When Icelanders talk to Americans about Iceland, sooner or later talk is going to turn to fairies, or hidden people, or elves. And while it seems many Icelanders do truly believe in those things, often you’ll get a response like the novelist Sjón gave Leonard Lopate the other day: “If you actually lean on an Icelander, most of us will confess to believing that nature has the power to manifest itself in a form understandable to humans. So the hidden people, you know, we would say, ‘Well of course I don’t believe that there are actually cities inside our mountains, but it’s possible that nature has a way of manifesting itself in a human form to, you know, have an interaction with the humans.’”
Similarly, when Americans talk about Iceland, sooner or later (probably sooner) we’re going to start talking about one specific fairy, or hidden person, or elf. And despite my not having any photos or videos to back it up, you’ll have to believe me that last week at Scandinavia House, the sprite-like Reykjaviker you’re thinking of did indeed manifest herself in a striking, stiff, white-and-purple dress for a ten-minute interaction with book-reading humans on behalf of her longtime friend and collaborator Sjón.
It’s a young crowd, trendy, expectant, giddy even, though I’m surprised to see so many empty seats. It turns out Scandinavia House closed their RSVP list weeks earlier, almost immediately after announcing the event, grossly botching the numbers and no doubt needlessly turning away scores of would-be attendees. But it’s no matter to those of us here—in fact it makes the evening feel all the more intimate.
It’s a coming-out-from-under-the-mountain kind of moment for Sjón himself. Although a well-known writer in Iceland, if Sjón’s name rings a bell at all in the States it’s been as Björk’s frequent lyricist—notably on her Biophilia album, her 2004 Olympic theme song, and Dancer in the Dark, her Lars von Trier film. Things have changed for him in a hurry though, as Farrar, Straus & Giroux sent the poet/novelist on a U.S. tour (Seattle, Portland, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, and New York) to promote the three simultaneously released books: the full-length From the Mouth of the Whale and the novellas The Blue Fox and The Whispering Muse. Move over Blue Lagoon, Americans are about to have a new second-favorite Iceland reference.
The five-city, three-book, one-author tour culminates in the event at Scandinavia House, where Björk treats the assembled to the kind of intimate, I-knew-him-when introduction usually reserved for siblings at wedding parties. Then again, it quickly becomes clear that there’s a sort of brother-sister camaraderie between the two.
“I met Sjón when I was sixteen,” begins Björk, whose clear, ever-hopeful voice threatens to trick you into believing that the forty-seven-year-old performer is still in her midteens. I look around: all eighty in attendance already seem mesmerized as she manages to roll nearly every consonant she speaks. “He had started the first and only surrealist movement in Iceland, a group of about six or so members called Medusa.” It’s a telling way to present a writer who makes mischief with mythologies and metamorphoses.
At the time Sjón was about twenty and set about introducing Björk to the work of his intellectual hero, André Breton. “I felt André was all theory, style, cold: seeing things from the outside, not inside,” Björk recalls. “All about intellectual theory, versus the things I preferred: like impulse, emotion, and instinct … Sjón somehow showed me the more impulsive, raw, and feminine side of surrealism.”
The pair soon formed a rockabilly band. Sjón wrote songs and sang; Björk played drums, impressed by Sjón’s “short, explosive pop lyrics without watering anything down.” One absinthe-fueled night culminates in Sjón biting a bouncer’s thigh and then, handcuffed, performing one of Breton’s surrealist manifestos in the back of an ambulance. These stories, yes, warm the audience up and fulfill the hall’s collective desire to get a little Björk time, but they also provide a rare insight into the coforging of two artists’ sensibilities. It’s an odd thing to suddenly be presented with a writer’s work midcareer, several books at once, and it’s surprisingly pleasant to get the portrait-of-the-artist-as-young-man stories before the author takes the stage. Then again, with Björk, she could’ve warmed us to a telephone book if she cared to.
Sjón is fifty, and may remind one somehow of a svelte John Hodgman. He takes a seat, accompanied by novelist Hari Kunzru (Gods Without Men, The Impressionist, etc.), who continues Björk’s line of fruitful exploration of the author’s life and work through a set some particularly thoughtful, naturally progressing questions.
First things first: Sjón sets us straight with a primer on the source of his name (I’ll leave it to him to tell) and—for those of us whose freshest Icelandic literary title is The Sagas—a crash course on the modern literary history of his homeland. The Atom Poets, he explains, were
a generation of poets that stepped forward after the Second World War. You can say that Iceland managed to get in step with the rest of world during the Second World War. Before that we were like, you know, things tended to come quite late to Iceland. In the beginning we were one thousand years too late for different things, then things came three hundred years later to Iceland, then one hundred years later, then thirty years later, then twenty years later. And modernist poetry, very much influenced by surrealism, came to Iceland around 1950, so more or less forty years later. And this is a group of poets who you can say changed Icelandic literature, they changed Icelandic poetry almost over night. Before that Icelandic poetry was very traditional.
