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Inferno

We had just moved into an apartment in the suburbs, with all the hassle of fetching and carrying and doing the sorts of things that you really wouldn’t bother with if you didn’t feel socially obliged to. On the seventh day after we had moved in, my wife said we must go to IKEA to buy an armchair that would go better with the sofa than our old one. I didn’t raise any objections, though I could see absolutely nothing wrong with our existing chair.

“Remember the chair I showed you?” she said.

“What chair?”

“The one in the catalog.”

“No,” I said.

“You never remember anything.”

“I suppose you’re right,” I said.

The day passed in hanging pictures and arranging books on shelves and it was nearly coffee time when we finally set out on the chair-buying expedition. There was a hint of autumn in the air; leaves had begun to fall from the trees, and their trunks cast faint shadows on the lawns in the afternoon sunshine.

The traffic was hideous at that hour; it always is in this small town which tries so hard to play the big city. I had turned on the radio. Bob Dylan was singing a song from Street Legal. I listened, staring straight ahead through my sunglasses.

“You’re always so preoccupied when you drive,” she said, turning down the volume.

“Am I?” I said.

“Yes, always.”

SUVs accelerated past us, one after another.

The old sanatorium at Vífilsstadir came into view, surrounded by yellowing grass and clumps of trees, reminiscent of an abandoned country mansion, somewhere in Sweden perhaps—at least I always thought of Margit Söderholm when I drove past. Beyond the sanatorium were oval, scrub-covered hills that looked brown in the autumn sunshine. The IKEA building loomed in the distance. No one can understand how they got permission to build it right next to the scenic footpaths of the Heidmörk reserve, but there the monstrosity squats and it’s too late to do anything about it now.

“What an eyesore,” I said.

“What eyesore?” she asked, looking at me.

“IKEA,” I replied.

“I don’t think so,” she said, adding: “Park as close to the store as possible.”

The building cast a faint blue shadow on the car as I parked and we climbed out. We walked in through the revolving doors. Revolving doors are no fun anymore: they’re all remote-controlled. Even Chaplin couldn’t get a laugh out of them. There were quite a few shoppers inside, all flocking to the escalator, staring into space as they ascended. There was no telling whether their eyes held optimism for a bright future, courtesy of Swedish design, or mere blankness, empty of hope.

We stood on separate steps on the escalator, looking in different directions.

*

Once in the living-room section we wandered among the chairs and sofas, unable to find the chair my wife was searching for. To be honest, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it looked like but I didn’t let on and made a pretense of peering round the store for it. A young man in a yellow shirt walked by and my wife hailed him.

“It was this chair,” she said.

“Which chair?” the assistant asked.

“This one here,” she said, pulling the catalog out of her handbag, turning to the page and pointing to the chair.

“Oh, that’s sold out.”

“Sold out?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“You’ve always sold out of everything.”

“Well, not always,” I said, in an attempt at mitigation.

“Yes, always,” she repeated stubbornly.

“I’ll just check for you,” the assistant said. As he walked away, he glanced back at us, collided with the corner of a sofa, and stumbled, but kept going.

A quarter of an hour passed and he did not return. There was no sign of anyone who looked as if they worked there; in fact remarkably few people seemed to find their way into the sofa department, as if it were somehow off the beaten track. For a moment I felt as if I had stumbled into a children’s story by Jens Sigsgaard.

I sat down on a brown leather sofa which felt pretty comfortable to me, but my wife remained impatiently on her feet the whole time, scanning the shop floor with a hawklike gaze.

“They employ nothing but morons here,” she said.

“Oh, come on, is that entirely fair?” I asked.

“Yes, entirely.”

In the end we gave up waiting and walked on through the store following the marked path and letting the arrows do our thinking. We didn’t stop to look at anything else on the way.

*

We came to the restaurant, where we were met by the smell of Swedish meatballs and I discovered that I was hungry. I dawdled by the entrance, looking into the room. There were not many people around; a few seated at the tables, others lining up at the counter, waiting for meatballs, potatoes, gravy, and lingonberry jam to be shoveled onto their plates.

The autumn sun poured into the room and I found myself staring at a man who was sitting alone at a table by the window. He had hunched shoulders, red hair, and a wispy beard, and wore a black coat with a turned-up collar and a belt of the same color that trailed on the floor. He was nursing a beer, gazing into the glass as if he could see nothing else, or as if the glass were a mirror that reflected the whole world.

I had the feeling I knew the man, but couldn’t immediately place him. Then suddenly it dawned on me.

It was August Strindberg.

Strindberg—who had feared hell above all else, a fear he had described in his writings— had ended up after death here, in a branch of IKEA in Iceland. This was the man who had claimed that Lund was hell on earth but knew little of Iceland and nothing of IKEA, which, after all, hadn’t existed in his day. As I watched, he seemed to slump lower and lower over his glass, condemned for all eternity. The man who had written in his diary: “Anyone who says that life is wonderful is either a swine or a halfwit.”

“Look over there,” I said to my wife, pointing across the room.

“Where?”

“Over there, by the window.”

“Who is it?”

“It’s August Strindberg.”

“Is he the manager?” she asked, without interest. Then perking up slightly: “Actually, I should have a word with him about the state of this store.”

“No, he’s an author,” I explained, then corrected myself: “Or was.”

“The old one, you mean?”

“Yes.”

She gave me a sharp glance.

“Are you pretending you can see ghosts now?”

“Well, I saw The Ghost Sonata once.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It is him,” I said.

She took hold of my jacket sleeve and more or less dragged me away toward the revolving doors.

*

The shade in the parking lot had deepened and the air was cooler now. We got into the car and I drove slowly away. I thought of turning on the radio again but decided not to.

“I’m never going back there,” she said, fastening her seat belt with a jerk.

“Never say never,” I replied daringly. My thoughts returned to Strindberg: how he had sat, devoid of all hope of redemption, the black belt of his coat trailing on the floor like a chain, his wide lapels not unlike the wings of a devil ray.

The low hills above the road looked magical in the soft light, their countless footpaths criss-crossing among the trees. I would have liked to go for a walk there with Strindberg; lead him out of this modern hell. I would have told him that I had once visited Lund and that he was quite wrong about the place.

But I didn’t.

I never went back.

Original Icelandic © Gyrðir Elíasson. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2011 by Victoria Cribb. All rights reserved.