Manual on the mentality of cows

Manual on the Mentality of Cows:
A Research-Based Novel

Bergsveinn Birgisson
translated by Philip Roughton



Grænustaðir— Seltjarnarnes 12 April 1974

I can’t do this anymore. I could have kept going if I’d felt like you had my back and wished me well. Really.
I’m frightened and I know that he senses it and that it’s making him uneasy. I know what you’re thinking now when you read these words: “Lord Almighty, she’s sick.” Then you look astonished and go on and on about how sick I am, as if you have nothing to do with it and it’s just “the disease” as you call it when I’m feeling bad. No, this time it won’t do to send me off to sports practice or boarding school. It won’t do to tell me to shake off my sluggishness and go for a run. Nor is it because I’ve gotten fat and just need to lose some weight and then everything will be fine.
The reason is the darkness in my soul and you and the others only make me feel more frightened and more lonely. I’ve never been able to tell you plainly how I feel. I know that you would kill me for having such feelings— because that’s what you hate: feelings. Of course, you wouldn’t kill me with a knife or something. You would rip the sails of love. For a long time. That’s your method. That’s what you’re such great masters at, ripping the sails of love, suddenly, when least expected.
I don’t feel secure around you, or maybe I do one day but not the next, which is worse than being beaten and hated by your parents every day, because then at least everything’s clear.
I’m suffocating from claustrophobia, as if there’s no way out, as if I’m stuck with you forever. This is all like some sort of cruel punishment and what’s most disturbing is that I feel I deserve it.
You’re such actors. I’ve always found this household more than slightly screwed up, but now I’ve seen the play bright and clear even though I’ve taken part in it. It’s called “Happy Family in Seltjarnarnes” and the performances are particularly splendid when your “fine” guests show up. Then, you’re so kind and considerate. Next day, it’s all cold as ice again. I feel like it’s my fault— that I deserve to be out in the cold. Why do I feel this way?
Both of you are scared shitless. I don’t know of what. Maybe terrified that someone will see through you. I’ve seen through you. Always in the little things in life. I know that you’re annoyed with me and my love child— whenever you start reproaching me, for example, it’s clear from your voices and sighs that you think I’m an idiot, like when I was going to heat the bottle and you grabbed the nipple from me and said that it came as no surprise that I didn’t know how to slip it like a condom over the neck, since I’d never heard of a condom.
I could never have forgiven myself if I’d gotten the abortion, as you wanted. You’re unhappy about this little child; you hate life in all its forms and that’s the way it’s always been. All you want to do is your lawyering and buy more and more things and meet all the right people and make everything look good on the surface even though it’s all rubbish underneath. I’ve had my share of coldness for now. Aunt Jóna understands me and finds you just as awful as I do. She’s invited me to stay with her in Copenhagen for a while. I can’t take the boy with me now. You must understand that. I need to recover. I’ll come get him later.
Why are you so cold, Mom?
Who made you like this? And do you have to be like that to me? As if you hate me. And hate him.
I know everything.
Sigurjón isn’t my dad, and I’ve never felt like he was, either, because he’s never wanted me. I was just a kind of love baggage that came with you, and Sigurjón’s coldness has settled in you, too. Once when he was putting on his green overcoat, I asked him whether he was my dad. I stood in the hallway and stared at him. He sighed and groaned, pointed at me with his hat and said:
“What’s all this about? What have I ever done to you?”
That’s what he said, and I told it like it was, that he’d hit the nail on the head. He’d never done anything to me, apart from teaching me never to come near him and never waste his precious time. You’re liars, both of you. Why can’t you be honest? I don’t understand either of you.

The baby’s bottles are in the fridge and next to this letter I’ve laid out the clothes that he can sleep in outside. There are clean cloth diapers on the rack in the laundry room.
This hurts. But you would never understand how much— despite my having tried to describe it. I’ve always been in your way, and that feeling has grown ever since he was born. When I come pushing the stroller up the driveway, I think, why don’t I go and knock on the door of some other house— any other house than this one, where I’m an unwelcome guest.
There’s probably someone, somewhere who can love me. I’m going to find him. And come back and move far far away from this house.



