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Troll-spotting with Iceland’s leading novelist

Iceland life

As they walk the bay of Reykjavik, Boyd Tonkin talks to bestselling Icelandic author Sjón about trolls, sagas and islands

As they walk the bay of Reykjavik, Boyd Tonkin talks to bestselling Icelandic author Sjón about trolls, sagas and islands

Boyd Tonkin | August/September 2017

Named for the geothermal steam spotted by its earliest Norse settlers, Reykjavik means “smoky bay”. The morning Sjón and I are due to meet, though, it is snow rather than steam that has lowered visibility in Iceland’s capital almost to zero. As it blows from the Arctic in horizontal sheets, the blizzard makes walking – let alone admiring the natural splendour supposedly around us – well nigh impossible. Sjón, however, soothes me with a spookily serene message. Let’s meet, he advises, at 1600 hours at a lighthouse perched on a peninsula named Grótta at the westernmost tip of the bay. All will be well.

As if by decree of All-father Odin, chief of the Norse gods, the wind drops and the skies clear at 4pm. Sunshine bathes the sweep of sea and city that stretches from this promontory to the gleaming white mountain of Esja. Neat and dapper as his surrealist heroes, who often twin smart threads with untamed ideas, Iceland’s literary spell-binder arrives and we set off at a brisk lick. A tantalising smoke of marvel and magic drifts through Sjón’s work, pricking the senses with hints of the huge hinterland of myth and dream that cradles everyday life – much as the mountains, glaciers, torrents and volcanoes of Iceland enfold the lively city behind us. In novels, in poetry, in lyrics for his collaborator Björk – who, as a teenage surrealist, joined Sjón’s poetry circle in 1980s Reykjavik – ancient forces infuse modern minds. This, however, was an act of weather sorcery to make a troll tremble. How did he manage it? “I sacrificed three rams.”

Born in Reykjavik in 1962, Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson (“Sjón” means “vision”) was always a city kid. He still lives here, with his wife and two children. As a boy, he grew up in a neighbourhood of barrack-like social housing that had become a dumping-ground for needy families. Misled by clichés about Nordic cool, visitors forget just how recently prosperity arrived in these high latitudes – and how fragile it can feel. “On the other hand,” he adds, “we had unlimited access to pure nature. So we only had to walk five or ten minutes off the asphalt and, all of a sudden, you were in the nesting grounds of ducks.” A salmon river flowed nearby.

The young Sjón spent summers with his great-uncle on Iceland’s east coast, his father’s home region. His great-uncle “was really like a nature person; a hunter of everything, a fisherman. He taught me to name your fellow-creatures, especially the birds.” Around the Grótta peninsula, those birds greet the signs of spring in a lovely cacophony. Sandpipers hurry nervously along the shore. Sjón points out that he uses the bird as a symbol of the anxious, curious scholar Jónas Pálmason – who is accused of witchcraft – in his 2008 novel “From the Mouth of the Whale”.

For Icelanders, the arrival of the golden plover marks the beginning of spring, “and it always makes the headlines”. Local people suspect that the trigger-happy game-baggers of the British Isles threaten their sacred bird: “We have this fear in Iceland of the barbaric southerners.” Rising sea temperatures, meanwhile, have put even the once-ubiquitous Icelandic puffin at risk: “We are seeing the effects of what most of us, sane people, know is happening.” As posses of seabirds wheel and cry above, such perils feel far away. On the disused lighthouse, the stencilled outline of a goose has been doctored with a cheeky graffito of a three-legged crocodile. Deadpan as ever, the writer who merges an epic heritage of sagas and folk-tales with avant-garde experiments and even mischievous punk riffs comments: “This is a good symbol of Icelandic culture. You have the native bird and then you have a strange animal from elsewhere.”

For centuries, foreigners have sought a frightful grandeur from Icelandic nature, and by extension Icelandic art. They long for a style that represents the scale of the landscape and the tension between ice and fire in a zone of endless geological unrest. With his European modernist roots, his music-biz affiliations, and the streetwise playfulness of characters such as the movie-mad Máni in his latest novel “Moonstone”, Sjón breaks the Viking mould.

