CoDex 1962. By Sjon. Translated by Victoria Cribb. Sceptre; 527 pages; £18.99. To be published in America by MCD in September; $30.
SINCE the age of the medieval sagas, the stories told by Icelanders have helped enthrone their lonely mid-Atlantic island as a narrative superpower. From this “northern periphery”, argues this bewitching trilogy of short novels, a yarn-spinner must deploy “every trick in the book” to “think your way into human history”. Poet, novelist and lyric-writer for his compatriot Bjork, Sjon commands more tricks than most. Born, as Sigurjon Sigurosson, in Reykjavik in 1962, the prolific author has beguiled audiences abroad with shape-shifting fictions such as “The Blue Fox”, “From the Mouth of the Whale” and “Moonstone”. His stories compound the dreamscapes of Surrealism, the marvels of Icelandic folklore and a pop-culture sensibility into free-form fables. Call it magic realism under Nordic lights.
“CoDex 1962” gathers three linked works—published in Icelandic in 1994, 2001 and 2016—into one volume. In his own voice, interspersed with episodes from other lives, Sjon’s protagonist Jósef Loewe first recounts the “love story” of his father Leo’s meeting with Marie-Sophie, a chambermaid, and Leo’s escape, as a persecuted Jew, from Nazi Germany. Leo is a mystical alchemist; Jósef voyages to Iceland in 1944 as a clay doll that lacks the breath of life. Or so he claims. The middle section, a “crime story”, sees Leo settled in late-1950s Reykjavik as a ceramics decorator, embroiled in a murder plot with a “philatelic werewolf”. Jósef still waits to be born.
In August 1962, while “the vault of heaven rumbled” with nuclear tests, Jósef at last enters the world—on the same day as the author. However, the genetic mutations spread by fallout from those thermonuclear “war drums” render him an invalid with a rare bone disease. Either an emissary from an occult domain, or merely “a disabled man who had trouble telling the difference between fiction and reality”, Jósef commits his life and dreams to tape as part of a research project. For all its elements of fantasy, this third “science-fiction story” draws on the actual scheme of a genomics corporation that sought to map the entire nation’s biological data in a “Book of Icelanders”. In Sjon’s telling, a similar firm hopes to yoke together “genetic purity and massive profits”.
Jósef, and Sjon, detest all pretence to purity. The villains of “CoDex 1962” believe in the power of isolation, and segregation. Its heroes cross boundaries: between myth and history; reason and magic; male and female (Jósef dictates his testimony to Aleta, a trans Ukrainian woman). Sjon’s tall tales celebrate such cultural contamination. Their style skips gleefully among a dozen genres, “visionary poems” to “futuristic films”, “folk tales” to “gossip columns” (all namechecked by Jósef). Victoria Cribb, the sure-footed translator, keeps pace with every swerve.
In the opening segment, echoes of other satirical fantasias—whether Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” or Günter Grass’s “The Tin Drum”—sometimes feel laboured. In contrast, Sjon’s finale anchors his ingenuity to a moving plea for solidarity. Hrolfur, the entrepreneurial geneticist, yearns to “soar heavenwards into a world where imagination is the only law of nature that matters”. “CoDex 1962” applauds the aim, but distrusts his means and motive. That wild flight remains a mission not for scientists but for story-tellers.