It began with an innocent Sunday drive in Hvalfjörður. An old friend had told me about a mountain near the head of the fjord; I don’t recall whether it was named Þyrill or something ending in Peak, but the hike up it was supposed to be quite nice, with great views, and you could wash yourself in the spray from a waterfall there. What a lovely introduction to Iceland this could be.
We never made it to this celebrated peak of waterfall spray. We did of course find the trail leading from the dilapidated Botnsskáli Café up the valley, the birch scrub in the dell still fragrant, despite it being late August. Little Sara was already exhausted only halfway up the slope, and when we had around a quarter of the hike left, Catherine sat down on a rock on an exposed gravel bed and refused to go any farther with me and the burden on my shoulders. So we sat down with her on the gravel and had sandwiches and hot chocolate, our little family there on the stones, as if in a fleeting escape from culture, without a care in the world as we sat there in the peace and quiet, in surroundings that woke old patriotic sentiments that had slumbered inside me the whole time I’d lived in a foreign city. Catherine smiled and said that I wasn’t much of a Viking, stopping like this, but I replied that it was due to the disorienting influence of Anglo-Saxon culture.
After hiking back down to level ground, we saw a man with two dogs a short distance from the trail. He was throwing sticks for the dogs to chase. We approached them unsuspectingly. One of the dogs was black and the other white, with thick fur around its neck, which made it look like a Greenland sled dog. Just as we were passing them, the dogs suddenly ran up, the white one acting quite aggressively. Sara burst into tears and leaped into her mother’s arms. I tried to show the dog who was boss by shouting commandingly at it: “Go home!” and “Bad dog!,” but this had the opposite effect: teeth bared, it rushed at me as I stood there pointing at it with my index finger, frowning and panicked at once, like someone at a complete loss when his or her child lies screaming on the floor of a shop.
In a flash, the white dog had clamped its teeth around my hand, yet without biting down. It was more as if it had closed its jaws around my hand determinedly, whitening the skin beneath its biggest canines, and was thus prepared to bite down hard if necessary. I stiffened in alarm, but tried as much as I could to suppress my feelings so as not to rile the creature any further, standing there like none other the mythological wolf Fenrir, gripping my hand in its jaws. Sara was bawling and Catherine was crying out in dismay.
I glimpsed the owner behind some birch scrub and hoped that he would scold his dogs and call them off when he saw what was going on.
But instead of taking control of the situation, he muttered something as he stood there by the birch, seemingly preoccupied with striking the lymegrass tussocks with his walking-stick, before calling out in a low, feeble voice, as if distracted:
“There now, come here, come here, boy. Let him be.”
It was as if the man couldn’t care less whether his dog bit me or not! The white dog let go of me and turned to Catherine and Sara, who was wailing in her mother’s arms. The crying agitated the dog and it bared its teeth with a vicious growl from somewhere deep within its gut, seemingly on the verge of leaping at them. I went to the girls and stood in front of them and we slowly made our way, the three of us in a little clump, toward the parking lot, where we finally made it back to the safety of the car.
I wanted to get us away from that brutal company as quickly as possible and started the car with that sole thought in mind, but Catherine stared at me as if thunderstruck and cried out if I was going to leave as if nothing had happened?!
“What else am I supposed to do?” I asked, like a sluggard.
“Call the police and press charges!”
Call the police, of course. Was it 112 or 113 here in Iceland? Catherine wrote down the jeep’s license: G. KHAN.
G. Khan?! Was this Genghis Khan?
“Shouldn’t we just get out of here?” I asked.
“We must insist that the dog be put down immediately.”
“Isn’t that going a bit too far?” I asked.
Catherine certainly didn’t think so, and said that it was universal law in all the countries of the world that a dog that attacked people and bit them was to be put down immediately— such creatures had no right to live. Both Russian and English had an idiom based on this: “Kill him like a mad dog.”
I jumped out of the car and called the police in Reykjavík straightaway, since the area south of the Botnsskáli Café was under their jurisdiction, and spelled out what was written on the license plate loud and clear enough for the car’s owner to hear as well, then described the white dog precisely and said that it had attacked us. I said that it had bitten me. I said that I insisted that the dog be put down immediately. Yes, I said, in my opinion the dog was a threat. I said that the dog was now in the back of its owner’s SUV. The police officer informed me that it would be hard for them to send a car all the way to Hvalfjörður, there being few officers on duty on Sunday. I should have the emergency room write me up an injury certificate and then we should come down to the station first thing tomorrow to make statements.
