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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

Error and Mistake

by Don Webb

Error began in issue 413.

On its face, Ásgrímur Hartmannsson’s Error is about an isolated man, Jonas, who is stripped of his civil identity by a government bureau’s clerical error. He finds employment in the underworld, where an official identity isn’t needed and can even be a handicap. He also moves to take revenge on the bureau that has made him, in effect, an unperson. The repercussions are disastrous. But that is only the pretext; Jonas actually became a victim much earlier.

* * *

Jonas’ predicament is by no means far-fetched. For example, the Toronto Globe and Mail of June 28, 2011 reports an almost identical case. The office of the Registrar General has apparently failed to record a gentleman’s middle name, which he happens to use in his legal signature. Only expensive proceedings can undo a name change imposed upon him without his consent.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s barb about Queen Victoria’s prisoners, “If this is the way the government treats its citizens, it doesn’t deserve to have any.”

The source of the “error” in Error is the cold and impersonal Bureau of Personal Information Protection. Jonas contacts the BPIP by telephone, but disembodied, uncaring voices offer no help. He twice visits the building in person but can’t get past the receptionist.

The BPIP is quite mysterious. Jonas senses that its building is heavily populated, but he meets no one in person outside the main lobby. As far as he can tell, the building exists mainly to house a computer. A proverbial saying seems to apply almost literally: “The lights are on, but nobody’s home.”

Beyond talking to flunkies and security guards, Jonas has no recourse. Appealing to the courts is never suggested as an option; the BPIP is apparently accountable to no one. And unlike the Registrar General, it cannot be held up to ridicule in the public media. In effect, the BPIP might as well be the Kremlin and the receptionist, a female Josef Stalin.

And yet Error is no political and social satire like Orwell’s 1984; nor is it an account of psychological imprisonment, like Kafka’s The Trial. Rather, it is the story of a man adrift.

Jonas turns to crime by taking a path of least resistance. His friend Max finds him work as a courier for Frank. Jonas suspects Frank is a drug dealer but is never entirely sure; and at any rate he doesn’t really care.

Jonas becomes a target of rival gangsters, and he spends much of his time running and hiding from them. The BPIP has already murdered him figuratively; the thugs intend to do it literally. Again, Jonas’ predicament is completely depersonalized: he never sees his pursuers and can only guess who they might be. In a series of frantic car chases he feels less afraid than inconvenienced.

Jonas cares about no one and nothing. And he can include himself: he’s content to dine on oatmeal, coffee and dog biscuits. Beyond that, radio and television make his life as a couch potato one of endless tedium.

In chapter 17, Jonas’ existential ennui reaches a climax of sorts. After musing — in a fit of inadvertent humour — that global warming might benefit Greenland, Jonas derives a brief moment of pleasure from glimpsing natural beauty. But he decides it is too inconvenient to reach on foot. In the end he settles for watching a tree grow:

There was a lake nearby, one of the largest in the land. It looked peaceful and serene. Clear and smooth as crystal, silvery from reflecting the cloudy sky. Jonas walked toward it. It was a bit too far away, and over uneven terrain. Jonas figured it was probably best not to go there. And he had second thoughts about venturing too far away from his car.

Instead he turned and walked to a tree he saw nearby. It was taller than all the other trees, yet of the same kind. Jonas approached it, and stopped. He marvelled at the tree. He had nothing better to do. Why not use some time to watch a tree? He was not missing out on anything more important on TV. And thugs might be rifling his apartment, looking for him for their own nefarious purposes.

Readers will surely wonder: “Is that all? That’s it? Jonas doesn’t need an identity, he needs to get a life.” True, Jonas does not have a life in the colloquial sense. However, he’s not entirely empty: he’s a walking cluster-bomb of unexpressed rage.

* * *

It began with his mother. When Jonas finds himself in trouble, he does not call her. Rather, in chapter 3, he leaves it up to BPIP Security to do so, and in the process he jokes:

“I am just thinking what my mother’s reaction will be when you guys call her and ask if she is positive she has had a child.”

On its face, the implied question is absurd. But as the novel progresses we realize that the answer is less than obvious. Jonas’ relationship with his mother is quite distant. He talks to her only once, in a telephone call in chapter 11. She confirms she has been threatened by security agents, but that’s where it ends.

Jonas’ only souvenir of his mother is a coffee-maker intended to serve guests, but none ever comes to visit. And he has only one passing thought of her: what might she think if she knew he was skulking around the BPIP receptionist’s house at night? Jonas doesn’t know, and the thought evaporates, leading nowhere.

