Sjón at Review bookshop
By FRÍÐA ÍSBERG
On June 2, another book by the Icelandic author Sjón was published in English: Moonstone: The boy who never was (Mánasteinn: Drengurinn sem aldrei var til), translated by Victoria Cribb. This short semi-historical novel won the Icelandic Literary Prize for Fiction in 2013. Some time ago, Sjón met a friend in Hong Kong, a Londoner who told him that if he ever did anything literary in the UK he would have to do it in Review – a lovely small independent bookshop in Peckham. So there we were, an audience of fifteen, Sjón by the counter and Katia, the bookshop manager, smiling from ear to ear behind it.
Before discussing and reading from the book, Sjón told us briefly about his working methods and where he came from as an author. Bored in suburban Reykjavík, the fifteen-year-old Sjón, along with seven other boys, formed Medúsa – a surrealist movement inflamed by André Breton’s writings and manifesto. It was then that he took up his pen name, Sjón, meaning “vision” in Icelandic, and an abbreviation of his forename Sigurjón. The goal was to mount a surrealist invasion of Reykjavík, and Sjón said jokingly that in some sense they succeeded – nowadays “surreal” is such a common adjective that it even finds its way into speeches in the Icelandic Parliament.
Sjón is a hoarder who gathers information about random subjects – at the moment he is preoccupied with gorilla actors from 1930s Hollywood films, and every detail he comes across is safely filed. This is how he gradually maps the themes of his stories. Before writing the story of Máni Steinn, Moonstone's main character, he had for some time been collecting information on three topics: the Spanish influenza in 1918, Reykjavík's history of cinema, and homosexuality in Iceland and the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Sjón searched for a protagonist to fit those themes, first trying out a teenage Don Juan in 1920s Reykjavík – but while reading Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart (2010), whose main character is homosexual, he realized that Máni was also gay. So there he had a dynamic to work from. “What do you not do during an epidemic?”, he asked us. “Have sex with strangers.” Although AIDS never comes into direct contact with the storyline, Sjón explained, the story is very much about AIDS, and dedicated to the memory of his uncle Bósi, who died of AIDS in 1993.
Sjón was clearly happy with Victoria Cribb’s translation, warmly praising its precision, and when he was asked whether he felt that anything might be lost in translation, he answered: “if anything, I’m just worried that the translation is better than the original”.
Moonstone will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the TLS.