Sjón’s latest book, Red Milk, came out in English on Sept 21, 2022 and I got it as soon as it was available. Translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb, as usual, it was originally published as Korngult hár, grá augu (meaning; “corn-gold hair, grey eyes”), in 2019, and Cribb translated it into English during 2021. I recently read an interview with Sjón where he talks about his novel Moonstone, and explains the themes in the story which, to be honest, I had mostly missed. It’s the same with this book: it’s very short, 133 small-format pages, excluding the Notes and Acknowledgements, and Afterword. But I only figured out the meaning after I’d finished reading it. I thought it was a strange story and I didn’t actually enjoy it. But I do think it is exceptionally well written and translated.

Red Milk A Novel, by Sjón, translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Political Fiction, Epistolary Fiction; Modern Fiction; hardcover; English translation published in the United States by MCD / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022, 160 pp.)

Like all Sjón’s previous works, at first the story seems simple, if a bit odd. But once you think about it, and take it apart, you really are struck by its impact, the terribleness of what he is saying, and how effectively he says it. Beware of Sjón’s short, thin little books: they are Pandora’s Boxes.

“Pandora”, painting by John William Waterhouse, 1896

The main character, “Gunnar Kampen”, is an Icelandic neo-Nazi during the 1950s and 1960s, and the story starts with his death. I felt pity for Gunnar, because he is lonely and kind of sweet, judging by his correspondence. As for his beliefs and ideas, he ends up with those mainly because that is the way he was raised. For him, deluded as it may seem to others, it is perfectly normal. So, for the reader, those ideas and decisions become mundane as well. Nothing happens to deter him, so he goes further and further into extremism and marginalization.

Neo-Nazism in Iceland in the 1950s and 1960s

Red Milk is based on the life of a real Icelandic neo-Nazi ringleader, and Sjón describes how Gunnar finds a connection between his own theories of race and ethnicity, and the writings and ideas of the real historical person, Savitri Devi Mukherji. She was a French-born Greek fascist, Nazi sympathizer, and Axis spy. I would never have made a connection between Hinduisim and Nazism, and – of all things – Akhenaton, Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. Mukherji was a proponent of belief system that was a synthesis of Hinduism and Nazism, and which declared that Adolf Hitler had been an avatar of the Hindu god, Vishnu.

If you think that’s weird, remember, this is Fiction, but based on historical documents, as you can see in the Notes and Acknowledgements, and the Afterword.

Thinking about how Gunnar falls down this particular rabbit hole, I am reminded that generally people will look for and regard any opinion that supports their own beliefs, as the truth. You may look at the actions of activists and extremists and wonder what makes them think that they are doing the right things for the right reasons – this type of reasoning is why. In the case of Gunnar, he seems to get tangled up in a hodgepodge of philosophies and writings that all nudge him towards a final act.

What that is and how it goes, I’ll leave to you to read.

Why did he write this?

Sjón writes in the Afterword that he wrote the novel as a response to an incident in his childhood, when he drew a batch of swastikas. He does not know why he did that, other than that he might have had his grandfather on his mind.

“…But it was only when I became a teenager that it was revealed to me that my grandfather, who by then I had met once and found warm but aloof, had lived in Germany and come to Iceland on a U-boat in April 1944. When he and his companion reached shore on their inflatable dinghy they turned themselves in, but also admitted that they had been trained to spy for the Germans. After spending a year in prison in England he was handed over to the Icelandic authorities and convicted of treason, and although the twelve-month jail term was considered to have already been served, he was stripped of his right to vote or run for office.”

Red Milk, Sjón, pp. 139 – 140

Author’s Voice

Imagine that: your grandfather convicted of treason. No-one can pick their blood relatives. Sjón could not pick his. As a result, in this novel, the Author’s Voice is obvious and strong. This is very much about Sjón’s childhood, family, and life in Iceland. While it is just subtitled “a novel”, it is categorized as Political Fiction and can easily be Realistic Fiction.

    People believe in and do things that previous generations didn’t, and the next generation may or may not do. Gunnar’s parents, who belong to the Social Democratic Party, hand down their beliefs to their son, and he ends up going down a path that we, modern readers, think is abhorrent. But many things that we regard today as evil, for instance eugenics and slavery, were, at some time in history, acceptable.

    So, we think with horror, almost like a conditioned response, about Nazism. To even write about it in Fiction could be said to be in bad taste. Yet, Sjón has often done this in his novels: taken transgressive themes and depicted them in ways that make the reader understand the problem better, or get a new point of view. Even though Fiction is fiction and does not have to be realistic. Just because Sjón uses the words and writes about it, does not make him a proponent of Nazism (contrary to what search engine algorithms would deduce). It’s the opposite, in fact, judging by what Sjón set out to do with this novel and the effect it has.

    The reader eventually gets left with a feeling of sympathy (and in my case, a bit of irritation) for Gunnar. He seems to be so lost in these ideas, and so yearning, and without any joy or love in his life. Because he knows he is supporting something that is actually unlawful, he has to do it in secret, which means that he is isolated and doomed.

    “It would not be long now before Gunnar vanished too and his soul became the fodder of heavenly beings, if one believed in such things. He had no illusions about what awaited him here on earth. Although the doctors treated him like a rare specimen – in their white coats, standing behind leaded glass to protect them from the gamma rays – his fate was inevitable.”

    Red Milk, Sjón, p. 124

    No glamour, no idealization, no pathos

    I realize that Sjón has achieved with this novelette, or long short story, exactly what he had wanted to achieve, at least with one particular reader – me.

    In the Afterword (p. 135) he writes that “…with Red Milk, what I wouldn’t allow myself to do was employ pathos or myth…What I was looking for instead was what made my character normal, to the point of banality.” Sjón writes that in order to begin to understand what makes it possible “…for people to heed the call of Nazism in all its guises”, one must start with what one has in common with such people. One can then show them that they are recognized for what they are: an ordinary person shaped by experience, who, like all humans, could easily have become something else, and “…that a neo-Nazi is no more special than that.”

    I thought of the lead character in the novel as a misled, easily influenced person, but also a banal, ordinary person, nothing extraordinary. What can one say about him? He has blond hair and grey eyes, and a small scar on his forehead. He calls his mother “Dearest Mama” and writes to her regularly, with humour and affection, and he also writes cheerful letters to his mentally disabled brother “Höddi”, signing himself with the diminutive: “Your brother, Gunnsi”.

    The novel’s English title comes from an incident when Gunnar is very small, when his family goes on an outing to Rauðavatn, meaning “red water”, a small lake near Reykjavik – and he gets the name of the lake confused with red milk. After that, he associates his childhood home, and his family, with a glass of red-coloured milk – an innocuous image – it could be strawberry-flavoured milk, or a pink milkshake or anything like that. (Not milk with blood in it, I thought.)

    Image of Rauðavatn at sunset, which may be why the lake is called “red water”. (Photo on Flickr by Ragna Ólöf Guðmundsdóttir)

    He works as a clerk in the foreign exchange department of a bank. His main concern in his private time is the establishment and administration of the Icelandic branch of the World Union of National Socialists. He may have lofty philosophical ideas, but at heart he really is just an office worker who wants to do his duty as he sees it, and follows the orders of those higher in status than himself. At the same time, he is secretly ambitious and elitist. He is evil and banal at the same time.

    The banality of evil

    It is an unsettlingly convincing depiction of the “banality of evil”.

    This phrase to which Sjón indirectly refers in the Afterword, is the subtitle of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, a 1963 work by political writer and philosopher, Hannah Arendt. The book is about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, that Arendt reported on for The New Yorker magazine.

    In part, the phrase coined by Arendt refers to Eichmann’s deportment at the trial: he displayed neither guilt for his actions, nor hatred for those putting him on trail. He claimed during the trial that he bore no responsibility, because he was simply “doing his job”. Arendt writes that Eichmann said that; “He did his ‘duty’…; he not only obeyed ‘orders’, he also obeyed the ‘law'”. These excuses have often been used by very bad people for their misdeeds.

    Pandora’s Box

    This is why Red Milk is like Pandora’s Box: Sjón depicts the Icelandic neo-Nazis, and their counterparts in other countries, as ordinary people going about their business. But at the same time he describes their twisted minds and awful actions in the same factual, straightforward, unglamorous way.

    In the Greek myth, the opened box allows great and unexpected troubles to spread, like releasing a swarm of evil spirits. What I’m saying is, don’t be surprised if, after having read this, you come to depressing conclusions and feel put off by how awful people can be, and have a new awareness of how insidious this kind of evil is. Thus, Sjón achieves his objective with writing Red Milk.

    By the way, I suggest that you do read Sjón’s AfterwordFrom Black Pastels to Red Milk. It helps you to make sense of the story.

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