Adam Morgan | Longreads | September 2018 | 10 minutes (2,560 words)
In the summer of 1990, an Icelandic writer named Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson traveled to Czechoslovakia with his friend, the singer-songwriter Björk. Their alternative rock band, The Sugarcubes, was performing in Prague because of the city’s folk status as the birthplace of the sugar cube. But while they were in town, Sigurðsson made a pilgrimage to the Old Jewish Cemetery, where the legendary creator of the Golem of Prague had been buried more than four centuries earlier. After placing a stone on his grave, Sigurðsson asked the rabbi for help solving a personal problem, and in exchange, promised to bring the golem into Icelandic literature.
Today, Sigurðsson goes by the name Sjón. In 2013, when his surreal novels were first translated into English by Victoria Cribb, critics compared him to Borges, Calvino, and Kafka. Most of his books are less than 200 pages, but this week sees the publication of CoDex 1962, a labyrinthine epic that invites comparison to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Originally published as three separate novels in Iceland in 1994, 2001, and 2016, CoDex 1962 is Sjón’s fulfillment of the pact he made in the Old Jewish Cemetery almost three decades ago.
The first book is a romance set in Germany during World War II. The second is a murder mystery centered on Iceland in 1962, when the narrator of the trilogy, a clay golem named Leo Löwe, is born “at the same moment” as Sjón himself. And the third is a science-fiction story set in contemporary Reykjavik that concerns the fate of humankind. I spoke with Sjón by Skype about the Icelandic myths that inspired him, the role of social justice in his fiction, the rise of nationalism, and his pact with the Maharal of Prague.
A lot of your fiction contains elements of Icelandic mythology, but CoDex 1962 goes even further, right down to the form and structure. When did you first encounter Icelandic folklore, and how did it influence you as a writer?
I read everything as a kid, and when I was eight or nine, I started looking around my grandmother’s flat for more books, because I had reached the limit at the library. Out of boredom, I picked up this amazing collection of Icelandic folk stories edited by Jón Árnason and became absolutely fascinated by the world in it. I knew some of the stories from kindergarten games and songs, but this was the first time I experienced uncensored versions of gruesome ghost stories, or stories about people returning from graves, or people disappearing into rocks and mountains because they were seduced by beautiful maidens or eaten by giants.
These stories became very real for me because they were written in a dry, matter-of-fact style with no drama. And I think that had a longstanding influence on me — the stark realism of those stories, the fact that they described people living under harsh circumstances. And then of course they were full of strange creatures, body humor, brutality, dismemberment . . . when you’re eight or nine, that makes an impact on you.
I thought, okay, the guy can’t just sit there and tell the story to himself. I don’t want him to be a madman. So I added a listener who could challenge him.
The first book in the trilogy, Thine Eyes Did See My Substance, was published in Iceland in 1994 when you were in your early 30s. What was your writing process like, and did you know the novel would be the first of three?
The big thing going on in my life was the fact that I had just become a family man. My wife and I were living in the center of Reykjavik, buying our first flat, and we had our first child in 1992. I was a freelance writer and my wife was studying singing at the opera academy. Even though having a daughter meant I had the least amount of time to write that I had ever experienced, I tried to write a bigger book than I had ever written before, something more challenging, where I could really put myself on the line. I tried to bring together everything I knew about writing from the great surrealist masters that had impacted me, like Mikhail Bulgakov and Bruno Shulz, as well as the sensibilities I described in the Icelandic folk stories.
In the beginning, it was just going to be one novel that took place in contemporary Iceland, but when I was working on a blueprint for the book, I realized I wanted to write a chapter that showed us where the main character comes from. I thought maybe I would write a small intro about Leo Löwe being taken away from the guest house in Germany, but that became the first book, and then I realized I needed a second book to bridge the story between Germany during World War II and what would become the third book in contemporary Reykjavik.
The second book, Iceland’s Thousand Years, came seven years later in 2001. But the third book, I’m a Sleeping Door, was just published in 2016. Why did you take a long break between books two and three to write a few shorter novels?
After I finished the first book, we moved to London. It was difficult moving to another country and altering your language, so it was only when we moved back to Iceland in 1997 that I got back on track and wrote the second book. I hoped to write the third book very shortly afterwards, but I was tired. I thought, okay, maybe I will write a little book, a short novel to take my mind off the trilogy and have fun. And that became The Blue Fox.
With The Blue Fox, everything changed. It was the first book I wrote that people in Iceland actually paid any notice. When it won the Nordic Council Literature Prize, all of a sudden I was on a completely different track in my mind, so I gave the trilogy a rest and wrote four books before coming back to it.
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The entire trilogy is written as a spoken conversation between the narrator, Leo Löwe, and a female listener whose identity isn’t fully revealed until the third book. Why did you use this oral framing device instead of straight prose?
My original idea for the third, contemporary novel was that there would be someone telling the story — not writing it. An orally transmitted story opens up the possibilities of fables and folk stories, and I thought the narrator’s fantastic claims, like the fact that he’s made of clay, would be easier if he was telling the story. And then I thought, okay, the guy can’t just sit there and tell the story to himself. I don’t want him to be a madman. So I added a listener who could challenge him. That’s the beauty of oral storytelling — the audience has an instant impact on what your story becomes, and how you tell it.
What drew you to the concept of the golem, the narrator made of clay?
As a kid in the late 50s and 60s, I read all the junk that was published in children’s books in Iceland. We did have some local children’s books, but the books I really loved were called The Adventures of Bob Morane by the Belgian writer Henri Vernes. The main character is this international man of adventure who operates in a world with a lot of weird elements. One of his opponents is a master scientist who tries to crush Western civilization with clones and hallucinogenic drugs. I must say, this was really strange reading material for young kids, but I encountered many elements that I later discovered in more serious fiction, like Hassan-e Sabbāh, the Old Man of the Mountain that good old William S. Burroughs drones on and on about in his books. And it’s where I first read about the Golem of Prague.
