When I included Moonstone in one of my June previews I was surprised when several people picked up on it, already acquainted with Sjón’s writing either through a previous novel or from songs he’d written with Björk. He’s a talented guy: an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright and librettist. I wish I could say that I knew all about him already but it was Moonstone’s synopsis that drew me to it rather than Sjón’s reputation. Set in 1918 in Reykjavík, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn – the eponymous Moonstone – over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Iceland’s capital.
Máni is so obsessed with the movies that he visits both of Reykjavík’s cinemas, sometimes twice a day. It’s an expensive business but Máni turns tricks to fund his habit, visiting various “gentlemen” throughout the city, all very furtive about their predilections. He’s transfixed by Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie – Feuillde’s epic, Les Vampires. When she tosses her scarlet scarf to him, it becomes his most prized possession. Máni’s routine is shattered when a Danish passenger ship docks in the city bringing influenza with it. Soon both movie houses fall silent as the musicians succumb to the disease. As the fatalities mount, the only doctor left standing recruits Máni and Sólborg to make house visits, carting the bodies to the mortuary and tending the sick. The beginning of the new year, almost three months after the epidemic began, marks the beginning of Icelandic sovereignty celebrated with great ceremony on January 1st, 1919, a day which ends in disgrace for Máni. Eleven years later, he returns to the city.
There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this slim novella. As you might expect from a writer who seems to excel in whichever form he chooses, the writing is striking. For the illiterate Máni: ‘the letters of the alphabet disguise themselves before his eyes, glide between lines, switch roles in the middle of a word’. When the outside world impinges on Iceland in the form of influenza: ‘The silver screen has torn and a draught is blowing between the worlds’. You could call it an adult fairy tale but Sjón blends fact with fiction including a multitude of filmic references and historic events. Its ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. In the final paragraph we learn that the book is dedicated to the memory of Sjón‘s uncle, Bósi – ‘sailor, alcoholic, booklover, socialist and gay’ – who died from AIDS in 1993, making it all the more poignant. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing.