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Silver-screen awakenings in Iceland: a new novel

Silver-screen awakenings

Reykjavik, 1918. A young man embarks on a journey of sexual self-discovery in the celluloid glow of the city’s new cinemas. An eerie new tale from Sjón, Iceland’s most famous novelist

Reykjavik, 1918. A young man embarks on a journey of sexual self-discovery in the celluloid glow of the city’s new cinemas. An eerie new tale from Sjón, Iceland’s most famous novelist

Boyd Tonkin | May 23rd 2016

The benefit of being an outsider is that you have a clearer view of the world than those on the inside. In the hidebound Reykjavik of autumn 1918, Mani Steinn, the teenage protagonist of “Moonstone” and the book’s namesake, enthusiastically turns tricks for closeted gay men but saves his fantasies for a leather-clad girl on a motorcycle: the mysterious Sola G-, suffragette daughter of a local grandee and Mani’s soulmate, but never bedmate. The orphan and dreamer is shoved to the margins by both his sexuality and his dyslexia: to Mani, letters dance teasingly like “a code to which he does not have the key”. And his family history contains another secret: the presence of a shameful and taboo disease.
Movie-loving Mani is a queer young fish in the small pool of Iceland, a country whose placid surface is disturbed by the distant, final tremors of the Great War, by the Katla volcano’s eruption and by the deadly Spanish flu pandemic that arrives on the good ship Botnia. Corpses begin to pile up in warehouses as half the town stumbles in a sweaty haze through this “village of the damned”. At last, the kid who devours horror serials at Reykjavik’s two cinemas finds that the backwater capital has “assumed a form that reflects his inner life”.
Eerie and enchanted, but offbeat and understated too, “Moonstone” sees Iceland’s most-renowned living author tell a trademark tale of exile and revolt. Already steeped in the sagas and folk-tales of his native land, the young Sigurjón Birgir Siggurdssón (his pseudonym sjón means “sight”) learned English in order to understand the lyrics of his favourite David Bowie songs. At 16, he began to publish works in verse and prose. He founded a Surrealist poetry circle, and eventually struck up a friendship with another teenage prodigy who also had a magician’s way with words: Björk Gudmundsdóttir. Shorn of her patronymic, she would become the most celebrated Icelander of the modern age. Prior to her rise to stardom, the elfin diva sometimes sang with her band, the Sugarcubes, alongside a vocalist known as “Johnny Thunder” – aka Sjón.
Early in their careers, Björk and Sjón developed a writing style that glows with an epic and romantic Northern light, and also contains vivid traces of the European avant-garde. Björk has said that her early mentor showed her “the more impulsive, raw and feminine, side of Surrealism”. The lyrics he wrote for her stretch from “Isobel” on “Post” (1995) through the Oscar-nominated songs in Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” (2000) to three tracks on the eco-epic “Biophilia” (2011). His songs yearn for escape and transcendence, just like his new hero. In “Wanderlust”, a song that could have been written for Mani, Björk sings that “Lust for comfort/ Suffocates the soul/ This relentless/ Restlessness/ Liberates me/ Sets me free”.
Helped by the salt tang and rhythmic pulse of Victoria Cribb’s translations, Sjón’s fiction has begun to find acclaim in English. In novels such as “The Blue Fox” and “From the Mouth of the Whale” (translated in 2008 and 2011), his spellbinding storyteller’s voice captures even the most sensational events with a cool, even offhand, touch. As Sjón well knows, the authors of medieval sagas could likewise deliver high drama and grand passion with laconic irony. In “Moonstone”, he intercuts the ghastly progress of the plague through the city with snatches of Mani’s troubled past, his furtive trysts with respectable gents and – most of all – his sessions at the cinema, basking in the uncanny aura of the silent movies he adores.
Mani’s passion isn’t shared by everyone. A puritanical local doctor wages a campaign against the decadent sorcery of the screen. “Immoral by its very nature”, cinema fosters “perversion in the viewer, who allows himself to be seduced like a moth to the flame”. “Moonstone” lets us share that seduction. Not that it took the cinema to show novelists how to cut and edit to uproarious effect. At one point, Mani has a close, indeed graphic, encounter with a burly sailor. Outside, bands play and bigwigs speechify to mark Iceland’s independence from Denmark. This is a backhanded tribute to a famous scene from Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, when Emma and her lover swap passionate endearments as an agricultural show drones on below them.
This boy’s own story, with its lonely and questing hero transported from Edmund White’s American mid-west to an even more repressive land of ice and fire, ends not in tragedy but in fulfilment. In the story’s final act, we catch up with the older, happier Mani, securely partnered to a fine-art printer and living in a Chelsea flat. He goes home to Iceland to escort a group of English Surrealist film-makers around the country. These free-thinking, free-loving experimentalists believe that avant-garde film can liberate people from “obsolete…inhibitions” through devices such as “irrational montages”, “changes of speed” and “the subversion of a linear plot”. Although we never lose sight of Mani’s fate, “Moonstone” follows the same route. From the volcano “painting the night sky every shade of red” to the blood-drenched nightmares of his flu-induced delirium, it also unspools image after image that recalls not just visionary films but the lyrics of some spaced-out anthemic ballad that Sjón himself might write.
The author has voiced regret that Iceland so far lacks its own queer literature. In “Moonstone”, this married father-of-two makes up for lost time. Anyone tempted to accuse him of appropriating the history of a marginalised group should wait for the novel’s tender homage to a descendant of these characters, Sjón’s uncle Bosi. He died, of Aids, in 1993.