The golem also came to me through an Icelandic artist named Alfreð Flóki, who became my mentor in the arts when I was 17. He had an amazing personal library, and The Golem by Gustav Meyrink was one of the first books he gave me, along with The Master and Margarita and The Cinnamon Shops. He said I had to read all three books before we could have any proper conversations. The Golem stuck with me, so I started exploring the real myth of the Golem of Prague.
Bringing Icelandic literature and Icelandic history in contact with foreign elements is something you’ll see in all of my novels. They’re all about an individual who has somehow been touched by the foreign, and who starts seeing his society through those new glasses. You have it in Moonstone with the boy who discovers cinema, and with Jonas Palmason in From the Mouth of the Whale, who is touched by foreign learning. In The Whispering Muse you have the reverse of this, because the old guy is obsessed with racial ideas and uses them to elevate his own people, which is like the demonic version of employing foreign influence to deal with your own tradition and history.
In 1990, when I went to Prague after the summer of the Velvet Revolution, I was going through a certain personal problem and I went to the cemetery to visit the grave of Judah Loew ben Bezalel. And when I saw people putting prayers and wishes on the gravestone of the rabbi, I decided to make a pact with him. I asked him to solve my problem, and I said that in return I would bring the golem into Icelandic literature. After that, there was no turning back, because he quickly solved my problem. And in the summer of 2016, I returned to his grave and told him that the third book in the trilogy would be published that autumn, so I had finished my part of the pact. I put a new stone on his grave. I don’t know if he gave me a new mission. Nothing was spoken, but it’s possible the rabbi has not had his last word with me.
When I saw people putting prayers and wishes on the gravestone of the rabbi, I decided to make a pact with him. I asked him to solve my problem, and I said that in return I would bring the golem into Icelandic literature.
What drew you to read and write about the Jewish experience in Iceland?
The history of Jews in Iceland is completely embarrassing for Icelanders because of the people who sought shelter here during World War II and were turned away. I don’t know where my deep interest in their story started — maybe from reading so much central European Jewish literature and asking the question, were there any Jews here in Iceland? In the early 80s, a biography was published here of the only known Icelander who survived a concentration camp. He was the basis for the second book [in CoDex 1962,] where Leo Löwe comes to Iceland as a completely broken person after going through this historical tragedy. He has the biggest story of his time to tell, but there is no interest in it. Nobody in Iceland has any patience for a story about the camps when we have just become an independent nation.
That’s another thing. I don’t know where it comes from, but I have a need to work with elements of social injustice. Sometimes it’s very well disguised as weird, surrealist poetry, but from the beginning I’ve sensed that part of the need to tell a story is to find balance for something that injustice has put out of balance.
Speaking of social injustice, the trilogy touches on the dangers of nationalism in a few different ways. Given the recent resurgence of nationalism in the Western world, I’m wondering how your perspective on it changed between writing the first book in the 90s and the third book in the 2010s.
It’s just gotten worse and worse and worse. I’ve started wondering if nationalism isn’t a kind of a mental deficiency or disease. It obviously plays on something very primal in our makeup as species, something that is easily tapped into and then given form. It’s very worrying how easy it is hotwire into this element in people. If you rip out the sophisticated machinery, the wires are there and you just hotwire it and people go crazy. But one thing that pushed me into writing this whole trilogy was the fact that in the 90s, we had the Balkan War, and it was really the first sign that all the things we thought had been settled after World War II were still there.
So in 1990 when I was in Prague, the Balkan War was happening, and I remember talking to a man there and asking him, “How do you think this will play out?” And he said, “Well, in most countries it will be more or less okay. They will live, they will have democracies. But there’s one place where everything will go horribly wrong before that can happen, and that is Yugoslavia.” At the time I didn’t have a clue how how bad things were, but in the next two years, he was proven right. All of a sudden we saw mass executions, mass graves, and people behind barbed wire. So in 1991 and 1992 when I was starting on that first book, I felt it was relevant to go to that time in history during World War II, because that story was still happening. And in the third book [spoiler alert], when Icelandic nationalism leads to the extinction of humankind, that is my final comment on nationalism.
Can you tell us anything about the book you wrote for the Library of the Future? How does it feel to know that no one will ever read it until after you and everyone else currently living on earth are dead?
Well, for contractual reasons, I can’t tell you anything about what is inside, except for the very long title I came up with as a way of cheating, VII: As My Brow Brushes On The Tunics Of Angels, or The Drop Tower, the Roller Coaster, the Whirling Cups and other Instruments of Worship from the Post-Industrial Age. It was interesting to write because it brought forward so many questions about what it is to write and who are you writing for. This language that we write in here in Iceland is spoken by quite a small number of people. I had to face all those questions, like “Will there be Icelandic speakers in 100 years?” I really don’t know. And then also I had to ask myself, do I address the reader in the future? I tried to write a good story. That is . . . if it is a story. It might be an epic poem or a play. I can only say that it brought forward many questions about the vanity of it all. It’s possible that in 2114 I will be completely forgotten, and people will open this and say, “Oh yes, he wrote some books in the late 20th, early 21st century, but he hasn’t been read for decades now.” It’s possible.
I have to face that. Those are things authors do not think about usually. We all pretend we’re wriggling our way into the canon. And that is also what I’m dealing with in CoDex 1962, this fear of being forgotten, of not leaving a trace — a question that all writers face.
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Adam Morgan is the editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books who writes about place, books, and the arts for The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere. He now lives in Charlotte, NC.
Editor: Dana Snitzky