The owner, standing motionless behind his SUV, was clearly paying attention to the phone call, staring straight ahead as he took mental note of what I said. When I noticed the jerk listening in, I said goodbye to the police officer in a low voice and then pushed the red button, but pretended to continue the conversation: “You’re coming now, okay, you’re going to call back, yes, then we’ll just stay right here until you come…”
When I saw the man close up, it was as if a cold shiver ran through my soul, and the certainty struck me, like an evil omen in an Icelandic saga, that meeting this man would have prolonged repercussions. He was two meters tall and had jutting eyebrows, not unlike the way that the medieval Icelandic Viking Egill Skallagrímsson is described. He had powerful, coarse cheekbones and a muscular-looking, broad and grizzly jaw, with thick lips and a stout nose, or in other words, an appearance that could have landed him a role in a documentary about Neanderthals. His eyes were like glass balls that directly revealed the darkness inside his skull; in them, there was no life, no witness to any human emotions. His face was like that of someone on the verge of orgasm, when it darkens, stops beaming, when that person is completely immersed in him or herself— but in his case, its lack of radiance was a perpetual state. His face seemed frozen in a smirk and he bared his white teeth like people in toothpaste commercials, which harmonized to some extent with his dogs’ conduct and made it even more difficult to read him. He tried to speak gently, making me feel as if a cold spike had been driven into my back.
He said that he understood us well and that he was very sorry. This had happened only once before, when his dog had barked at someone.
Then he said: “Could I make a deal with you? This dog is very dear to me. I don’t want anyone coming and putting him down. If you insist that he be put down, then I want to be allowed to do it myself. Here and now.” He took a shotgun in a camouflage case from his SUV and showed it to me, along with a full shell belt. He sighed and tried to come across as helpless. As if I were supposed to pity him, not the other way around— and his pretension pissed me off. He shook his head continually, slowly, saying: “Aw, geez.”
We set off up the valley to get out of sight of the girls, whom it was certainly right to shield from such bloodshed. He held the white dog’s leash, having shut the other dog in the back of his SUV. I told him about the time I saw a dog caned to death in a poor quarter in Delhi in India. It had bitten a little girl. “It’s a cruel world,” I said. “A cruel world for dogs.”
He looked straight ahead, smirking, and I saw from his expression that he was completely in disagreement with what I said, felt how my attempt to connect with him in a sympathetic way had failed completely, which dismayed me, as always when I’m forced into such interactions.
He said that it might be best for me to call the police immediately and say that this had been a misunderstanding. It was unnecessary for them to have to drive all the way here if we took care of this ourselves. I could just make something up. Tell them I’d just been upset. “Maybe you could say that the owner was an old schoolmate whom you wanted to get back at,” he said, still smirking. A chill passed through me again.
I said that it would be best if he put down the dog first. I would call as soon as that was done. He said that the dog was specially trained to search for lost people. He choked up. He had nothing in this world but these two dogs. He was sorry. He simply didn’t understand what had gotten into the dog. It had only done such a thing once before, and that time it had also been a man with glasses that it had barked at.
So maybe my glasses were to blame, I thought, though I never would have said it out loud.
We were out of sight. He whimpered as he loaded the gun.
He fired.
The shot went far over the dog and rippled the brook meandering along a grassy bank higher up the slope.
“I can’t do this,” he said, looking up at the slope. He handed me the gun.
My heart began racing, because I’d never fired a shotgun. I’m not shooting this dog, I thought. I’d taken this matter as far as it could go now, and hopefully, it had taught him a lesson. I pretended to aim carefully; the dog sat and stared at us and I felt the jerk’s eyes boring into my head. I pressed the butt of the gun against my shoulder.
He leaped at me and grabbed the gun.
He loaded the gun.
He aimed at me.
“Call,” he said.
He shouted with hatred in his eyes— hatred that could kill:
“Down on your knees and call! NOW!”

