I’ve enjoyed several books by Icelandic writers over the past few years, but my first taste of the country’s literature came when I stumbled upon Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale as part of our inaugural Shadow IFFP endeavours. Since then, I’ve read everything of his that’s appeared in English (which isn’t that much…), so I’ve been looking forward to trying his latest work for a while now. Today’s choice has a lot in common with earlier pieces, but strikes perhaps a more sombre, realistic note – which isn’t surprising given the novel’s background…
Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was (published by Hachette, translated by Victoria Cribb) opens in the great Icelandic outdoors, with a boy listening for the sound of a motorbike approaching in the distance – but that’s not all he’s doing:
A low groan escapes the man standing over the kneeling boy. With his back pressed to the cliff, the man appears to have merged with his own shadow, become grafted to the rock. He groans again, louder, in increasing frustration, thrusting his hips so his swollen member slides to and fro in the boy’s mouth.
p.3 (Hachette, 2016)
This is our introduction to Máni Steinn Karlsson, the hero of the novel, but another important figure is not the man he’s with, but a woman riding the motorbike he can hear approaching. Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir, or Sóla G— as Máni usually refers to her, is an enigmatic figure from a different social class, and while Reykjavík is small enough for their paths to cross, opportunities to talk are few and far between.
The story takes place back in 1918, so as you can imagine, a boy satisfying the desires of lonely men and a restless young woman with a need for speed stick out somewhat, and are forced to hide their differences wherever possible. However, while the approaching end of the Great War leaves most Icelanders cold, the small island country is unable to avoid world affairs entirely. The Spanish flu is on its way, and when Reykjavík is struck by the pandemic, nobody will be asking about the private lives of those trying to keep them alive.
Moonstone is a slight change of pace for Sjón, with virtually none of the magical elements that run through The Blue Fox and The Whispering Muse. Instead, the story has a far more serious tone, balancing Máni’s personal experiences as a young gay man in a time when it was impossible to be open about your sexuality alongside the devastation wrought when the flu hits Icelandic shores. Despite the light, breezy feel of the first few chapters, the book soon develops a darker tone, plunging the reader into the midst of a catastrophe.
The writer paints a picture of the Reykjavík of the time, a small city bursting with pride at the thought of the impending declaration of the country’s independence from Denmark. It’s also a city seemingly full of people obsessed with movies (Máni is certainly one of them, seeing every new arrival he can), and when the flu arrives, cutting people down in its wake, it’s at the cinema that we first see the effects, with the silent films now truly silent after all the accompanists succumb to the disease. Slowly, the city grinds to a halt:
Reykjavík has undergone a transformation.
An ominous hush lies over the busiest, most bustling part of town. No hoofbeats, no rattling of cart-wheels or rumble of automobiles, no roar of motorcycles or ringing of bicycle bells. No rasp of sawing from the carpenters’ workshops, or clanging from the forges, or slamming of warehouse doors.
With the disease spreading rapidly, people begin to avoid going out in public, yet for many, it’s already too late. There’s soon a need for the carpenters to get back to work, crafting coffins for the legions of dead…
It’s in the midst of the catastrophe that Máni (who manages to pull through his own bout of flu) and Sóla G— are brought together once more, working along with the local doctor to visit the homes of the sick and remove the bodies of those who didn’t make it. The two outsiders help to pull the city through the crisis, one it is totally ill-equipped to deal with, in time for Reykjavík to enjoy its big day of independence the following year. Sadly, though, attitudes remain unchanged by the ordeal, and Máni will discover that he’s a boy born in the wrong era, unwelcome in the new republic despite his best efforts during the flu crisis.
Moonstone may tackle serious topics, but the writing is as clear and crisp as ever. The book is divided into short scenes, with each section rarely extending beyond a few pages, and the gaps in the story between the sections have a distancing effect for the reader. We get quick glimpses into Máni’s life before jumping ahead, a few days, or perhaps a few weeks. As always, Cribb’s translation is excellent (as I mentioned recently, translations from the Icelandic usually are…), making this a delight to read.
The character of Sóla G— is a fascinating one, even if she rarely occupies centre stage. She flits through the background, haunting the story, more often present in Máni’s thoughts than in the streets. She represents the start of a change in society, with women claiming different roles in daily life. Despite her comfortable social position, her knowledge of motorbikes and cars makes her the ideal candidate to take over as the doctor’s driver when no men can be found, and you sense that great things are in store for her.
However, the focus of the novel is, of course, on the boy (the ‘moonstone’ – Máni Stein – of the title), a position which becomes even clearer on reading the final section, set in 1929, which acts as a post-script of sorts. While the book is primarily a work of historical fiction, blending the personal experiences of a gay teenager with the wider issue of the unstoppable Spanish flu, when we learn how the story came about, it takes on a more allegorical aspect. As well as offering insights into the difficulties of gay life in a small community, we can draw parallels with what was to come sixty to seventy years later.
To be honest, I’m not quite sure that I’ve got all that I could have from Moonstone, and it’s certainly a book that could do with another read, especially as the final few pages show the story in a slightly different light. If you’re expecting more Nordic magical realism, you’ll probably come away empty-handed, but in many ways, despite the length, this is a more ambitious novel than Sjón’s earlier efforts – and a good example of how to write historical fiction without needing six-hundred pages to do so:
An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country; something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.
The silver screen has torn and a draught is blowing between the worlds. (pp.33/4)
But in the midst of national tragedy, there’s always room for personal stories too, and Moonstone shows us the lives of the individuals caught up in a national tragedy…