This is firm ground to launch from, setting the table for some of Sjón’s favorite topics—themes particularly evident in From the Mouth of the Whale. From the Mouth takes place in seventeenth-century Iceland, a transitional period for the nation, and Sjón’s hero is a man whose methods are equal parts alchemy and science, whose beliefs are Norse legends interwoven with the Church, and he’s a naturalist and poet to boot. The novel itself ripples with waves that are by turns historical, naturalistic, and fabulist. And no wonder: if, as Sjón suggests, Iceland’s literary trajectory is marked primarily by its increasing speed to catch up with developments on either side of the Atlantic, it’s unsurprising to see Sjón treating its various literary traditions less as a narrative line from some distant source than as a swirling whirlpool created by conflicting currents.
Put another way, it’s as if Sjón has created his own kind of Þorramatur, consisting of seemingly clashing cosmological dishes, but it’s all Icelandic, and somehow it all works great together. (Must be the Brennivin!)
Sjón remarks that he was amazed when he first discovered surrealism written in Icelandic, quoting from a poem that he translates to “the car that breaks in the clearing in the shape of a black beetle cools its tires.” As a young man, that line sent him seeking out further surrealism, and squaring circles with his concurrently growing interests in dada and punk.
Tonight, these interests spur one of the most amusing moments of the night, as Sjón falls back into his preferred role—the playful but earnest fabulist—to trace back his interest in the surreal to a place where it was clearly, and perhaps even literally enmeshed in Nordic folklore: the story of the furry trout.
I’d like to tell the story of the strangest animal I came across in the Icelandic folk stories and it might explain why I was later propelled towards surrealism. There is an animal called the furry trout. The furry trout looks exactly like the normal trout. But it’s got fur. And it swims with the school of trout and when you’re catching it in nets it can get there in between the normal trout. You’ve got to be very careful because if a man eats a furry trout, he’ll fall pregnant. And it’s a very dangerous thing for a male to fall pregnant; we’re not made for it. And the real difficulty arises in the ninth month because then the man has to deliver. So when I was nine years old I read this and it was described quite vividly … You lay the man on the table, you spread his legs, you take the sharpest knife in the house, and you cut open his scrotum and then you go in and fetch the child. And this was quite interesting for a nine-year-old, you know? So right from the beginning, when I started seeing surrealist art, and reading surrealist texts, you know, I got the same thrill. It told me, Yes, strange things can happen, we can talk about this world in strange terms.
Sjón revels in this story, and more than most fish tales this one is worthy of dissection. It starts with a creature that looks just like a real animal, except it doesn’t exist. Well, it doesn’t exist, but a man might still eat it. And if a man eats it, he becomes pregnant—something new and strange is created inside him and there’s naught to do but pick up a scalpel and slice open his very procreative pouch to let the new creation out.
Sjón is fond of riddles, and the one implied here seems to be, What doesn’t exist but can be still swallowed as if it does? Well, it’s fiction. (That the “fish” here assumes the role of bait for catching man only makes the riddle that much more clever.)
It’s a fine metaphor, only it leaves us wondering: Is Sjón the man and the furry trout the stories of Iceland he’s collected and ingested, or is the reader the man, making Sjón and his novels the furry trout, threatening to create something new and strange in each of his readers? In other words: Where is Sjón, where are his books, and where are we, his readers, in this food chain of fiction? (That hint of worry you may sense in my tone might have to do with that part about the scalpel.)
Something else Sjón says twists the riddle deeper. Kunzru—who I must commend again for eliciting so much interesting stuff from Sjón, as if it were he with the knife—pries a bit further into Sjón’s playfulness toward the end of the event. “You take a real aesthetic pleasure in cosmologies, don’t you?” Kunzru submitted.
My joy is the joy of the trickster. It’s the joy of Loki; it’s the joy of the coyote. Because I know it’s an unstable system and it will be overthrown. No matter how majestic it is, you know, with the right little tricks, you will have an apocalypse. You will have the twilight of the gods. The gods will fight the last battle and there will be a new world that rises up from it and the trickster can start thinking of new dirty tricks to topple that system.
Yes, Sjón identifies with Loki, the famous shape-shifting Norse god, who himself often appears as a salmon—not quite a hairy trout, however, but we’re likely in the same stream, at least. And so we can see Sjón as the trickster shape shifter, playing the mustachioed and goateed salmon, at least, if not completely outing himself as the furry trout.
But then again, according to the myth, Loki has three children: Fenris the wolf, Jormungand the world serpent, and Hel the ruler of dead. These three are said to be responsible for the apocalyptic twilight of the gods. Perhaps you’d like to chalk it up to coincidence, but Sjón has three book-children of his own right now threatening to change not merely what—if much—Americans think about contemporary Icelandic literature, but what we think about discrete cosmologies, about the very ways that we try to bring order to anything from our literature to our universe.
“We know that our cosmology will become obsolete,” Sjón says. “It’s really amazing the biggest given facts of each time—you know, the cosmology, which is the hard science, you know—is so unstable. I love it.”
After a talk like this, complete with hidden-people appearances, I’m ready to agree.
David Bukszpan is a writer living in Brooklyn. His first book, Is That a Word?: From AA to ZZZ, the Weird and Wonderful Language of SCRABBLE, came out last year from Chronicle Books.