“You’re white as a ghost,” said Catherine to me in the car on the way home. I said that the entire incident had shaken me. She said she understood. But that it had been the right thing to do.
To put down the dog immediately.


The only work that I could get after moving to Iceland involved writing the script of a documentary about Icelandic cows. An acquaintance of mine, Stígur, who worked for the Farmers’ Association, hooked me up with the project. The Farmers’ Association was the project’s main professional consultant, but the chairman of the Nordic Radio Fund, Ólafur Tryggvason, had shown great interest in it immediately, and those in charge of financing hauled in grants from not only the Farmers’ Association, but also Kaupþing Bank, the National Federation of Dairy Farmers, the Cattle Breeders’ Association and the newly established Federation for the Protection of the Icelandic Cattle Breed. Funding was provided for the writing of the script and so on. In other words, the project was ambitiously chugging along by the time I signed my contract and came on board.
The future of the Icelandic cattle breed was definitely at a crossroads, as the importation of embryos from Norway, Sweden, and even New Zealand was now being considered under the banner of optimization, threatening the ancient breed. I had accepted the work gladly, because when all was said and done, there was nothing more for a PhD in Cultural Studies to do in Iceland than study cows. Several weeks of job searching produced no tangible results, with the exception of a few interviews, leaving me feeling slightly humiliated at being, in the first place, “overly” educated, and, in the second place, educated in a “wrong” field that seemed not to have any points of contact with money-hungry Iceland. I found myself among the tramps and vagrants described in the annals and old sagas as an impudent, audacious, and thankless pack who refuse to work for their living, existing as little more than a plague to the community of working folk. More than one recent anthropological study states that Icelanders live for work; that that is where their self-image and raison d’être are found. The arrival of modernity, which made all manual work obsolete, had changed nothing here. Which is why I had no raison d’être. I was Jón in the folktale— denied entrance to Heaven because he’s a lazy slacker. It would have done little for me, any more than it had for Jon’s wife, to argue that I’d never beaten my wife, bullied my inferiors, or drunk to excess.
“Cultural studies,” said the woman behind the desk at the employment agency. She frowned as she said the words, then looked at me sympathetically, as someone close to you might do upon hearing your troubles. Then she asked me, in all seriousness, if I had “made any appearances.”
I was flabbergasted.
As if the word culture was some sort of synonym for a television talk show! This wasn’t the only time that others had appeared not to understand how I, who was so highly educated in 
culture, had never been involved in culture, had never been on the radio or appeared on the talk show Spotlight. Corporate human-resources managers hadn’t been any more encouraging. One of them, the HR manager of a major financial firm to which I had applied, referred to the anecdote about the foster-mother of the poet Steinn Steinarr, who said that culture was a rhyming word for vulture— implying, in fact with unabashed arrogance, that that was all one needed to know about it, and therewith, I could just go. It was frightening how that polyester-clad man in patent-leather shoes, sitting behind a custom-made desk, took the reply of the good woman from up north in Strandir, who had bestowed on the young, hurt poet the love that enabled him to mature as an artist, and flung it into an entirely different and petty context. There was an element of violence to this; here, the enlightened modern man, the sensible, successful member of the financial sector, revealed how he had everything— apart from culture; and had to lean on a 19th-century woman from Strandir in order to say something original.

At the University of Iceland, a German-educated clique monopolized what little of cultural studies were included in the course offerings, and the same went for Reykjavík University and the University of the Arts. My application ended up at the bottom of a large pile of the same from highly-educated, unemployed people like me, who had the advantage of having applied before I did. I was reminded of a study of the Icelandic sagas that I’d once read, which argued that honor or dignity in Iceland exists in an invariable quantity. It’s as impossible to increase the existing sum as it is to add to a potful of porridge. In order to obtain more honor, someone has to die, pure and simple, in which case room is created for someone else (which explains all the killings in the Icelandic sagas). Following this recollection of mine, I began to imagine that nothing had changed. There was just no room for me in Icelandic culture. That pot of porridge had been filled to the brim long ago, without a single thought given go my future place in it. Twenty PhDs in humanistic studies would have to die suddenly of bird flu to make any room for me.
As time passed, an old despondency grew in me, enveloped in the irrational feeling that the entire nation’s only goal was to punish me for my senseless education, which would never yield me anything. My parents’ old plea echoed within me: Hadn’t I had enough of humanistic studies; wasn’t it time to learn something more “useful,” for example law?
After walking Sara to nursery school in the mornings, I would come home and sink into despair, overwhelmed with negative thoughts about how there was simply not enough culture in this country to sustain yet another cultural specialist. However, I was careful to hide my despondency from Catherine, who certainly had her hands full trying to come to terms with the social isolation that she felt, which was an about-face from her life in Nottingham, where she’d been surrounded by family and friends. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I actually felt as if no one in this country wanted me around. I wasn’t fit for human company, and was chock-full of dirty, sleazy urges, with no idea where they came from. She said:
“You’ve got to scratch and claw, talk to people and let them know that you’re looking for work, my friend. That’s how you get a job.”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve got to do,” I said from my kitchen chair, like a programmed robot. Then I just stared at her like an idiot. She laughed and said:
“What, why are you staring at me like that?”
“I’m scared.”
“Of what?”
“I don’t know.”
“What are you going to do about that?”
“I don’t know.”
She sat in my lap, and said:
“You know, you’ve got to face the fact that that there’s something more than a little screwed up when we’re around your mom and dad. It’s like I lose you. Your face whitens. And you stop talking.”
I turned away, and she got up. I said that I couldn’t handle that goddamn girly, soppy schoolbook psychology right now. It pissed me off; I really didn’t want to hear any modern-day onanistic crap about some terrible childhood, about how everything would be alright once you realized how awful you had it as a kid.
“There’s no emotional logic in humans. It’s a Greek lie that man is a logical creature.”
“You’re so distant,” said Catherine.
“I’m shit.”
“You’ve got to get help, or find someone to talk to, since you can’t talk to me.”
“I just need peace to think about cows,” I said. And I left.

