An Epic From Iceland, Complete With Unicorns, Angels and a Stamp-Collecting Werewolf
Posted September 4, 2018 5:30 p.m. EDT
The novelist and noted romantic disaster Djuna Barnes once wrote that “everything we can’t bear in this world, some day we find in one person, and love it all at once.”
Apparently, this is a phenomenon not limited to loving people. “CoDex 1962” is the newly translated triptych by Icelandic fabulist Sjon, heralded as an heir to Kafka and Borges. It contains every fictional element and effect I’m leery of — unicorns, for example. Elaborate framing devices. Moist ruminations on mythopoeia. Angels.
Everything I can scarcely bear in novels, I found in this book. And I was spirited away — for a time.
The plot is set in motion when a Jewish fugitive flees a concentration camp, carrying with him a lump of clay in the shape of a baby — a golem. This creature is our narrator, Josef Loewe, who is coaxed to life in Iceland, in 1962, the very time and place as Sjon himself. Loewe recounts his father’s flight to safety and his entanglements with curious creatures along the way — a Soviet spy with a tail, a stamp-collecting werewolf.
The spine of the story is a father’s anxious and tender care for his son, but the real action, the real feeling, is to be found in the otherworldly vignettes that cluster like pearls along the narrative, the forays into alternate dimensions where time can be murdered, nights when the dead float out of their graves to turn somersaults in the sky.
For Sjon, the world is governed by numinous forces that we can only dimly observe, and which we have little language to understand. I am reminded that a majority of Icelanders claim to believe in fairies. Road construction is undertaken carefully, to avoid disturbing their dwellings. (It’s a notion that drives an Icelandic friend of mine to distraction. “No one believes in fairies,” he spluttered to me once. Then he turned very grave. “Elves, however—.”)
Loewe recounts his tales in maundering fashion, spurred on by an interlocutor, a woman whose identity is gradually revealed. In her withering commentary, you might hear echoes of your own frustration: “Surely this farce is a bit over the top?”
Sjon, short for Sigurjon Birgir Sigurdsson, is a pen name that means “sight.” Since 2013, his clairvoyant and cinematic novels have been published in English, nimbly translated by Victoria Cribb. Twenty years in the making, “CoDex 1962” is made up of three sections, which were published as individual books in Iceland — a romance, a crime novel and a science fiction story. But it toys with every genre under the sun.
“My story is in dialogue with other major types of narrative, with that long, resounding roll-call that encompasses everything from visionary poems in medieval manuscripts to futuristic films, from topsy-turvy verses to the four gospels,” Loewe says. There are “smutty interludes” and dispatches from the dead. One blindingly beautiful section comprises a list of surrealist images, the nightly dreams of a group of townspeople: a bowl filled with fingernail clippings, a coat dripping in a closet. One man dreams of a woman giving birth to a roll of film.
This book is a Norse Arabian Nights. Each section is a honeycomb. Stories are nested in stories and crack open to reveal rumor and anecdote, prose poems, tendrils of myth. This abundance isn’t an empty show of virtuosity but rooted in Sjon’s belief in the power and obligation of old-fashioned storytelling (there are homages to great storytellers throughout; one character is named Halldora Oktavia, after Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness and Mexican writer Octavio Paz).
John Berger and Susan Sontag once engaged in an affectionate and slightly prickly televised debate on the purpose of fiction. At one point, Berger tried to parse their central difference in opinion. “You say you want to be carried away by the story,” he said. “I want the story to stop things being carried away into oblivion, into indifference.”
For Sjon, a third imperative presents itself. Stories renew the world. “The earth’s biomass is stable,” Loewe tells us in an epilogue. “But the biomass of fiction is growing. It is made of some wondrous substance that does not belong to any of the planet’s three known realms — the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom or the mineral kingdom — and yet it receives all its nourishment from them, for fiction is part of mankind, and mankind is part of this world.”
A consoling thought, but a dangerous one for the writer. Where Sjon occasionally loses the reader is when he extols stories for their sheer existence, when he basks in their plenitude and his proficiency. Like that clay baby, however, a story only becomes animated when carved and shaped, when life is breathed into it.
Sjon once claimed he would never write a thick book: “I have always admired stories that cut to the bone without much ceremony. My stories are really boiled-down epics.” Take “Moonstone,” a favorite of mine, a tight fable of cinephilia, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, gay hustlers and Icelandic independence. In comparison, “CoDex 1962” — vast, riverine — is bloated. It has been touted as Sjon’s masterpiece, but it lacks the compression, celerity and discipline of the previous novels — those scythes, whose language cut and gleamed. I missed their stylishness, their ability to evoke mystery, not just describe it.
“CoDex 1962” raised me up, let me down and consumed me for the better part of a week. I can only echo Loewe, with gratitude, exasperation and awe. “This book’s a bloody thief of time.”
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
517 pages. MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30.