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Review: Sjón’s “Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was”

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Iceland’s merry prankster—whose three short novels I reviewed in CounterPunch, May 3, 2013—has done it again, though Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was is devoid of the humor of the earlier works. The historical context is present again. His publishers refer to Moonstone as a “miniature historical epic,” even though brevity is Sjón’s forte. The skinny little epic is 142 pages long, including several photographs, and brief chapters with lots of blank pages between them. You will read the book in a couple of hours, but you will think about it much longer than that.

Reykjavík, October 1918. Although a near-by volcano is erupting again, cold weather is approaching and people flock to the city’s two cinemas, Old Cinema and New Cinema. “Films are shown daily at both, one or two on working days and three on Sundays. Each screening lasts one or two and a half hours, though lately films have become so long that they sometimes have to be shown over consecutive evenings.” These are silent films, of course, though there’s an orchestra that plays along with them.

One boy, sixteen-year-old Máni Steinn, sees all of them, paying for his entry with the money he earns from his quick sexual encounters with men (including some of the city’s bigwigs). Máni lives in an attic with his great-grandmother’s sister, his own parents having disappeared or died some years ago. He’s been out of school for some time, probably because his academic record was so poor. Sometimes, he has difficulty reading the sub-titles of the films he watches so moonstoneobsessively. “As a rule, he goes to both cinemas on the same day and sees most films as often as he can.” He’s particularly taken by “The Vampires…a seven-hour-long French film by Louis Feuillade. Over ten episodes it tells the story of the eponymous gang of nihilists who hold French society in the grip of fear. Under the leadership of their brilliant and ruthless master, the Grand Vampire, they have penetrated the highest echelons of society, corrupting everyone they can, intimidating and murdering all those they cannot.”

A ship arrives and it isn’t long before the Spanish flu begins infecting many of the city’s residents. Sjón focuses on the cinemas to show the impact of the pandemic. Initially, movie going does not decrease but holds steady because of the warmth of the cinemas, especially when they are heavily populated. But quickly things change: “By the time Miss Inga María Waagfjörd, guitar player and chanteuse, slumps unconscious from the piano stool during the second episode of The Golden Reel at the New Cinema, the epidemic has snatched away the last person in Reykjavík capable of picking out a tune.” It’s the missing musical accompaniment that reduces the crowds—not the flu.

A third of the city’s fifteen thousand people become infected, including Máni Steinn, but he’s one of the lucky ones who recovers. It’s obvious that he was infected by the men with whom he’d had sexual encounters, though once he is well again, these encounters decrease. Eventually, “There are ten thousand stricken townspeople, ten doctors, three overflowing hospitals, and one pharmacy, which is closed due to the illness of the druggist and all his dispensers.” Sjón’s point is obvious: even this remote island is not spared from the 1918 worldwide flu pandemic. Iceland’s isolation did not spare it. In some houses, when authorities search for the ill, they discover that entire families are dead. Máni is conscripted to help with the removal of the bodies. Oddly, he is impassive about everything going on around him, perhaps because he’s always been a loner, isolated by his homosexuality.

When things begin to return to normal, most people when questioned believe that they caught the flu at the cinemas, which are fumigated before they are re-opened. Then, as the city reverts to its earlier patterns of activity, Máni—in need of money—returns to selling himself for sex. And then, too, something will happen that will change his life forever. Moreover, in the most imaginative leap of the story—a leap into the future—Sjón identifies his main character as central to what will subsequently become the serious study of film as an artistic and academic field.

There are a few loose threads. If Máni is so insensitive to others, how does he become entrenched in the growing field of cinema studies? And—in case you wonder—the “moonstone” in the title is simply a mispronunciation of Mani’s name by an Englishman: “Máni Steinn, Moonstone.” Victoria Cribb’s translation from the Icelandic into English is a wonder, the entire novel a kind of prose poem in spite of its gritty reality (graphic sexual encounters and the Spanish flu).

Sjón: Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was
Trans. by Victoria Cribb
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 147 pp., $22

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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