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A codex of an Icelandic writer and his roots – CoDex 1962, by Sjón (Part 2 – Turning people into zebras)

CoDex 1962 – A Trilogy, by Sjón (translated by from the Icelandic Victoria Cribb; hardcover; publisher: MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First American edition September 11, 2018; 528 pages)

Part 2 of the review of CoDex 1962, by Sjón

(Back to part 1)

Antagonist/Protagonist

Sjón comes close to directly linking the fictitious firm “CoDex” in the novel, with an actual Icelandic company. Who is the antagonist in this complicated set of stories filled with magic realism but also hard scientific and historic fact? Probably Iceland’s leading genetics company deCODE Genetics, which by 2014 already had the DNA samples of over a third of the Icelanders in its database.

deCode/CoDex

The company says it has discovered key genetic risk factors for dozens of common diseases ranging from cardiovascular disease to cancer in Icelanders through this enormous DNA gathering program. In December 2012, deCODE genetics was purchased by Amgen for $415 million, which in October 2013 spun off deCODE genetics’ systems and database to a new company called NextCODE Health, which in turn was acquired in January 2015 by the Chinese company WuXi PharmaTech for $65 million. Worry about that turn of events if you will. The gathering of Icelanders’ DNA was actually mandated by the Icelandic parliament in  1998.

By 2015, deCode apparently had the DNA of more than 100,000 Icelanders on their records, not bad for an island with a population in 2017 of just about 338,000. But apparently the process, from getting the DNA to testing it, was a bit, let’s say, covert. (Sourced from: Katie M. Palmer, Why Iceland is the world’s greatest genetic laboratory, 25 March 2015, Wired Magazine, rtrvd. 2018-11-25)

I’ve personally had my DNA analyzed by three different agencies, simply because I want to know where I come from, where my relatives are, and which diseases I’m likely to get. But I did this of my own volition – and I know what my DNA records are being used for. Apparently not all the Icelanders were so lucky.

Against this background, which I knew nothing of when I started the book, Sjón has set a series of embedded narratives that are, at times, charming, funny, sad and sweet, and at others, just nightmarish. You’ve been warned.

Turning people into zebras

Probably the incident which stays with me most, apart from the dead people appearing on stage, is that of the protagonist, “Jósef Loewe”. Loewe’s life story is being related to a researcher from the “DeCode” genetics company, and he recalls this incident from when he was in a concentration camp in Germany during the second World War.

If you’ll recall, in John Boyne’s 2006 book and the subsequent film, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, WWII concentration camp prisoners in Germany wore black-striped clothing. Watching a prisoner being marched off to be killed, the thought suddenly occurs to the young Jósef that the stripes are in fact a sign that the real agenda of the Nazis running the camp is to turn the prisoners into zebras. Yes, zebras. Can’t you just see the correlation? It’s a powerful example of the dehumanization of the prisoners, and for me, one of the many stand-out moments in the book.

Examples of striped prison camp jackets (Source: Kupferberg Holocaust Centre)

From the story of the zebra people
What we all had in common was that by the end of our stay we had been transformed into zebras. The method the Germans used for this task is a testament to their sharp sense of pragmatism. The cells were packed; instead of putting two men in a two-man cell they would put in five, and this alone was enough to transform our physical attributes. The transformation could occur rapidly or over a long period. I suppose I was there for some seven months, which was the time it generally took to bring out the main characteristics of the animals: a stripy body, swollen belly, match stick legs with knobbly knees, sticking-out ears on a bony head and alienated eyes.” (p.248)


Next, part 3 of this review (to be continued)


 

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