SIGURJÓN BIRGIR SIGURÐSSON (SJÓN) is (apart from Björk) Iceland’s biggest cultural export. CAL REVELY-CALDER reviews his latest book: a crime fiction novel with quite a large twist…
More and more often”, Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936, “there is embarrassment around when the wish to hear a story is expressed”. He worried that newsprint removed stories “from the realm of living speech”, serving them up “shot through with explanation”. The old storytellers spoke more hospitably; their mazy words demanded, and repaid, your time.
Sjón, the Icelandic novelist, shares his belief in the value of stories, a value it’s taken centuries to accrue. “Most of the storylines that come up in human life,” he said in 2016, “as we have lived it for the past ten thousand years, have been explored before by the master storytellers of the past.” Or, as he puts it in his tenth novel, CoDex 1962: “Little do [authors] suspect that most of what they consider new and innovative in their works is actually so old that millennia have passed since the idea first took shape.”
CoDex 1962 took enough time itself. It’s a trilogy two decades in the making, published as separate instalments in Icelandic and now collected into a five hundred-page English block. It wonders at the many complicated ways that it, as a lengthy novel, has of making time pass; it wonders at how its skilled narrator can give shape and colour to that passage.
“CoDex 1962 wonders at the many complicated ways that it, as a lengthy novel, has of making time pass; it wonders at how its skilled narrator can give shape and colour to that passage.”
We’re in Reykjavik, where a man called Jósef Loewe is narrating the story of his life to a woman called Aleta Szelińska, from his parents’ meeting at the height of the Second World War to his impending death from a tissue disease called “stone man syndrome”. The story begins in a rural German guesthouse, with the chambermaid Marie-Sophie tending in secret to Leo, a Jewish refugee; it moves to Leo’s exile in Iceland, and his quest to give Jósef a life; it zooms out to Aleta finishing her interview with Jósef, after which she hands in her tapes to Hrólfur Zóphanías Magnússon, CEO of the genetics company CoDex, and her boss.
Reading CoDex 1962, you’re aware that this memory must itself be a fiction; how could Jósef know what his father thought? It isn’t the only bind. Elsewhere, Jósef takes the “dear reader” aside (isn’t he meant to be talking? so who’s writing?), and he promises that he’ll tell the story of an AA meeting – but, you must realise, it’ll be “nothing but make-believe”. Looking into the page like a window, all you can do is assent and move on. You’re at the mercy of the raconteur.
And Sjón, under Jósef’s mask, is a raconteur of talent. He can flick from angelic frolics to seedy violence as if each tale were a smooth refraction of the last. He has a knack for high comedy, too, as with the AA episode and its star, an amphetamine-munching Soviet spy. (Back in the real world, Victoria Cribb deserves equal praise for bringing all this zest into English so well). CoDex 1962 has hundreds of narrative excursions, but very few are wearing or slow, and when they are, it only tends to be for want of a little light-heartedness.
A few pages in the third volume, for instance, oversee God’s creation, then give a time-lapse account of 1962 as witnessed from heaven. This needs to be leavened by humour, or livened by a human touch, and when it isn’t, the taut skin of Sjón’s writing deflates; moments such as these resemble Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, or the Wachowskis’ television drama Sense8, the sorts of interminable drama that come off too earnest and too grand. But CoDex 1962 is long, and self-indulgence is human. If you love to hear someone tell stories, you’ll forgive them a few missed cues.
“A few pages in the third volume oversee God’s creation, then give a time-lapse account of 1962 as witnessed from heaven. This needs to be leavened by humour, or livened by a human touch, and when it isn’t, the taut skin of Sjón’s writing deflates.”
Aleta leaves Jósef’s home in 2012, shortly before his death. Cycling away, she reflects on everything that she (and we) have heard. She’s a canny reader herself. She saw how Jósef digressed “every time he encountered a painful thought or memory”, for instance. She sees, too, how the details of any story bear their author’s fingerprints, and this applies as much to Sjón as it does to Jósef. Notice that Leo gets involved with the illegal trading of stamps, while Gabriel, who enters the narrative here and there, is the patron saint of messengers, and therefore of the Icelandic post. All of the minutiae gravitate home. In the end, Aleta thinks, Jósef was “a disabled man who had trouble telling the difference between fiction and reality”.
But her judgment needn’t be a critique. A storyteller, wrote Benjamin, is someone who offers his listeners not facts, but the gift of his experience. Jósef, then, is someone worth hearing – a man, Benjamin would say, “who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story”.