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Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was

July 5, 2016
A red scarf plays a significant role in the novel.

A red scarf plays a significant role in the novel.

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, by Sjon, 2013, Translated by Victoria Cribb, 2016

“Sjon writes killer endings,” declared David Mitchell during his Hay Festival gig with Icelandic author and “rock god” Sjon. And the ending of Sjon’s latest novel, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, is a perfect example: at first disconcerting, then satisfying, leaving one in a state of wonder at this writer’s skill.

Momentous events struck Iceland from October to December 1918: firstly the violent eruption of Katla volcano (a far more dangerous volcano than its little neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, whose eruption in 2010 caused such havoc to air traffic); secondly, the Spanish flu arrived on a steamer from Denmark, and devastated the population; and thirdly, in December, Iceland became a sovereign nation.

These events impinge on Máni Steinn, a 16-year-old boy whose name means “Moonstone”. He has no friends or family, except for his great-grandmother’s sister, with whom he lives in an attic. He divides his time between having sex with men for money and seeing every silent movie many times in the two cinemas of Reykjavík. He is also fascinated by Sóla G-, a local motorbike-riding girl who, clad in a black leather, looks exactly like Irma Vep in Les Vampires.

Actor Musidora played Irma Vep in Les Vampires

Actor Musidora played Irma Vep in Les Vampires

“He was eleven years old when he saw his first motion picture … That night, for the first time that he could remember, the boy dreamed. … And now the boy lives in the movies. When he is not spooling them into himself through his eyes, he is replaying them in his mind. … Sleeping, he dreams variations of the films, in which the web of incident is interwoven with strands from his own life.”

Bjork, Sjon's friend and collaborator (Creative Commons licence)

Bjork, Sjon’s friend and collaborator (Creative Commons licence)


[In town, the boy amuses himself by] “analysing the life around him, with an acuity honed by watching some five hundred films in which every glance, every expression, and every pose is charged with meaning and clues as to the subject’s inner feelings and intentions, whether for good or evil. Indeed, all mankind’s behaviour is an open book to him …”

The pleasure of reading this book must owe something to the translator, Victoria Cribb. Sjon and David Mitchell discussed translation at Hay. “Translators know your relationship with language better than you do,” said Sjon. It’s a form of intimacy. Sjon teases his translator by making up words.

Sjon also said that it’s hard to write believable dreams, because they must be dreamlike. He succeeds brilliantly in Moonstone, especially in the boy’s dreams during the delirium of Spanish flu.

Sjon (Hörður Sveinsson for Sjon’s publisher Bjartur, free use)

Sjon (Hörður Sveinsson for Sjon’s publisher Bjartur, free use)

We experience the disease through the boy, but we also feel the social impact:

“An ominous hush lies over the busiest, most bustling part of town. No hoofbeats, no rattling of cart wheels or rumble of automobiles, no roar of motorcycles of ringing of bicycle bells … A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn. Or not quite …

From the long, low shed by the harbour the sounds of banging and planing can be heard … It is  here that the coffins are being made.”

The flu takes its toll on the musicians that accompany the silent movies, until none are left. When the cinema tries to screen the films without music, it is a disaster.

Unlike many in Reykjavík, the boy survives the flu. The disease, and events around Icelandic independence, lead to a metamorphosis.

Katla Volcano erupting in 1918 (public domain)

Katla Volcano erupting in 1918 (public domain)

At his Hay session, Sjon said that he had written no books set in the present, as there are so many good stories from the past. He likes to engage with the way people used to think, and be present at the moment of thinking when he writes. He likes to visit these moments from the past. He enjoys bringing the reader into that world.

He said that Iceland was very poor after the sixteenth century, and unable to build great cathedrals or museums, so literature is its main cultural heritage. Apart from the sagas and Haldór Laxness, who won the Noble Prize for Literature, there is a high proportion of writers in the population. Icelanders feel entitled to write books. As a novelist, Sjon is grateful that there are so many autobiographies by ordinary people.

And I am grateful to have discovered, through the Hay Festival, this delightful storyteller.

A Scene from Les Vampires

A Scene from Les Vampires

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