The parts of the Trilogy
The three parts of the novel were published as separate books, but all three are interlinked in many and complicated ways and seem to form a coherent whole.
Part 1 – Thine Eyes Did See My Substance – A Love Story
The first of the three novels within the novel is just that – a love story. A young servant girl, “Marie-Sophie” has to take care of a perfect wreck of a Jewish refugee, “Leo Loewe” in an inn, “Gasthof Vrieslander”, in a small German town, “Kükenstadt” during World War II. He is so starved and ill that he is just about dead. She is disgusted, but also fascinated. What comes out of that relationship is the creation of a clay child, the narrator, “Jósef Loewe”, which is (who is?) eventually animated, much like a golem would be. Or is he just the result of a one-night stand by a violated woman and the boy’s father’s way of coping with the tragedy of his birth?
In the meantime, the “Angel Gabriel” is doing what angels do:
“Gabriel soared over the sapphire-green meadows of the Realm of Heaven, listening devoutly to the eagle-whoosh of his famous wings. His journey home had gone well despite the divine weariness that had spread through every quill and plume of his angelic frame, and when the spires of Paradise City rose scintillating on the horizon, their glorious radiance moved his tongue in a psalm”. (p.91)
The angel falls to earth and with that, all hell bursts loose down below. And this causes all sorts of misadventures for the refugee and the townspeople. Sjón writes as if all this really transpired, with great attention to details, from chamber-pots to children’s songs.
Part II – Iceland’s Thousand Years – A Crime Story
The second part of the book is about Leo Loewe and the clay child that he kept in a hat box, arriving in Iceland. Leo has to carry out a type of alchemists’s ritual to animate the clay child with gold (which he eventually does in 1962 – the critical year). Every now and again, with the child in a hat box, and the transformation of a man into a werewolf, and so on, Magic Realism creeps into the narrative. These parts of the story read like a Sjón fantasy. You know it’s a fantasy invented by the writer, at the same time, you experience in a quite physical way (yes, oddly) the hallucinations of Jósef Loewe, and the fantasies he has invented about his family. You feel, after a while, uh-oh, here comes realism with a big old hammer to knock the premise to smithereens.
Sjón actually describes the sensations a reader will experience when reading this novel, in the novel itself.
“…for at the outset they [storytellers] all cherish the same hope: That their roles will remain unchanged to the end of the story, that the speaker will hold the listeners’ attention, that no one and nothing will be lost along the way, least of all the story itself, which can at times seem loose underfoot, precipitous, slippery, boggy and overgrown, or cleft by sudden bottomless chasms into which everything falls: plants and animals, men and monsters, gods and death itself, together with all the ballads and fairytales that come into being at the meeting of these types, in town and country, in the sky and at the bottom of the sea, by noght and by day, in the spirit and in the flesh – though, if all else fails, the guide has up his sleeve a thread that will help him navigate his way out of the fieriest pit, causing a path to open through the mountains and the wilderness.” (p. 412)
The thread guiding the reader through this near bottomless chasm of a story with its multiple themes, ideas, motifs, references and imagery, is the year, 1962, and the DNA of Icelanders.
In Part II, Sjón builds stories into the story, folk tales into the historical narrative, fairy tales into the romance, and modern werewolf horror into the Jósef Loewe’s life story. It’s hard to keep track of where the plot is going, so it’s best to just enjoy it, one section, or story, at a time.
Part II begins with the story of a berserker, who goes spectacularly crazy by having a live chick stuck in his throat that keeps cheeping, “Can I see, can I see?” As one would, obviously. But that is the folktale which gives the town of “Kükenstadt” its name – Kükenstadt meaning Chick Town. Leo and his hat box-full-of-child escapes Kükenstadt and Germany, and reaches Iceland. On the boat he meets a tall, black student of religion, “Anthony”, who would help him animate his little golem child in a ritual with molten gold. In this part of the book the author, in as many words, gives five different versions of the plot of Leo on the ship to Iceland. That’s how complicated things get. As I said, best if just to sit back and read it with your logic suspended.
The specific theme that stands out in this part is the naturalization of Leo Loewe. Naming of Icelanders and new citizens is one of those Icelandic things that are seen as really important. And with one debate in parliament, some poetry, and some insults to the ancestors, Leo’s choice of name is rejected and he becomes the standard “Jón Jónsson”. He and his clay son are now Icelandic.
“Leo bends over the clay boy, bathing him with milk. Anthony left some time ago. They plan to meet again. He wants to have this big, strong man by his side when he deals with Hrafn W. Karlsson and his twin brother, the parliamentary attendant. In the back garden of a tall timber house at number 10a Ingólfsstræti a little goat dozes. She is enfolded in the fairest thing the world has to offer: a spring evening in Reykjavík.” (p. 276)
Yes, Iceland when it is warm is truly lovely. I can see it in my mind’s eye, having been there, minus the goat, of course.
The animation of the clay child, Jósef, is a magical, charming moment, like the instant that the boy, “Walter”, defies gravity and flies without wings in Paul Auster’s Mr. Vertigo.
“The soft red glow fell on the well-formed image of a child that lay there as if in a womb. It was a little boy, a sleeping boy, who seemed to come to life in the irregular interplay of the light and the shadows thrown by the onlookers. (His expression shifted and it looked for all the world as if he were smiling.) Then my clay breast slowly rose – and fell even more slowly. It was I who breathed.” (p. 307)