‘CoDex 1962’ by Sjón (Review)

The first of my last-minute looks at possible Man Booker International Longlist contenders took us to Mexico, or at least a slightly surreal version thereof, and today’s trip continues with the bizarre theme.  This time we’re off to Iceland, where we’re listening to the story of a man and a generation, as an old friend spins new tales.  This one comes highly praised, so let’s see if it’s likely to be appearing on a longlist near you soon…

*****
Sjón’s CoDex 1962 (translated by Victoria Cribb) begins in the small town of Kükenstadt in the north of Germany, with a rather chatty narrator revealing (literally) the goings-on inside a guesthouse.  Marie-Sophie, a young woman working for the owners, is pressed into caring for a man found hiding in a kitchen cupboard, and despite the inconvenience (and his poor health and hygiene) comes to care for her charge.  However, these are dangerous times, with the Second World War going badly for the Germans, and it isn’t long before the man must move on.

But where to?  Iceland, of course!  The second of the three parts shows our friend Leo Loewe making it to Reykjavik and describes his adventures there, including a rather unusual quest to bring life to an inanimate object he brought with him in his briefcase.  Then, just when it seems as if the writer might have painted himself into a corner, the third and final part brings us back to the initial narrator and ties it all together, showing how his story is actually that of a wider group of people, not all of whom are still with us…

I’m sure you’re none the wiser after that synopsis, and I don’t blame you – CoDex 1962 isn’t exactly an easy book to summarise in the usual manner.  Sjón revels in blending stories and styles, and this work takes that tendency to a new level, with Holocaust survivors, cold-war spies, fallen angels and genetically modified children all jostling for space on the page.  Of course, he’s also a writer known for his humour, and there’s plenty of that on display here, whether of the surreal, grotesque or simply laugh-out-loud variety.  Confusing, yes, yet it’s never less than fascinating, too:

What follows is therefore based on conjecture and guesswork alone since I myself have never attended a meeting of this organisation.  But if you, dear reader, continue with this tale, in spite of my confession that what follows is nothing but make-believe, there’s one thing I can promise you in recompense: it’s an incredibly exciting story that will hold you gripped to the very end.
p.311 (Sceptre, 2018)

This promise comes from Jósef, the narrator, but it could easily be Sjón himself speaking.  One thing you could never accuse him of is being dull.

The novel consists of three separate volumes, and by the end it’s clear that each has a different focus, on the mother, the father and the son.  The first two parts consist of a combination of the real (the concentration camp escapee, life as an immigrant in Iceland) and the bizarre (the appearance of a dead child murderer and the man who killed him in turn, werewolves (yes!) in Reykjavik), although the difference between the two isn’t always as clear-cut as you might expect.  As we learn more about the origins of the boy made of clay, we slowly start to get an idea of what’s happening.  However, after the first two parts, most readers will still feel rather in the dark.

Luckily, the third part pulls it all together (well, mostly) in the form of the interview between Jósef and a woman working for a genetics researcher.  Having finally found out who the shadowy voices drifting through the first two sections belong to, we can now focus on the reason for all the stories we’re told.  They all come from a frail man spinning stories in an attempt to justify, or explain away, his existence:

And if you’re unlucky enough to be born on the northern periphery of war, whether war conducted on the battlefield of ideas or war that is fought with weapons in the skies, on land and sea, what choice do you have but to employ every trick in the book to write yourself into the history of ideas, to engineer a place for yourself in the great scheme of things, to think your way into human history, to weave yourself into the tapestry of all that exists? (p.467)

This is what exactly Jósef is doing with his stories.  Our book is simply a slightly embellished chronicle of his life since his birth in 1962…

In fact, the book seems to spring from the idea of the children of 1962 (of whom Sjón, if you hadn’t guessed, is one), with Jósef as a representative of the generation, perhaps based on someone the writer knows.  The third part includes scenes of the dead coming together, growing in number as time passes and the death toll, from natural causes or otherwise, mounts.  The motto of the book could be the eerie refrain “Dear brothers and sisters, born in 1962, we await you here” that echoes through the final part of the story, turning the work into an homage to those who left their lives too soon.

As you’d expect from Sjón, CoDex 1962 is an intriguing piece of writing, with much owed to Cribb’s usual poetic rendering into English.  In a stunning mix of history and fantasy, we learn of the angel Gabriel(le)’s musical and gender issues, settle down to a few fairy-tales and hear of some Icelandic origin myths.  There’s even a literary allusion or two thrown into the mix to keep us (and the speakers) on our toes:

One morning when Jósef L. woke up at home in bed after troubled dreams, he found himself transformed into a giant baby. (p.164)

With such an array of styles and stories, the reader must be constantly on their guard, trying to pull it all together to see what relevance all this has to Jósef’s story and where the narrative will take us next.

However, despite the undoubted craft that has gone into the book, I’d be lying if I said I was always on board with the writer’s games, mostly because there were times when I seriously doubted that the plot was going anywhere.  The three books of the trilogy were actually released at separate times in the original Icelandic (the first book appearing in 1994), and it’s hard not to think that the novel developed organically and only eventually became a trilogy.  The book isn’t entirely coherent, with the third part having to explain away a lot of what went before – it didn’t always convince me, and the epilogue to the work seems tacked on rather than conclusive.

Another issue I had was the overload of tangents scattered throughout CoDex 1962.  That’s not exactly new for Sjón’s work, but here they can detract from the story rather than augmenting it.  Many of these are great anecdotes, and at one point the writer himself attempts (in vain?) to justify these red herrings and dead ends.  In an excellent look at the bookTom from the Wuthering Expectations blog (who enjoyed the many digressions) notes:

“I guess there were, and are, many readers who share this exasperation.  They are likely also the ones who hate self-conscious postmodern screwing around like this.”

Hmm.  I think I may well be one of the readers he’s referring to…

CoDex 1962 is frustrating but entertaining, flawed yet compelling, and I suspect that were it to make the MBIP longlist, it could well turn out to be a rather divisive choice.  Some readers will be more than happy to be swept up in the magic, while others will no doubt rejoice in pointing out the flaws beneath the surface.  So will it make the cut?  Who knows?  One thing’s for sure, though: if it does, we’ll have a lot of fun discussing it 😉

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5 thoughts on “‘CoDex 1962’ by Sjón (Review)

  1. I don’t think I can be overloaded by tangents. I don’t mind novels that are 100% tangent. Or as close to 100% as is possible.

    I feel there used to be quite a lot more of those, back in the 1980s and 1990s. Novels that were only just barely novels.

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    1. Tom – You’re obviously much more tolerant of the post-modernist style than I am! I’ve just finished this and Marías’ ‘Berta Isla’, and I much preferred the latter (while many other readers were for Sjón’s book). I’m a little old-fashioned in wanting a novel to be a novel, I suppose…

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  2. I struggled through the first part of this novel (kept re-reading pages in order to visualize his images) and quit shortly into the second part because it became even more frustrating (the bird in the mouth segment was just too weird). I will admit that I am trying to read as many books from the Goodreads contender list as possible and – after reading your review – may have been too anxious or impatient. As an aside, the same thing happened last year with Milkman (we know how that turned out), but I eventually made it through that one and glad I did. But I digress. I won’t be putting this on my longlist predictions, but if it appears there I will certainly make another attempt.

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    1. Scott – Yep, if this does make the cut (and it’s very possible), it’s one that a lot of people will struggle with. I’m already going through our group and guessing who will love it and who will hate it 😉

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