universally recognized as a crucial character trait will the inhabitants of this world get along. They will realize that life is too short to get mad and fight among themselves,” he says.
“I am convinced that humor will soon be recognized as a key skill for all areas of life,” he writes, making a case for the importance of humor not just on the stage and the screen, but in workplaces, in art, in finance and in government. “I simply see it as the logical development of human thought. In other words, if you want to be one step ahead in the future, you’re going to need humor.”
Humor may be Gnarr’s forte, but his book is also thoughtful and even touching at times. He talks extensively about the need for tolerance and equality, particularly around gay, lesbian and trans rights; a cause for which he has been a passionate advocate. And he writes with a poignant honesty about the stress of being mayor, the pressures of making decisions that actually affect people’s lives and jobs and, in a deeply emotional section, the death of his mother while he was in office.
But inevitably, he returns to politics, and shares the experience he’s gained from being in office. It’s filled him with ideas for improving democratic politics.
“The biggest snag with democracy is that stupid people have as much right as intelligent people to express an opinion and that, of course, you have to treat the yokels respectfully… Is it any wonder that the younger generation is usually conspicuous in its absence from such meetings? Why would you discuss something that you think is relevant in a closed group of fifty to one hundred people when you could spread the exact same thing on Facebook or Twitter and thus reach thousands? Plus block undesirable blabbermouths with one click.”

Gnarr is an advocate for participatory, 21st-century digital democracy, and his message is delivered in characteristically honest, straight-forward and down-to-earth style. Most of us would rather sit around in our underwear and watch the latest episode of The Walking Dead than go to a political meeting “in some stuffy office down in the city, drinking vending machine coffee and listening to vacuous anecdotes about some employee’s private life” he says. People today won’t take the time to vote in elections, yet they regularly spend half an hour filling out online surveys in the hope of winning the latest iPad.
He argues we need to adapt democracy to our society. Creating online forums where users can discuss and even vote on local issues and spending in their electoral district, and with incentives for participation (free random iPad giveaways, for instance) means that citizens would become more actively involved in their community, and without having to miss the latest Walking Dead episode.
And they could even do it in their underwear.
Some might brush this off as just words, but Gnarr’s Best Party has in fact begun putting these ideas into practice. In 2011 the city adopted an e-democracy platform called Betri (Better) Reykjavik. Anyone can join, and propose ideas, which other users can endorse or oppose. Ideas receiving sufficient endorsements would be brought to council meetings, and a portion of budgetary spending allocated to them. It allows municipal legislators to hold referenda on spending priorities in different parts of the city, or on items like making downtown streets pedestrian-only (the software, developed by Icelandic computer programmers, says it is available for other governments around the world who wish to adopt it too). This, writes Gnarr, has had the effect of introducing a rudimentary form of participatory budgeting to governance.
If Gnarr’s commitment to the internet is serious, it’s also fun: he unabashedly discusses his various Facebook accounts, each with different personalities, that he would secretly use to engage with the public while mayor.
Opinions vary, sometimes strongly, about the success and achievements of Gnarr and the Best Party since their 2010 election victory. Nevertheless, they brought stability to a municipal scene which had been through a turbulent decade (with several of his predecessors barely lasting a year in office). Polls suggested Gnarr, who finished his term in June of this year, could have easily won re-election if he had decided to try. He did not. He says that the Best Party was designed as a ‘surprise’, and surprises can’t be repeated.
But what began as a ‘surprise’ may have a much longer-lasting legacy. One of the accomplishments for which Gnarr sounds proudest is that many able and competent people were drawn into the active political sphere as a result of the Best Party’s unorthodox and surprise tactics. Many of these people, who might otherwise never have gotten involved in politics, are now active and committed to the growth of progressive, participatory democracy. Several Best Party members and organizers have formed a new party to compete at the national level – Bright Future. It elected several seats in the last election, and current polls show it in second place nationally. Gnarr gives them a proud thumbs-up.
Gnarr! is an entertaining reflection on life, politics, and human nature by an original and creative individual (who defies easy description). It’s a quick read, and includes a brief interview with his wife as well as short excerpts from website postings. It’s a tribute to, and manifesto for, participatory democracy in the 21st century. And above all, it’s a call for us all to be nicer to each other.
If Gnarr has a political philosophy, that seems to be it: be nicer to each other, and have more fun. One of his own strengths, says Gnarr, is the fact he never felt the need to be best at anything. “The true winner of the game for me is the one who has the most fun,” he writes, “and this is true not only in sport, but also in life.”
“Life is mainly there for us to enjoy it and have as much fun as possible, but we have to become active ourselves and come up with a few ideas,” he says. - Hans Rollman 


The author of the headline making GNARR! How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World (Melville House, 2014), former comedian (and mayor) Jón Gnarr now turns his lens from politics to tell his life story in his literary debut.The Indian is a highly entertaining and bittersweet literary memoir by Jón Gnarr, the world-famous Icelandic comedian and former Mayor of Reykjavik,Iceland, revisiting his troubled childhood. Diagnosed as "retarded" because of his severe dyslexia and ADHD, Gnarr spent time in a "home for retarded children" before getting out, only to find himself subjected to constant bullying, leading the young Gnarr to identify with the Indians against bully cowboys on TV.
The Indian is the first book in a trilogy that looks back at Gnarr's childhood and adolescence, providing the unparalleled coming of age story of an outcast who overcame the odds and matured into a world-renowned comedian, actor, writer, and politician. Each book in the trilogy is told with the warmth and humor that defines Gnarr's unique personality, allowing readers of all ages to identify with his story.

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