Although I certainly seized this one and, to put it mildly, random assignment about cows most readily, it seemed to me, upon further reflection, that I was in no way suited for this complex and multifaceted project. The cow project would not only force me to adapt to a new medium and learn to think in that innovative and pictorial manner required for film scripts, it also demanded expertise in that sluggish ruminant about which I knew precisely nothing. As my soul began to absorb this, I felt helpless, thinking that I had neither the intelligence nor the inventive resourcefulness necessary for the presentation of such material. At the same time, it was clear to me that I had no other option.
Three weeks had passed since my “near-death experience” at the head of Hvalfjörður, which I hadn’t had the guts to tell any other person about, least of all Catherine, and neither had I reported to the police what had happened, for some deep-rooted reason that I couldn’t put my finger on, no matter how I searched in quiet moments. I had determined to fight and not let it defeat me, and instead try to focus on my script, for which I’d been paid something of an advance. This, in fact, saved our financial situation for the time being, in a country where rent alone is enough to kill off one’s joie de vivre.
Regardless, however, of what the will might decide, the course of one’s life is governed by other, deeper niches in one’s being. It wasn’t long before I began to hear, as if from voices whispering somewhere else inside me, that I was doomed to lose this war, which again caused me to harden my determination to suppress the incident within me, at least for the time being (why I thought so, I don’t know), and I continued to read the material that I’d gathered for the project, for example about the ancient aurochs, BOS PRIMIGENIUS, the progenitor of all cows, and which, strangely enough, died out in 1627, at the height of the “Turkish Abductions” in Iceland, but then, before I knew it, that smirking, demonic face appeared in my mind, in mid-sentence, with nothing I could do to stop it, and after struggling under such circumstances I managed to write one whole sentence of my script, which went like this:

Our first cry when we emerge from our mother’s womb is a cry to the cow, to the eternally bulging udder.
I stared at that sentence and began taking myself apart. What pretense, what overblown, Gothic bullshit! After beating myself up mentally, with that jerk’s face in the background, I felt so winded that I was forced to get up and go for a walk.
If, during my wanderings around town, I happened to meet an old friend, I would invariably catch myself doing the same thing, that is, in a café somewhere in mid-conversation with that friend, who obviously considered himself to be relaying weighty news to me, after not having seen each other for eight years— it would be as if the things he said evaporated into a meaningless haze of words that my ears didn’t catch, apart from a sentence now and then: “Then I went with him to Vogur Hospital,” or “What does he do but throw his wallet out the window?”— and when his story was finally finished, I would realize that I was completely incapable of grasping its gist. It was as if there were room for only one story at a time in my quavering head: the white dog (I see it as if in a dream, from the outside), the jerk smirking maliciously, and I, pale-faced, staring down the barrel of a Neanderthal’s gun and stammering to the police that everything was fine, that the dog hadn’t bitten me, that it was my fault the dog got riled up and that I wanted to withdraw my wrongful complaint and apologize for having called in the heat of the moment, I’d just been startled, my apologies…
I kicked myself for having wound up in this situation, and at the same time, kicked myself for being distant and disconnected, not only from old friends and colleagues, but also from Catherine and Sara. And I kicked myself for kicking myself for kicking myself. Something like that. Depression bore down on me and I found it particularly difficult to get out of bed in the morning, after spending half the night tossing and turning, my mind replaying the incident in Hvalfjörður in countless variations.