Hugging close to the sea, with the snowy slopes of Mount Esja opposite framed in golden sunlight, we skirt the city where almost two-thirds of Iceland’s 335,000 inhabitants live. Nature, for him and them, will mostly mean not the sublime drama of earthquakes, volcanoes and geysers so beloved by romantic tourists since the time of William Morris (who came here in 1871), but beauty on a smaller and more human scale. When the great cataclysms do occur, “they remind you of how small a human being is, and how powerful nature is, but it isn’t happening all the time.” Rather, Icelanders can enjoy “this closeness to the cycle of nature that repeats itself in the smaller creatures”: birds, fish and so on.

The city child got to know that legendary Iceland through its stories: the medieval sagas, and the folk-tales he devoured in a volume he first read aged eight. He thought then, and thinks now, that he can see a troll’s head on the slopes of Esja. Icelandic trolls are not cute, but gigantic and scary. In folk-tales, “the only way to kill a troll is to expose it to sunlight. So it was probably bursting out of the mountain or retreating into it, and got fossilised.” Ever since, “I’ve tried to get other people to see him.”

The precocious poet soon started to make people look at things his way. Aged 16, with encouragement from his teachers, he self-published his first volume of verse, funded by a summer job as a hospital gardener. Others quickly followed. “In Iceland”, he explains, “self-publishing has never had the stigma it has in other countries.” Besides, “punk and New Wave was happening at the same time. That brings in this whole do-it-yourself element. Don’t ask for permission before you publish a book of poetry or release a single or organise a concert. We were really influenced by that.”

He had by this time come across the Icelandic modernist poets – self-taught outsiders with humble jobs and soaring imaginations – who unlocked new worlds of words. From farther afield came pop and rock: above all, the music of David Bowie. When Sjón was 12, Bowie “hit me like meteor from the sky. He just opened up so many different things. He was dangerous, of course, with the whole gender-play thing…His music was fantastic, his lyrics were weird.” Those lyrics accelerated Sjón’s drive to master English – which he speaks with a writer’s relish for shade and rhythm. Bowie introduced him to authors such as William Burroughs and made him look harder at the cultural pioneers in his own backyard. “Strangely enough,” in 1970s Reykjavik, “it was easier to discover David Bowie than the Icelandic modernists.”

Soon he had established his surrealist poetry group, Medusa, with the fledgling musician-writer Björk Guðmundsdóttir among its members. Their long association spawned Sjón’s lyrics for Björk classics such as “Isobel” and “Wanderlust”, not to mention an Oscar-nominated song in Lars von Trier’s 2000 film “Dancer in the Dark”. On YouTube you can find a video of Björk’s first band, the Sugarcubes, pummelling through a three-chord anthem called “Air Guitar”. The hyperactive vocalist, one “Johnny Triumph”, is very recognisably the retired punk icon striding beside me.

Punk poet 
Sjón in the bay of Reykjavik

Not all Sjón’s fiction has yet appeared in English, but in novels such as “The Blue Fox”, “From the Mouth of the Whale” and “The Whispering Muse”, the modes of sagas and surrealism meet in settings of everyday enchantment. Victoria Cribb’s translations do rich justice to their jewelled strangeness, as the elements of earth, air, fire and water fuel fables of exile, rebellion and metamorphosis. Sjón thinks of himself as a writer of realism, not fantasy. “I feel free in my books to include elements which I know have been experienced by human beings – visions, hallucinations, dreams, theological speculations. In a sense, that is also something that comes from our tradition. Because in the Icelandic saga…you have all those different levels of reality.” Besides, “the beauty of the folk story is that it’s always presented matter-of-factly. There’s no drama. If they describe a monster, they just tell it as drily as they can.” Iceland’s medieval literature swarms with supernatural creatures, omens, apparitions and the celebrated kennings: “metaphors that tie the world of men and gods together.”

