#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews RED MILK by Sjón

This is a surprisingly short novel considering the vastness of its subject matter: right-wing extremism and the banality of evil. But it’s brevity is a tribute to the magnitude of Icelandic author Sjón’s talents, to his self-restraint, attention to potent detail and gossamer-light lyrical touch in recounting world history on a human scale. Red Milk is another Sjón-stunner, his seventh novel in English translation by his great collaborator, Victoria Cribb. There’s also a certain neatness in the fact that one of the world’s greatest storytellers is himself from a tiny island, a stone’s throw away from the gigantic global events of mainland history.

Red Milk begins dramatically, at Cheltenham Spa station in 1962. A mysterious man is found dead in a railway carriage. He’s wearing a coat over pyjamas that bear the name of a London hospital. The police find a wad of money on him and a piece of paper with a crude drawing of a swastika. His passport reveals that his name is Gunnar Kampen, he’s twenty-four and is from Iceland. After this first chapter, the novel is told in flashbacks, chronologically, until the moment when we learn how Gunnar Kampen died. It is a thrilling story, but I get the impression that Sjón would rather it were not. He deliberately downplays any significance we might attach to this insignificant man.

Red Milk, we learn from Sjón’s fascinating afterword, is based on a true story. Gunnar, the leader of the Icelandic neo-Nazi ‘movement’ (in reality, it’s a small cell) was on his way to a secret meeting of international neo-Nazis, which would lead to the very real ‘Cotswold Declaration’ of 1962. Gunnar, as we discover on page one, never arrives.

Sjón came across this footnote of Icelandic history during research for his magnum opus, CoDex 1962 (previously reviewed on this website). Gunnar had met a handful of influential fascists in Iceland, including the notorious American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell, who married an Icelandic woman called Thora when he was serving in the US Navy. With its blond Norse gods and epic folk tales, Iceland clearly held some attraction for burgeoning Nazis. That story alone could have filled hundreds of pages, but in this slim novel, Sjón describes Rockwell’s influence on Gunnar only fleetingly. Indeed, Red Milk is a masterpiece of understatement. Sjón recreates in fiction Gunnar’s short life, basing it on existing factual sources – letters, newspaper articles – and setting it against the history of Iceland from the 1940s to 1960s, including the birth of the Icelandic nationalist ‘Sovereign Power Movement’ in 1958, with Gunnar as leader. As readers we are invited to imagine the rest and to deduce for ourselves the psychological, emotional and practical origins of Gunnar’s extreme views. 

Gunnar comes from a family fiercely opposed to Hitler and the Nazis. He has a doting mother and siblings. He goes to school, rides a bike, studies business. What is it about this insignificant, banal man that turns him into a Nazi? Sjón does not provide answers; he does not psychoanalyse Gunnar or point fingers. What we read on the page is that Gunnar is young, bored, rebellious, seeking outlets – a world beyond tiny Iceland – and becomes hooked on a clear-cut and grandiose extremist ideology that elevates him from the ordinary to the extraordinary and wins him the admiration of men like Rockwell. 

In his afterword Sjón writes that, to understand Nazism and how we all carry the seeds, 

‘we must start with what we have in common with these people … we can at least show them for what they are, that we know they come from childhoods fundamentally similar to our own, that they had been nudged in a different direction by individuals and events at the beginning of their journeys, that they could so easily have become something else – that a Neo-Nazi is no more special than that.’

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

RED MILK

by Sjón 

translated by Victoria Cribb

published by Sceptre (2021)

June 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


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’.

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