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Light Puppets

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Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Wastheboywhoneverwas
By Sjón
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux: 2016

In 1918, Iceland gained its independence from Denmark. A nation requires dates like these to anchor its myth, and it hesitates to tarnish or overshadow them. Thus very little has been written about the other things that happened in that year. The novelist Sjón speculates in an interview that this absence is the result of “a political decision: to keep the moment of independence clean and clear.” So what else happened in 1918? The Spanish Flu came to Iceland, stalking behind the returning armies of WWI. Most of Reykjavik caught it; many died. Streets were eerily deserted as people hid in their homes. At the same time, a volcano, Katla, erupted to the east, raining ash on a city transformed into a gray underworld. It was an exhausting and fear-ridden year, a confluence of dire happenings, and at the end—independence.

In Moonstone, translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb, Sjón gives us the fateful year unvarnished. He tells it through the story of a sixteen year old orphan, Máni Steinn. Máni lives with his great-aunt and inhabits a world of longing and alienation. Dyslexic, unpopular—“the day has yet to come when he will voluntarily mingle with his contemporaries”—he accesses human culture entirely through films. Two are shown each day at the cinemas of Reykjavik. He never misses them. To fund this habit, he turns tricks for the gay population of the capital, gaining new clients through an almost clairvoyant reading of the arousal in their eyes. Iceland in 1918 was not hospitable to such activities, a fact that becomes apparent by the end of the book. Up until that year, Máni has gotten along well enough. Into this melancholy but stable world intrude influenza, ash, armistice. “Most of my novels,” Sjón has said, “deal with Iceland’s relationship with the wider world . . . as witnessed and experienced by individuals who are not part of the powers shaping their world for better or worse.”

The emphasis on Máni’s sexuality, together with the grim portrayal of Spanish Flu, and a closing dedication to Sjón’s uncle Bósi (who died of AIDS), make it apparent that this story is not just about the plague of 1918, but also about the plague of the 1980s. One of the interesting things about this very short (160-page) yet very rich story, is the degree to which it echoes with unspoken themes and buried analogies.

Probably this follows from Sjón’s method of composition. He has described it in several interviews: he follows the surrealist practice of allowing the work of art to arise from the emergent unity of found objects.

I’d been researching its three main threads—the Spanish flu, the history of queerness in Iceland, and the history of Reykjavík cinema during the silent-film era—for almost fifteen years before I wrote the book. Looking at the material, I realized that one character could carry all the themes. He is queer, he loves cinema, and he is a witness to the Spanish flu. When Máni Steinn proved to be the person who could take us through the autumn of 1918, everything fell into place.

I call this method of composition “surrealist” because Sjón is consciously adopting the aesthetic principles of his hero, the philosopher of surrealism, Andre Breton. Sjón’s allegiance to surrealism dates from his youth. His first publications were surrealist poems, his first influences the surrealist Atom poets of the 50s, and when he was a young man he even founded his own neo-surrealist group. Breton famously defined surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state”—the surrealists made art out of what the mind throws up when subconsciousness is given free reign. This leads naturally to a fascination with dreams and hypnotism, automatic writing and altered consciousness, and also with the art of found objects. Seeing the unity in what appears to the conscious mind to be a random assemblage seems like a great way to get at what the subconscious might have to say.

Perhaps because of how Moonstone’s materials slowly accumulated out of the private enthusiasms of its author, the book is helplessly given to the multiplication of symbols; it delights in the discovery of analogies, repetitions, resemblances: every name punned upon, every image echoed and permuted, every color recurring:

In the east 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. The boy watches . . . he draws the red scarf from his pocket. The shiny fabric slips through his fingers like quicksilver, red as her lips, red as her motorcycle, red as the ferment in his blood.


Even the title of the book invites us to hunt for allegories. Moonstone is a pun on Máni’s name. We discover this through the pillow talk of one of his lovers:

—Moonstone …
The boy makes a puzzled sound. The man points at him:
—Your name, Máni Steinn, Moonstone …
He repeats the word, mimicking the man’s pronunciation:
—Mún-stón …
The man nods gravely.

Ancient Romans believed moonstones were the condensation of moonlight—an otherwise ungraspable substance. Another superstition holds that moonstones work as an aphrodisiac. I think Sjón must also be aware of these associations, because Máni Steinn is an avatar of impossible longing and inflamed desire. His imaginative life is wrapped up in films, which he only gets to see because he capitalizes on the way his body arouses other men.

