Sjón: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Reader of Sjón. Her current mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no Reader has gone before.
Apologies to the writers of Star Trek, in this, its 50th anniversary year, but this is what reading the novels of Icelandic author Sjón is like. The first American edition of Sjón’s novel Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was, was published early in 2016. While I read it, I often wondered just how it is possible for someone to express so precisely, in such visually compelling language, such foreignness, not only to readers not from Iceland, but also probably for readers from Iceland. It is in English, capably and truthfully translated by Victoria Cribb, but at the same time it is a journey into places, minds, characters, mores and subjects that I had never before encountered in a novel.
Sjón explains why some of his novels are very short; Moonstone, for instance is only 143 pages:
“One thing I will not do is write a thick book. I have always admired stories that cut to the bone without much ceremony. My stories are really boiled-down epics—they usually take place in times of great upheaval, and they always acknowledge the size of the world even though they happen to take place on the smallest of stages. So that is what I will continue to offer my readers. I think of the novel as a whale you can put in your pocket or handbag. In some cases, it is a blue whale.” (Sjón quoted in Asymptotejournal)
Do not misjudge Sjón’s skinny novels for being simplistic. His use of language is economical, but every word is packed with meaning, and while you are cruising through the “normal” parts, and you think you understand it as just an ordinary plot, you will soon, without warning, be dropped into that alternate universe of exceeding strangeness to which I have referred. And it is literally in the space of a paragraph: one page – normal, next page, surreal, just like in the Icelandic sagas.
Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was
Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was is set in 1918 Reykjavik with the themes of homosexuality, the early history of film, the great Spanish flu epidemic, the arrival of the independence of Iceland, the eruption of the local volcano, Katla, the First World War, the cruel treatment of lepers and homosexuals, and the Icelandic obsession over the “perversion” apparently caused by watching too many films. Yes, all that. The main character is a teenage prostitute, a boy who roams the city getting money for sex with sailors and the men of the city who come from all levels of society.
The sex scenes are depicted in detail, but so plainly (again, as Sjón puts it, “without ceremony”), that after the first shock to the reader it seems business as usual. The boy in question, “Máni Steinn” (literally in Icelandic, moon/máni + stone/steinn = moonstone) seems a one-dimensional figure. Apart from his love of films and his love for a certain girl who wears black like a vampire in the old movies, “Sóla G—“ , he wanders around not speaking much and not working or going to school. He watches all the movies he can. When he is caught out while having sex with a sailor off a recently arrived ship, the authorities exile him to Paris to be cured of his “sickness”.
Máni’s name is appropriate. Moonstones, a variety of the feldspar-group mineral orthoclase, is a less valuable gemstone, easily confused with similar-looking stones or even glass. During formation, orthoclase and albite separate into alternating layers. When light falls between these thin layers it is scattered producing the phenomenon called “adularescence”. Adularescence is the light that appears to billow across a moonstone gem. It is a pale bluish stone, as blonde and pale and ethereal as Máni Steinn. Máni has strange dreams, hallucinations, even his daily existence seems to be an illusion. And at the point where Máni becomes ill from the Spanish flu, Sjón does his thing of introducing the surreal.
“In the evening, when the birds on the shore have drowned in the boy’s blood, Sóla G— comes and fetches Máni Steinn from the washing line. She takes him home and puts him on. She thinks his red lips, lined eyes, and earrings suit her, but she washes off his moustache and sheathes his nails.” (p.69)
The story concludes with a jump forward in time. In 1929, a group of artists – actual ones, if I am to judge – arrive in Rekjavik, The Pool Group. One of them is the interpreter and movie electrician or “best boy”, M. Peter Carlson. M. Peter Carlson is Máni Steinn, all grown up. He visits his grandmother’s grave, “The rowan saplings planted in 1919 have grown tall. Their flowers light up the evening like a myriad white suns.” (p.135)
Now, the moment arrives that is on parallel with the archdeacon becoming a fox in Sjón’s novel The Blue Fox, and the merchant vessel turning into the mythical Greek vessel, the “Argo”, in his novel The Whispering Muse:
“Carlson is only fifty yards of the Leper Hospital when he experiences a sudden sensation of weightlessness. Glancing at his hands, he discovers that he can see right through them. He gropes for his body and finds that he is clutching at thin air. He can’t feel a thing apart from the wingbeats where his heart used to be.” (p.141).
Máni/Peter has turned back into the boy who never was.
A man who comes out of the Leper Hospital misses the moment that Máni disappears, and sees instead a large black butterfly alight on his hand. Then Sjón reveals that this book was written in memory of “Steinolfur Saevar (Bósi)” (above) the descendant of the man who walked out of the hospital when Máni disappeared.
“And it will be in memory of Bósi – sailor, alcoholic, booklover, socialist, and gay – who will die of AIDS in the month of May 1993, that Sigurdur Ásgrímur’s eldest son, Sigurjón, will sit down to write the story of Máni Steinn, the boy who never was.” (142).
Sjón’s real name is Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson. Is it possible he is implying he is the relative of the “Steinolfur Saevar (Bósi) Gíslason Geirdal” mentioned here, and of whom there is a photo on p. 147? Or is he simply closing the loop in the history of Máni, gays and lepers in this story of injustice and homophobia? Perhaps the boy who never was, was Bósi – or his life imagined – or perhaps he was simply a fictional character, no more than that. Either way, Máni never “was”. He was as ignored, sidelined, misunderstood and generally badly used by all and sundry as if he were simply an object, not a real, thinking, feeling boy. At the end, he is again as translucent but also as easy to mistake for some other gemstone, as a moonstone.
Sjón uses the lack of identity and the outsider status of the victims he portrays in both Moonstone and The Blue Fox, as a way of introducing criticism of Icelandic society and its treatment of minorities and those that don’t fit in. After my initial discomfort with his blunt portrayal of Máni’s sexuality, I felt real sympathy for the beautiful, lonely boy living in the world of movies.
That is why Sjón is a fantastic writer – with his forceful directness and economical language come poignancy, completely unexpected twists, surrealism and mind-blowingly original ideas. Others have called him “brilliant”. I agree.
Next post: The Whispering Muse, by Sjón