At one point along our coastal path, he mentions one of those fabulous beings, a “beach-crawler” that emerges from the waves, hunched and menacing, swathed in seaweed and shells. “It drags its tail of clanking seashells along with it, and it especially attacks women. The last reported sighting was just here.” When might that have been? “1986.” What else, I wonder, might survive in modern Icelandic minds from the saga age? The prophetic power of dreams, he replies. “If I dream about someone we know in a bad situation, I wake up and the first thing I think is, I wonder what’s happening in his or her life now?…I would say that this is the strongest living remains of our tradition.”

Cowed perhaps by rush-hour traffic, the beach-crawlers have left us alone. Around the harbour, with its former fishing sheds now given over to bars and restaurants, Reykjavik feels less like the abode of eerie beasties than a fashionable destination for trippers. Even here, older customs endure. Among the whale-watching boats lie two converted trawlers that still go out to hunt, and kill, whales – in defiance of international conventions. “Icelanders don’t like people telling them what to do.”

Sjón believes that the national myth of sturdy self-reliance masks a typical “post-colonial” mindset. After all, Iceland only won its independence under the Danish crown in 1918 – the moment of “Moonstone” when, against a backdrop of patriotic rituals and the scourge of the Spanish flu pandemic, the gay, teenage hero discovers both the newly arrived movies and his own independence of spirit. Even though no Danish troops occupied Iceland, “the mentality of being provided for by the colonial power was very strong here.”

We leave the harbour behind and reach the grassy cliffs of Laugarnes. Here stood the leper hospital that plays a part in “Moonstone” – a story that, as Sjón’s work often does, salutes the courage and cunning of mavericks and outsiders. On a headland, totem-like sculptures in wood and stone cluster around the former studio – now a museum – of the artist Sigurjón Ólafsson. Like Sjón’s fiction, they have given a modern shape to inherited forms. As he says about the Icelandic legacy of stories and poems, “You reshape them and rework them with your new tools and new thinking.” Because of the continuity of the literary language, “if you’re writing in Icelandic, you are automatically having a discussion with Snorri Sturluson” – the 13th-century master of saga, myth and history – “about how to shape a sentence”. Sjón has been re-reading “Egil’s Saga”, attributed to Sturluson. One sentence in particular, “funny, beautiful and sharp”, leapt out at him.

Ugly as my head may be, the
cliff my helmet rests upon, I am not
loth to accept it from the king.

“Being a writer myself, I just felt the joy of the author when he wrote it.”

Cold stone totems 
Sculptures at Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum

Sjón is starting a literary conversation with the far future. He is the third contributor – after Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell – to the Future Library project. Invented by Scottish artist Katie Paterson and organised by Oslo city library, the Future Library asks one author each year to contribute a story that will be deposited, unread, in Oslo and not published until 2114. A striking act of faith in the long-term prospects for literature (indeed, for humankind itself) the scheme represents “cathedral thinking – because European cathedrals took generations to build. We don’t have many of those today, where we allow something to grow over 100 years.” Much of his work plays games with literary conventions, and this task “is like a game on a grand scale. You’re given a platform; you’re given rules; there is a time element.” However, creation for posterity alone poses challenges: “It’s really hard to write without the expectations of reaction from a reader.”

The sun begins to set. The troll-faced mountain darkens. We dine on local fish near the soccer stadium – home to the national team that, in 2016, performed feats worthy of the saga warriors when they beat England and reached the quarter-finals at the European Championships. Outside, blackbirds trill songs at twilight: unfamiliar “harbingers of spring” in these parts, Sjón says, their range extended north by climate change. A day that began in frozen tumult closes, magically, in calm and peace. “It had a good narrative arc,” says the guide whom I still suspect of occult skills. “We went through a dark hour of the soul, then the sun came out and the mountains revealed themselves to us.” Those three imaginary rams did not die in vain.

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