Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was, by Sjon. Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.
Review by Dale Boyer. Note: A version of this appeared previously in The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review
The writer known as Sjon (Sigurjon Birgir Sigurdsson), whose pen name is an abbreviation of his given name meaning "sight," is an Icelandic poet, novelist and librettist perhaps best known for his frequent collaborations with the singer Bjork. His previous novels (The Blue Fox and From the Mouth of the Whale) have received accolades, and his new novel, Moonstone, is being praised by renowned writers such as David Mitchell as a "shimmering masterpiece."
Set in Reykjavik in 1918 as the large Katla volcano in southern Iceland is erupting, Moonstone also unfolds against the backdrop of the island being ravaged by the Spanish Influenza epidemic, which accompanied the troops home from Iceland after the close of World War I. In this respect, the novel follows in the footsteps of a number of other, equally estimable, literary predecessors, such as Edgar Allen Poe's The Mask of the Red Death and Aharon Appelfeld's underappreciated Badenheim 1939, in depicting a world in crisis. In Poe's case, the metaphor of the impending doom is the bubonic plague; in Appelfeld's, it's Nazism. AIDS is the metaphor in this novel (the writer himself explicitly invites the comparison near the end).
The heart of Moonstone (whose subtitle: The Boy Who Never Was, carries a host of significations), however, is identity -- specifically gay identity -- both in terms of the transgressive nature of its longings, and also as it applies to gender. The novel begins with the 16-year-old narrator, Mani, literally hiding in the shadows as he services an older gentleman for pay. Young Mani is an outlier in Icelandic society, an orphan whose outlaw sexuality puts him at odds with the prevailing heterosexual culture, and whose gender-fluid concept of himself also challenges society's (and the reader's) perceptions. Attending a screening of the silent movie epic Les Vampires shortly afterwards, Mani is captivated by the film's star, Musidora, and imagines that he sees her doppelganger in the audience. It is (arguably) never quite clear whether "Sola G-----" (the manner in which the doppelganger is always designated) actually exists, or is merely a figment of Mani's imagination, but she is clearly a stand-in for his subconscious desires, both as a challenge to society's laws, and also, perhaps, to traditional notions of gender. Indeed, the book's cover does a good job of representing this by showing a shadowy figure in rear view who may be either a boy or a girl. Louis Feuillade's 1915 French film, Les Vampires, is not about actual vampires, but is instead about characters who prey upon society by perpetrating a "plague" of break-ins, thereby continually flaunting the rules of that society. Thus, the author underscores the point that, merely by being gay in Reykjavik in 1918 and acting upon those desires, Mani is a kind of criminal himself:
But the boy is sixteen now; he does what he likes. If he wants to hang himself with a silk scarf that is fragrant with the scent of the motorcycle girl, Sola G---, that's just what he'll do.
Mani continues to earn money by servicing older gentlemen, even as the volcano keeps erupting, and people get sicker and sicker from the Spanish flu. Indeed, much of the population seems to have become sick after attending the screening of Les Vampires at the local movie house. Mani, himself, becomes infected, leading to some of the more surreal passages in the book, and it must be said that, at times, Moonstone can be somewhat opaque. And yet, once one gets a general sense of what the author is about, the difficulties disappear, becoming instead a source of richness. Take the image of the moonstone, which appears monolithically to Mani in a fever dream: "A rock the height of a man, made of moon-pale stone, stands in the middle of the floor." The moonstone, too, seems to be a stand-in for Mani, whose identity exists only as something reflected upon him by others, an entity that receives its light from another body. Much of this meaning – and indeed, the whole purpose of the novel – becomes apparent only at the end, and is inextricably bound up in the whole notion of film and art as a reflection not only of a society but also of its creator. When this linkage is finally revealed, the effect is magical, even fabular.
For fear of ruining the effect, I will not comment upon it more. Suffice it to say that the book is very much about imagination and transcendence, and gathers much of its poignance precisely by being about trying to define the self against a backdrop of a world that is rapidly being destroyed, as AIDS did in the early 1980s. Riffing upon Andrew Marvel's classic poem, To His Coy Mistress, one of Mani's gentlemen says to him: "Had we but another world and time/Our passionate embraces were no crime."
Moonstone is a slender, but beautifully wrought novel rich with meaning and interpretations that eminently reward the patience of the reader. In one passage, the author describes Mani as "a shadow that passes from man to man, and no one is complete until he has cast him." Sjon has achieved a tremendous feat of empathy and understanding by creating him. In the end, he is a character that, upon reflection, moves out of the shadows to cast considerable light.