In the midst of this thicket of insistent symbols, planned and planted, Moonstone is also meticulously faithful to the raw details of history. This is a work of erudite historical fiction. But the way Sjón gathers the found objects of his research has the odd effect of subordinating historical precision entirely to the portrayal of the inner life of his main character. At one point in Moonstone, Sjón states explicitly what I had been feeling was the case throughout story. At the end of a chapter detailing the horrors of Reykjavik at the height of the flu’s contagion, he notes “Rekjavik has, for the first time, assumed a form that reflects [Máni’s] inner life.” To me this was the most surreal aspect of the book: the way it combines the extreme artifice of incessant symbolism with a kind of historical hyper-realism. What it does, in fact, is double its world. It portrays at the same time the gritty, real past and a fantasy suffusing it.

The story is aware of its form and makes doubling itself a theme. Máni relies on films to give him the cultural context to understand the world around him. He doesn’t have friends and can’t read, but still he can get along,

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 to the subject’s inner feelings and intentions, whether for good or evil […] The simplified and exaggerated miming of the actors has made it easier for the boy to fix it all in his mind.

There is a circle involving our perceptions of life and made-up narratives. We understand each in light of the other, in an evolving cycle of interpretation. None of us can pinpoint the origin of this cycle—you were hearing stories from your parents which inform your understanding of the world before your earliest memories were formed—but in some cases the local priority of fiction or life becomes apparent, when you meet someone new and they remind you of a character, or when, with a flash of insight, you understand a sentence as the secret description of an experience you thought belonged to you alone. Máni Steinn is someone for whom the priority is almost always clear: the stories in films are a key to reality.

But these films are still fiction, susceptible to bursting like a bubble at the rough touch of history. When influenza incapacitates all the musicians who would ordinarily accompany the silent films,

it becomes apparent just how silent these films really are. The actors’ movements seem clumsy, the pace too slow for the melodramatic plot, and the cuts between scenes confusing. It makes no difference how brilliantly the great diva Francesca Bertini performs . . . it would take more than that to compete with the silence and the reality beyond the timber walls.

moonstoneAn argument about the value of fiction is conducted within this book, not just by the impersonal forces of reality itself, but also by moralizing citizens. Sjón quotes from a real editorial published in a newspaper of that time:

[T]he cinema audience scrutinizes the light-puppets on the silver screen . . . and the body part in question and its position will become the focus of the viewer’s existence and etch themselves onto his psyche, while the size of the image and the repeated close-ups of lips, teeth, and even tongues will exacerbate the effects until few have the strength to resist them. 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 a flame.

This was by a doctor, from an article entitled “Cinema and Mental Disorders.” We are left to draw the inference that were his fellow citizens to discover the whole of Máni’s life, they might consider him the consistent example of a single pathology: a weird product of too many films. And perhaps they would blame the films for his sexuality.

Yet “reality” itself is missing something without those light-puppets. I think Sjón means for us to see that the movies win decisively in the debate with their detractors. Máni can’t do without them. Sjón tells us that after seeing his first film, “that night, for the first time that he could remember, [Máni] dreamed.” The boy’s whole life is divided between meaningful imagination and disappointing reality. For example, despite his frequent experience of the tenderness of sexual love with some of his clients, Máni longs to be known by Sola, a neighborhood girl. He becomes fascinated with her—when else?—during a film:

It was when the girl stood up to leave that it happened. The instant her shadow fell on the screen they merged—she and the character in the film. She looked around and the beam of light projected Musidora’s features onto her own. The boy froze in his seat. They were identical.

Máni never gets to know Sola with any real intimacy, but she appears frequently in his thoughts, a mental succor, and even in person at several key moments in the story. At the very end of the book we see a grown up Máni revisiting the scene of his childhood. He passes near Sola’s house, hears “female voices inside.” He doesn’t stop. Later “he’s glad he didn’t give in to the temptation to knock on the door . . . Sola lives on untouched in his memory.” He has learned to value his imagination so highly that when faced with the opportunity to replace it—perhaps—by something real, he chooses not to. That “perhaps” is key. A beauty or truth imagined can never desert you, but putting your hope in the outcome of even a promising episode in life invites devastation.

This leads to the final question Moonstone raised for me: while the book is a moving defense of fantasy, it’s also a bleak look at the whitewashed events of the year of independence. Aren’t these opposite impulses? Isn’t Sjón, in telling the story of the harrowing of Reykjavik, declaring himself to be on the opposite side from Máni in the debate between fiction and reality? Why not remember the year of independence without the Spanish flu, without the fire that rained from heaven—wouldn’t that be like allowing Sola to remain a happy memory?

My best hypothesis is that Sjón, a writer whose care is evident at every level of his intricate novel, is also aware of this larger tension, and means to come down on both sides. Just like the irresolvable question of whether stories or life predominate in our interpretation of the world, the question of whether we should cherish our ideals at the price of accuracy, or discard them in the interests of truth, must be freshly determined in every passing scene.

Robert Minto is an editor of Open Letters Monthly. He blogs and tweets.