The Whispering Muse, The Blue Fox, From the Mouth Of The Whale and now his fourth novel in English, Moonstone: there is something mysterious, ancient and fairytale-like in all Sjón’s novels and titles. This may be partly thanks to his superb English translator Victoria Cribb but Sjón himself, one of Iceland’s most famous Icelanders, is the closest we in the modern world have to the great saga-tellers. Listening to him chat with fellow story-teller David Mitchell at the Hay-on-Wye Festival this May, I was delighted when Sjón praised his translator, saying, “My only worry when I read her text is that it’s better than my original”. One reason she gets it right, he added, is because she also studied Old Icelandic.
Both Sjón and Victoria are obviously united in their love of old texts and old stories. Sjón does not write about modern Iceland but engages with his ancestors by conversing intimately with their ghosts – achieved not only through a powerful poetic imagination but through his lifelong research into Iceland’s language and history. However much we modern travelers profess to know and love Iceland as our destination of choice, Iceland has only recently opened up to the world – and to Icelanders themselves. As Sjón reveals in each of his novels, there is still much to explore and uncover.
Moonstone is set in Reykjavík in the autumn and winter of 1918. The Great War is coming to an end and Iceland is on the brink of independence from Denmark. Sjón draws together three original strands of research into Iceland’s history – of its early cinema, of homosexuality and of the impact of the Spanish flu epidemic. Each extraordinary topics in their own right but together in this compact novel, in this explosive year of 1918, in Sjón’s taut and tingling prose, these events unite and then erupt in all directions, just like the Katla volcano described at the start of the story:
“the volcano is painting the night sky every shade of red, from scarlet through violet to crimson, before exploding the canvas with flares of bonfire yellow and gaseous blue.”
A rich sensual language suffuses this narrative, the frequent sex scenes described in unabashed and sticky detail.
Moonstone is 16-year-old Máni Steinn Karlsson, an orphan who lives with his grandma in an attic in Reykjavík. He earns himself regular cash by having sex with men, which he also enjoys, seemingly unaware of its illegality. He is obsessed by sex, also by a girl called Sóla G and by the cinema, attending two shows a day when he can, blurring the fantasy of films with his own life. Sjón obviously relishes his research into the early cinematic history of Iceland. He quotes from a shocking text by one Dr. G. Arnason, which equates watching films with perversion:
“Film is immoral by its very nature, transforming the actor into a fetish and fostering perversion in the viewer, who allows himself to be seduced like a moth to the flame.”
Máni is an outsider, an outlaw, a passive observer, a fictional character, “the boy who never was”. This is just the way his life is – until the epidemic hits town.
The Spanish influenza pandemic arrives in Reykjavík in October 1918 on The Botnia steam ship from Denmark. Infection quickly ravages the small city creating, “a gloomy pall of cloud… a deathly quiet”. Sjón’s documentary-like chronology of events is chilling; the cumulative effect of his poetic repetition thrilling:
“No hoofbeats… no gossiping voices… no shouts of dockworkers… no smell of fresh bread… no one saying good morning, no one saying good night.”
Hundreds of people die and Iceland is transformed, invaded by the outside world in the most devastating and unpredictable way. Máni too becomes sick. He feels he is disappearing physically:
“He dissolves his body, turning solid into liquid, beginning from within and rinsing it all out.” He is like a shadow that “passes from man to man and no one is complete until he has cast him”.
Máni recovers. The spectator begins to play an active role in the narrative and in the town. He and Sóla G help the local doctor by driving him from one patient to the next and helping fumigate the cinema with chlorine. Infection had spread like the plague in Reykjavík’s two cinemas, places of refuge for the inhabitants during the winter epidemic. Like a scene from the French film he loves, Les Vampires, Máni and Sóla, “dressed in black from top to toe, with black gauzes over their noses and mouths and dark goggles over their eyes”, are like characters in the film. Chlorine gas had been used in the First World War ofcourse and this is another echo from the outside world, another weapon attacking Iceland’s impassive insularity.
And Moonstone is another stellar Sjón novella, profoundly disturbing but giving form to the ghosts of Iceland’s past in the most lyrical and sensual way. I am, as you can tell, a fan but listening to two of my favourite authors chat together on stage at Hay-on-Wye, I found myself longing for Sjón to one day give flight to his short stories and write a big fat novel – just as I had once longed for ‘the big fat novelist’ David Mitchell to one day write a short novel. Coincidentally and deliciously, on that very day, David Mitchell was launching the paperback of his first (obviously brilliant) novella Slade House.
By Rosie Goldsmith
Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
Published by Sceptre
Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.
Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReviews: THE WRITERS’ SHOWCASE. EUROPEAN LITERATURE NIGHT 2016
Read Rosie Goldsmith on WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy and YEVGENY ONEGIN by Alexander Pushkin
Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of THE INTERPRETER by Diego Marani
Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of THE UNDERGROUND by Hamid Ismailov
Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of YUGOSLAVIA, MY FATHERLAND by Goran Vojnović
Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of 100 DUTCH POEMS
Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of BEFORE THE FEAST by Saša Stanišić
Read Rosie Goldsmith’s #RivetingReview of THE STORY OF THE LOST CHILD by Elena Ferrante