Memoir: ‘The Pirate,’ by Jón Gnarr

February 1, 2016

"The Pirate" by Jón Gnarr, translated by Lytton Smith; Deep Vellum (258 pages, $14.95)


"The Pirate," the second installment of Jón Gnarr’s childhood memoir trilogy, is essentially an Icelandic-punk version of "Catcher in the Rye." Rather than Holden Caulfield wandering the streets of New York looking for someone who is not a phony, Gnarr narrates in pseudo-stream-of-consciousness style through his never-ending search for real punks in Iceland.

Gnarr was diagnosed at a young age with an intellectual disability caused by emotional and learning differences including dyslexia and ADHD, but went on to become an actor, comedian and mayor of Reykjavík in 2010. Both "The Indian," the first installment in Gnarr’s trilogy, and "The Pirate" are somewhat emotionally challenging texts translated from Icelandic by Lytton Smith and published in English by Dallas’ Deep Vellum.

When Gnarr leaves readers in "The Indian," he had set sail, and failed, to travel across the bay in search of a place to be alone in the world. He is a wild child, an Indian.

By contrast, in "The Pirate," he seems to be craving normalcy as he enters his teen years. The text is first-person narrative rather than broken into short, almost poetic chunks interspersed with excerpts from psychological evaluations.

How one defines punk is a point of contention with Gnarr. Sid Vicious is punk until he isn’t anymore. Religion is squarely not punk unless attending confirmation means getting money to spend on cigarettes and punk records. To play in a punk band do you actually have to be able to play the guitar? Young Gnarr would emphatically say no, but the band doesn’t work out if you have stage fright either.

He longs to belong to anything. His family doesn’t accept him. He is malcontent at school, except in his English class. He has no luck with girls and a revolving door of "friends," the closest of whom acknowledge his existence only when he puts himself into harm’s way.

His only respite from the verbal and physical abuse of his peers comes from punk music and the English language in which it is sung. But even that leaves him second-guessing. The last thing he wants is to find out he was actually listening to New Wave.

The text encapsulates the feelings of loneliness and being misunderstood and bullied all while searching for self-identity that are all too common in the teenage experience. At times, the familiar emotions and questions posed by Gnarr’s younger self can be anxiety-inducing for the reader. The Pirate is for that reason both a stimulating and confounding read.

Readers want the best for teenage Gnarr. Every new character seems like one that might stick. Every one Gnarr finds a way to push away. He floats aimlessly, waiting for something to happen to make someone notice him.

While post-punk Gnarr seems unlikely to recommend swallowing handfuls of sea-sickness pills to take the edge off family gatherings, it is unclear where "The Outcast," the final installment of the trilogy, will take readers.

Despite the dark and emotionally draining moments of "The Pirate," Gnarr ends on a hopeful note, leaving readers with cautious optimism for him finding a future and a place in this life.




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