While Jonas merely keeps his distance from his mother, his attitude toward girls is one of contempt; for example:

Adult females are typified by Jonas’ first encounter with the BPIP receptionist, in chapter 3:

Jonas explained his plight to the woman, and she listened with a bored, lifeless look on her face, nodding now and again to indicate that she was listening. But she did not believe him. Jonas could see it in her cold, malicious gaze. She most likely suspected him of being a criminal of some sort; a drug smuggler, a terrorist, or just an annoying prankster.

Jonas’ interpretation of the receptionist’s passive hostility is correct for all practical purposes. At the very least it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In chapter 11, the woman sends Jonas into an ultimate exile by ordering him out of the building:

“As for you, get out and stay out.”

Jonas thought about attacking and strangling the woman. But instead, he walked out the door again. He did get her name off her tag. It read: “Karen.”

Jonas’ impulse to commit murder leads him to stalk “Karen.” He discovers that the atmosphere at her home is basically the same as that of the BPIP:

Being home did not make the woman look or act any less evil. She yelled at the man, the kids, and even at some animal on the floor. Jonas guessed it must be a dog. It could have been a cat, but nobody ever picked it up, so he ruled that out.

Later on, the man yelled at the kids and petted whatever was on the floor. Meanwhile, the kids reacted violently toward each other and to the thing on the floor. After dinner, the kids escaped outside. And they went off in various directions.

The man and wife were left to watch TV in silence.

And that’s where it stops. Jonas might perceive — if he were inclined to reflect — that “Karen” and her family appear to differ from himself only in terms of numbers.

* * *

In a week filled with drug smuggling and terrorism, Jonas will leave in his wake a trail of dead bodies and smouldering wreckage. And yet, despite Jonas’ initial impulse to strangle the receptionist, he does not murder anyone. In the raid on the BPIP, in chapter 20, Rick takes Jonas’ revenge for him:

She was the only female in the group, and she stood her ground fearlessly as Rick walked toward her. And she addressed him as he prepared to swing: “You wouldn’t hit a woman, would you?”

Rick did not like her tone much, but he had an answer to her question. He swung his sledge, and the woman’s skull burst open with the force of the blow. Brains flew all over the place. Rick never was an eloquent orator. Nobody seemed to notice, but with the guys surrounded, a brutal melee ensued just the same.

Chapters 25 and 26 conclude the novel with Jonas’ discovery of a grisly murder: a woman and her children have been slain in a neighboring apartment.

Jonas’ chronic emotional disengagement makes it no surprise that he displays complete indifference to the fate of the hitherto unknown woman and her children. He disposes of her family photos and summons Frank to help him tidy up the apartment. Jonas watches dispassionately as Frank dissolves the corpse and flushes it down the drain.

As Frank’s henchmen relax in front of the TV, Jonas makes a deal. He will convert the now vacant apartment to his own use and sublet it illegally. And he will split the proceeds with Frank.

While Jonas is technically not a killer he is nonetheless an accessory to the murder of the policewoman and is now morally complicit in the murder of his neighbor and her family.

* * *

What might account for Jonas’ curiously passive-aggressive lifestyle? It would be not merely an error but a big mistake to consider Jonas a variation on Albert Camus’ Meursault in L’Étranger. Despite appearances, Meursault enjoys life, and he observes his surroundings and associates attentively and in detail. But he resembles a tourist who is utterly unfamiliar with the language and customs of the country he is visiting and has no idea what is important or what is expected of him.

Jonas is the inverse. He knows “how the game is played” in his society. But he has somehow acquired the notion that he and his life are meaningless and insignificant. When the BPIP accidentally confirms his world view, Jonas finds himself suddenly and arbitrarily alienated from even his own miserable existence. He reacts accordingly. He moves into the underworld and plots to take revenge not on any person in particular but on the BPIP as an entity.

Is Jonas’ target really the government? Jonas himself may think so, but the idea is at best an illusion; government as such is almost completely absent. In reality he seeks revenge on women, whom he scorns and who, in his perception, have brutally made him a nobody.

* * *

The problem with Error as a novel is one of esthetic distance. An author may depict a character whose life is one of aimlessness and boredom punctuated by resentment. But a story must not induce those feelings in the readers, lest they click off and seek less unedifying fare elsewhere.

Copyright © 2011 by Don Webb

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