Gyrðir Elíasson - House No. 451
There are people alive today who wish they lived in the 1950s. They slick their hair back and listen to music from the time period. They shake their heads at iPods and iPhones, and they go to drive-thru movies. There are others who wish it was still the Belle Epoque period of the 1890s – 1910s, and there are others who dress like flapper girls from the Jazz Age. These are extraordinary things to wish, but even regular people tend to want, sometimes, to return to the time and mannerisms of their childhood, say, or perhaps their teenage years. It's natural to, every now and then, become nostalgic for a time that has passed.
All this leads me to the following: one day someone, somewhere, will be nostalgic for this year, 2012. I don't know what exactly, or why, but they will, and though it seems strange to us now, for them it will be some for of “olden days”. Gyrðir Elíasson's House No. 451 (trans. Victoria Cribb) explores this concept as experienced by the narrator, who is from 2072 and who feels toward the house next door to his own, a strong yearning for the past, when things were better. His long, un-experienced past is our immediate past (although, it's worth noting that Elíasson's story was written in 2009 and is set in 2010, which makes it the author's future, and our past). He senses, in the dilapidated house next door, a kind of character and a depth of emotion he doesn't experience in his own life.
I sit in my little room writing. I write by hand on paper, as people used to before. I’ve put aside my featherlite-computer; it will soon be obsolete anyway, like everything else. Every day something becomes obsolete. It’s a word we live in fear of nowadays. Every time the word is invoked people shrink with secret dread.
Elíasson has his narrator wander about his house listing the various gadgets and electronic possessions they own. His children and his wife loves them all, but he does not. He likes to write, partly for the feel of it, and he likes to own books, again partly for the feel. There are readers today who can attest to this pleasure, but there are those who swear by their Kindles and iPads. The narrator feels apart from his world, estranged, and constantly drawn to the rundown house nearby:
No one has lived here for a long time. The rusty roof rises against the rust-red backdrop of the mountain. I’ve asked many people who lived in this house but no one seems to have heard of it ever being occupied. It’s as if it was simply built and then abandoned without ever becoming anyone’s home. I notice that the glass in the living-room window is cracked right across and the pane in the front door is broken. The wind gusts in through the gap in bitter weather.
Elíasson's story is that of the Luddite examining his present and fondly admiring ours. It raises the question of our own sense of anti-technology authenticity (if we possess it), and admits that being anti-technology is a moving target, but so too is embracing all the latest and greatest. When I was younger, I enjoyed trying out new toys and programs and was considered as being “into computers”. Now, as an adult, I just want technology to get out of my way, and I prefer the more simple pleasures.
But for all that it's important to remember that Elíasson is not celebrating 2010 for what it was, but rather, is celebrating the wreckage of 2010. The house is destroyed, old and crumbling, and is not fit to live in. The narrator admires it because of its feel, but its feel is that of a ruin. W. G. Sebald mentions that buildings carry within them the image of their own ruins, and that some buildings attain their true self when they become decrepit, and it certainly seems to be the case for those who admires abandoned castles, broken walls and overgrown manors. Elíasson shows us that nostalgia can be just as delusional and damaging as admiring everything in the present because it is equally untrue to the past, and whatever pleasures it offers is that of decay, neglect, falsity and in-authenticity. A man dressed in the style of the 1950s during the 1950s is being true to his time, a man dressed as such during the 2010s is figure to be mocked, a period piece come to life, a “look” put on purely to be looked at.
House No. 451 by Gyrðir Elíasson is a short story from Words Without Borders' January 2012 edition, Apocalypse issue. All of the work reviewed is freely available online.
Other stories from the Words Without Borders January 2012 edition, Apocalypse issue include:
---Xerxenesky, Antônio - Seizing Cervantes
---Adamek, André-Marcel - The Ark
---Paiva, Fernando - God's Obituary
---Villoro, Juan - Holding Pattern
---Mrożek, Sławomir - Ketchup
Words Without Borders review series:
---May 2011: Writing From Afghanistan
---January 2011: The Work Force
---October 2010: Beyond Borges: Argentina Now
---August 2010: Writing From Hungary
Index of short stories under review