‘Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was’ by Sjon ***

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was has been translated from its original Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.  The novella was first published in its native Iceland in 2013, by one of the country’s most revered authors and songwriters, Sjon.  I visited the biggest bookshop in Reykjavik when I visited in February, and many of his books were on display, both in Icelandic and their English translations.  To date, I have read a couple of his books, including the relatively well-known The Blue Fox, which I would go as far as to say is his most prominent work in the English-speaking world.

Characteristically, Sjon’s style does tend toward the sparse, and is almost simplistic on the face of it.  Moonstone begins in 1918, with this sentence: ‘The October evening is windless and cool.  There is a distant throb of a motorcycle.  The boy puts his head on one side to get a better fix on the sound’.  What comes next is rather a graphic scene, in which a young man – our main character – sexually gratifies an older man: ‘Mumbled words escape from between his clenched teeth; snatches at the land scenes he is staging in his mind’.

Our protagonist, sixteen-year-old orphan Mani Stein Karlssson (possibly a spelling error in the book) is from 15,000-citizen strong Reykjavik, in which ‘those of the same age cannot help but be aware of one another’, and has lived with his great-grandmother’s sister since his mother’s death.  His real passion in life is going to the cinema, watching, as he does, ‘all the movies that are imported to Iceland’.  Mani is illiterate, and works as a gigolo to earn his money; it is not a job which he dislikes, and he never says anything to make the reader think that he is being exploited, or is performing acts solely for the monetary reward.  In fact, more could have been made of this element of the plot.
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Images and imagery are both of importance here; the result is gory and strange, but incredibly memorable.  Throughout, Sjon’s use of imagery is both interesting and thought-provoking: ‘With his back pressed to the cliff, the man appears to have merged with his own shadow, become grafted to the rock’.  Some of his descriptions – and, indeed, Cribb’s interpretation of them – are striking: ‘She appears on the brink like a goddess risen from the depths of the sea, silhouetted against the backdrop of a sky ablaze with the volcanic fires of Katla…’.  Indeed, the geographical prominence of the landscape features wonderfully:

‘Although it’s past midnight there’s still a small crowd gathered on the hill to watch the Katla eruption: drunkards, policemen, labourers… and waifs and strays like himself…  When not conversing in low voices they gaze intently at the light show in the ease where 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.’

For the first quarter or so of the novella, if it wasn’t for the inclusion of dates, it would be difficult to pinpoint the period in which Mani’s story takes place.  There is very little else, at first, to give the era away, and its writing style – or perhaps its translation – feels relatively contemporary.  There are those things going on in Icelandic society which we recognise from the modern-day media – eruptions from various volcanoes, such as the aforementioned Katla, steamers coming across from Denmark, and a referendum about the country’s independence.

Later comes the first reference to Spanish influenza, which the remainder of the plot revolves around, and which builds a sense of history in a far more effective manner.  As Sjon writes, this epidemic acts almost as a uniting force: ‘An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country; something historic is taking place in Reykjavik at the same time as it is happening in the outside world’.  The influenza is consequently personified, given human attributes and actions: ‘By the time Miss Inga Maria Waagfjord, guitar player and chanteuse, slumps unconscious from the piano stool during the second episode of ‘The Golden Reel’ at the New Cinema, the epidemic has snatched away the last person in Reykjavik capable of picking out a tune’.

At first, whilst Moonstone provides some character portraits which warrant exploration on behalf of the reader, there is a definite sense of detachment to the whole.  The novella takes a while to find its feet, but it can certainly be said that it builds in intensity after the first few chapters, and becomes almost compelling in consequence.  The detachment disappears after a while, and the third person perspective cleverly becomes a necessary, rather than a distancing, tool.  Sjon has demonstrated, however, how quickly the city changed in the face of the epidemic, and how its atmosphere and bustle all but disappeared.  An important time in history, which does not appear to have been very well documented in Western history (at least in the English-speaking world) has been demonstrated in Moonstone, which alone makes the novella well worth reading.

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