books, Reading, Works in Translation

“Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was” by Sjón

“It would be incorrect to say that the boy is wholly idle as he loiters there on the hotel sidewalk. He is, in fact, amusing himself by analyzing the life around him, with an acuity honed by watching some five hundred films in which every glance, every movement, every expression, and every pose is charged with meaning and clues as to the subject’s inner feelings and intentions, whether for good or for evil. Indeed, all mankind’s behavior is an open book to him – how people conduct themselves in groups, large or small; their relationship to every conceivable thing; their movements in all kinds of interior, in the streets, in the town and country – since the simplified and exaggerated miming of the actors has made it easier for the boy to fix it all in his mind.”

Having heard Sjón speak on a podcast about his work, I was immediately intrigued by something – the lilt in his voice? The whimsy in his story-telling? The undisguised history of personal anguish? Whatever it was that piqued my interest, my brief exposure to him did not adequately prepare me for the utter, aching beauty of his writing. Mind you, I read him in translation from the original Icelandic to English, so his translator Victoria Cribb deserves kudos of unknown proportion, as well.

IMG_0666“Moonstone” is the story of a ‘boy’ who is really a young man – Máni Stein, a sixteen year old orphan who whiles away the hours obsessively watching every film to come through Reykjavik and selling his ‘favors’ to men all over town. This is the Iceland of 1918, where everyone lives under the ominous clouds of World War I and the co-occurring Spanish influenza, which may have had an even longer-lasting and more devastating impact on Reykjavik.

“In Reykjavik the cessation of hostilities was greeted with the same indifference as the cessation of the Katla [volcanic] eruption a few days before. And indeed the sight that confronts the boy’s eyes when he arrives in the yard of the Midtown School resembles nothing so much as scenes from a field hospital in a Pathé newsreel. There has been no cease-fire in the influenza’s war on the inhabitants of the town.”

Máni’s trysts are sometimes commercial and cold, sometimes free and intimate, and always illicit and furtive. When a prominent doctor publishes an article on the immoral nature and dangers of film, it foretells how Máni’s sexuality would be received were it made public.

“Film is thus 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. the difference lies in that the cinema audience’s appointment is with the old flicker of the flame rather than with the searing fire itself. The moth burns up, but the viewer can, without fear, surrender to his escalating desire and seek out the experience over and over again, as is, alas, far too often the case.”

Sjón is delightfully transgressive, pushing boundaries. His novel is a story of living on the fringe, existing on the margins – both for the boy and for his city. In some sense it is a morality play, only the reader’s sympathies are meant to strongly align with the protagonist against the established morals and prejudices of the community at large. “Moonstone” is ever so brief, composed of poetic snapshots that capture inner quiet, city-wide devastation, and the rigidity of expectations.